From the Arkin Archives: Why You Can’t Keep Secrets

I found a speech I gave twenty years ago to military and industry officers and officials at the annual U.S. Air Force National Security Leadership Course, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, delivered on 14 August 1996

William M. Arkin

I started thinking about this talk by polling friends in Washington to see if there were any good new jokes about secrecy.  In other parts of the world, political jokes are often the purest expression of zeitgeist, so I thought a current favorite — you know, some knee slapper about the new Executive Order on classification, or one about the latest string of Bill Gertz’ leaks —  would provide astute insight.

No dice though; people inside the beltway have never been renown for their humor.

In May, however, I was in Beirut, and the number of jokes about the Syrians were impressive.

Here’s my favorite.

Hafez Assad is with Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac on the Mississippi River to negotiate Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.  Assad drops his watch into the river and when he bend over the deck railing to look for it, snapping alligators thrust up from the deep.  Clinton tells one of the Marine guards to retrieve President Assad’s watch.  The Marine goes to the edge, looks over at the alligators and says to the President  Mr. President, you know we live in the greatest country on earth, and therefore I can decline an unlawful order.  If I jump in to retrieve Mr. Assad’s watch I would die, and besides I have a family…

So Chirac, thinking he can tweak the American nose says to a French soldier, jump in the water and retrieve Assad’s watch.  The legionnaire snaps to attention and runs to dive in, but he then looks over and sees the snapping alligators, and turns to Chirac and says Monsieur President, you know our democracy is even older than America, and besides, I have a family…

So Assad whispers something in the ear of a Syrian soldier, who runs to the railing and without hesitation, jumps in the water, swims through the alligators, retrieves the watch, and returns safely to the boat.  The Marine and the Legionnaire, both amazed, crowd around the Syrian to ask what Assad said.

Well, the soldier explains, I too have a family…


So what does this have to do with secrecy?

To me, it is a real world reminder that to level any kind of indictment about the evils of U.S. government secrecy is to be trivial.  One only has to visit places like the Middle East to appreciate how free our system is.

What is more, the very reason I assume I was invited to address you this evening is that I’ve made a living by revealing government secrets.  Throughout that career, I’ve always felt shielded by my rights as a citizen, and always felt confident that if there was public benefit resulting from my revelations, even those in government would grudgingly concede and respect my rights.

I am often asked if there is some secret I wouldn’t reveal, and the answer, frankly, is yes.  In short, it is information that has no public policy relevance.  Now granted there is lots of room for debate here as to what that means, and some right wingers have tried in the past to tar me as “the Philip Agee of nuclear weapons.”

Yet I have faced on a day-to-day basis the challenge of defining what information can do damage to U.S. national security, and what information can not.  That is because secrets have a quality like trees, and if one falls in the public and nobody hears it, I would concede that the public benefit is dubious.

Yet the process of revealing a secret, however, also provides a check and balance if you will.  Since the news media is most often enlisted to circulate secrets, in doing so, reporters and editors and publishers have to themselves make decisions regarding government harm and public benefit.  The point I’m making is that those discussions do take place, and national security concerns are taken into consideration.

In 1996, however, classic government secrecy is hardly the civil liberties and first amendment conflict that it has been in the not too distant past.  Yet it does remain in the news.  Particularly recently with the explosion of the Internet, and the new mania about information security that has emerged, extending from the counter-communication and encryption debates to firewalls to information warfare.

I’m suspicious though, because again there are Cold Warlike warnings of the dire consequences of letting information circulate too freely.  And there has also been a reemergence of 1950’slike images of hidden enemies plotting to destroy our way of life.  To me, this is a significant over-exaggeration of both the threats and consequences.

The new technologies of information might indeed involve some truly revolutionary challenges in terms of the way huge amounts of data can be gathered and transmitted, and the threat mongers of computer security and information warfare have already put us on the slippery slope by attempting to control information or access to what are now worldwide networks.  To these government threat mongers, I say operations security and systems integrity and counterintelligence, all of the things the government has been doing for decades, and is supposed to be doing anyhow, regardless of the information medium.  Let’s not create new constraints, ones that mean a reduction in civil liberties in this country and a reduction of human rights in others.

I suspect that, either consciously or subconsciously, the focus on hackers and terrorists as the Clancyesque information enemy also has as much to do with separating the public from its tax dollars, and in framing an interesting defense problem for beltway bandits and think tanks to work on and make money from, as it has to do with true threats.  Particularly when more than ninety percent of computer intrusions and security problems as plain old fashioned insider criminal activity, stealing if you will with a high tech twist.


As William O. Douglas said in the Pentagon Papers case, if everything is secret, then nothing is secret.  Because of the end of the Cold War and the lack of any overarching grand strategy or national security organizing principle, we seem stuck for now in a world where near everything and anything can compete for the mantle of being “strategic.”  But if everything is strategic, then nothing is strategic.

In such a free-for-all world, the consequence is that what is really important  that is, what should be secret and protected  remains poorly defined, and thus vulnerable.

Thus perhaps one answer to the question why you can’t keep secrets is that you can’t even determine and articulate what is truly important.  The public is buffeted by endless enemies du jour, never able to give their true consent regarding what they believe should be U.S. national interests  implosion in Russia, Islam, proliferation, terrorism, warlords, ethnic hatred, population explosions, resource wars, Ebola viruses, drugs, international organized crime, Asian dynamism, the Internet, militias, Freemen, “instability.”  The menu is so full, how can one possibly determine what should be secret?


In the wake of the FBI files flap at the White House early this year, The New York Times reported that the federal government spent $5.6 billion in 1995 to keep secret documents secret.  Beltway habitues will point out that such numbers are apocryphal, but the public message is far more simple:

First, there is the common and probably majority view that there are still lots of legitimate secrets for the government to protect; and that there are, of course, loads of threats, old and new, that we need to protect ourselves and our secrets from.

But, there coexists another deeply ingrained belief that $5.6 billion is merely another example of the government wasting huge sums of money to administer its programs; that the secrets are really just bureaucracies covering up their law breaking, incompetence, sloth, or self-interests.

And then there is a third and simultaneous corollary of these two views.  And that is that all those secrets are really dastardly and incredibly complex and competent coverups of,

A.  the existence of UFOs and aliens,
B.  the CIA’s responsibility for the assassination of John F. Kennedy,
C.  the government’s surveillance and mind control program,
D.  POWs and MIAs still languishing in Southeast Asia, and/or
E.  the latest, the truth that Saddam used poison gas, which the government also is covering up.

One doesn’t have to scratch the surface of American society too deeply to find the UFO-POW/MIA-Gulf War Syndrome-militia constituency.  These are views that absolutely cross the political spectrum and more often than not break out into the mainstream (say when 20 percent of the population votes for Ross Perot, erstwhile surveillance subject himself).

But take for a moment Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK.”  After the movie came out, it ended up that some huge percent of the public believed that the CIA might have actually killed President Kennedy.  That in itself says a lot and should be disturbing to anyone working in the national security field.  But what I would like to point out is that the movie and the brouhaha was enough to move the Congress to undertake the most rigorous and extensive declassification effort ever.

Had the CIA released those records earlier, and had the government made some attempt to answer the conspiracy crowd in the preceding decades, then maybe, just maybe, some percent of the population would have been educated and convinced.  And maybe just in general the credibility of the government and the national security community would have improved, thus making it more implausible for other grand conspiracies to emerge.

I say maybe because I don’t want to be too naive.  There’s no getting away from one immutable fact about our society: That no matter what the government says, people will continue to believe what they believe.

This is seen most starkly this summer with “Independence Day” and UFOs on the covers of Time and Newsweek and the popularity of shows like “The X Files” and the irrepressible Roswell story.  The bottom line is that some significant percent of the population is just demented.

But as with Oliver Stone’s JFK, if you can confuse and manipulate enough people so that they think that a UFO really crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, you can actually move the government.  Like the CIA, the Air Force declassified all of its files on the subject of UFOs, and wrote a Manhattan-phone book-sized White Paper on the subject, item by item refuting every last scrap of coincidence and inconsistency in the 50 year record.

Yet all to no avail.

For when life on Mars is reported in the news media, as it was last week, the kooks seem as prominent as the astronomers in offering sound bites.  The fact is that subcultures continue to believe despite reports and White Papers and Congressional investigations and commissions and blue ribbon panels.  Somehow, I lay this public confusion about reality partly at the government’s doorstop.


Let me switch gears for a moment to say that I’m not so sure you can’t keep secrets  particularly when a revelation like Tacit Blue, the flying bathtub, is made.  Despite all the speculation from Area 51, despite the foolish with their binoculars and discussion groups and Web sites, despite lawsuits and even a mighty Sixty Minutes expose, despite all this attention no one outside of the government had any clear notion of what was, or is, going on at Groom Lake.

I won’t even get into the question as to whether the technologies involved in Tacit Blue were worthy of the fights and the lawsuits.  Nor whether such secrecy is needed.  My cynical mind tells me that bureaucratic interests were probably served in making the existence public.

Tacit Blue reminds me of the revelation of another “black” program  Senior Surprise, the conventional air-launched cruise missile used by the Air Force in the Gulf War.  The missile’s existence was unveiled with fanfare on the first anniversary of Desert Storm  I think it was around budget time, but I’m sure that was pure coincidence.  Anyway, the industry newsletter Navy News reported that the Air Force press release came only after Time magazine crowned the Navy’s Tomahawk “missile of the year.”

So, you can keep secrets, but at the same time, you may have so squandered your credibility by playing these sorts of games that cynicism is rampant and conspiracies flourish and pseudoscience coexists with real science.  But most important, with so many secrets in the stockpile, and with so little true ranking done as to what is or should be secret, real traitors and threats, insiders like the Walkers and Ames, can gain access so much more easily and do far more complex and inscrutable damage.

So many secrets.  A couple of years ago, the CIA announced they were going to release their files on operations in the 1950’s and 60’s.  But it warned that there were just seven employees to wade through a stack of secret files taller than  I’m not making this up  50 Washington monuments.  I calculate that as 7.13 Washington monuments worth of files per employee (the WM seems always to be the government’s preferred unit of measurement).

Anyone knows that in order to preserve real secrets, they need to be identified.  If the government practices indiscriminate secrecy on this scale, sweeping up with the real secrets those things that aren’t really secrets or don’t need to be, then the end result is neither protection nor respect.  Maybe the government is a lot smarter than I think it is, and by keeping silly things like the intelligence community budget secret they intentionally divert investigative attention from real secrets.  I doubt it.  But I would submit that making routine organizational and budget information, and the policy-making process, secret only breeds trivial leaks and public suspicion.

And most important, it just makes the American public stupid.  Government shows a contempt for the public and public opinion when it acts as if details about its activities aren’t needed for oversight and consent.  This I think is at the root of the decline in government credibility.

Take the Gulf War syndrome as an example.  After arrogantly maintaining that the complaining GI’s were either suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or were malingerers and extortionists, the Pentagon has admitted that some combination of toxic substances and administered vaccines might have worked together to create an auto-immunological reaction and thus a true medical affliction.  This raises some important new questions about the toxicity of the battlefield and of other potential dangers in industrial and occupational health.  But instead of conciliation, treatment and future prevention, the media focus has been on meaningless “revelations,” such as the most recent, that the Pentagon “really knew” of the existence of an Iraqi chemical weapons dump in the far northern corner of the Kuwaiti theater.

This is a fact that is unconnected to most of the veterans problems and to the syndrome itself.  But it suggests that the government is hiding more information.  The end result is a “hard copy” free-for-all where any claim, any news story, any conspiracy, begins to seem plausible.


Let me speak for a moment about the emergence of the Internet and the relationship with secrecy.  I note that there have already been some secrecy flaps.  When one of Scott O’Grady’s fellow officers wrote up his exploits on Email, the Defense Department put out a warning about the use of Email.  Last year, it turned out that an intelligence document placed online in the Gulf War declassification registry contained information about “sources and methods.”  The document said something to the effect that human agents reported X, an ordinary counterintelligence blunder.

Around mid-March of this year, a San Francisco reporter wrote a story that the Department of Energy was secretly preparing new nuclear warheads.  The headline says it all: “DOE designing new bombs, Web site shows.”  The Department explained that the document cited in the article was old.  But one of the things about the Internet is that often its impossible to tell the date of a document or its origin and status.

What happened in these two cases?  The GulfLINK site was sanitized so that the declassification effort became more perfunctory than historically valuable.  The DOE shut down its Defense Programs Web site completely for a few weeks and sanitized it as well.  Now there’s nothing worthwhile on it, not even documents that if you are in Washington, you can get as a matter of routine if you know who to ask.

People acting out of their best intentions were trying to make a ton of stuff available on the Internet, and there were teething problems.  But it was the novelty of the new medium that magnified the significance of any leak.  And no one actually claimed that damage was done to national security.

The lingering message is that the Internet is a threat.   Here Internet enthusiasts and government gumshoes form a devil’s alliance, which is always dangerous.  Internet boosters  you know, the type of people who like Wired magazine  claim with wide-eyed enthusiasm that the Internet is the biggest threat to traditional secrecy that could exist.  That it portends a re-conception of national security based not on secrecy but on transparency.  That there won’t be any more secrets.  That the potential, with the Internet and high resolution imagery, will be for everyone to know everything instantly.

The same cyber utopia seems to be the operating threat scenario for gumshoes and information warfare gurus.  This is what a breathless Navy special agent assigned to the computer security said recently: “Right now, it’s bigger than all of us put together.  It’s bigger than counterintelligence, it’s bigger than fraud, it’s bigger than criminal investigations.  If Federal Agencies don’t stick with this, it’s going to eat us up.”
Internet junkies assert that the technologies for openness are growing faster than the technologies for keeping secrets and that the power balance is shifting towards individuals.  Their Pentagon analogues  information warriors  struggle meanwhile to develop new weapons, to define the military dimensions, focusing on network and essential infrastructure protection and attack.

The pace with which a new information warfare bureaucracy has taken hold in the Pentagon is astounding.  Now everything that used to be labeled electronic combat or psychological operations poses with new terminology such as battlespace and information dominance.  And old nuclear warfare scenarios and models  like the Day After game you are playing here  are retread.

Secrecy has also proliferated.  I’m sorry, but I just see beyond the bureaucratic and institutional self-interest of another new rage within the national security community, one that might have noble purpose and important justification, but ultimately just serves to frighten and thus control the public.  Not being an enthusiast though, I also admit that perhaps I just don’t understand the cult.  And cult it is, for the believers have adopted the very definition of “cult status:” It’s so good, so smart, so hip that it’s over the head of the idiot masses.

Being one of those idiots, there’s nothing like a new national security fad  with beltway bandits and defense industry swarming around the government trough  to get my juices going to find out the truth and to challenge the bureaucracies’ misguided assumption that it is in charge.

Terrorism: The Answer is the Question

William M. Arkin, 15 July 2016

Thoughts on the Occasion of the Incidents in Nice

Terrorism is forever present and the threat that exists today is no less ominous than it was on that random sunny Tuesday a decade and a half ago when 19 men changed history.  And it is not just terrorism.  The scale and cruelty of killing ever increases while the fragility of urbanized society makes civilians ever more vulnerable.  No country is immune, neither from external nor internal violence.  All of this exists despite the backdrop of vastly increased police and security activity and a constant global war, one that has consumed hundreds of billions of dollars and taken countless numbers of lives.  No wonder then that those engaged in the fight against terror see the battle as everlasting.  And because terrorists hide within civil society, no wonder those charged with security also believe that society must sacrifice liberties and freedoms in order to obtain a modicum of safety.

To be as fair as one can be while also having an opinion on the matter, this is as close as I can get to articulating what is the “reasonable” view of the challenges of modern terrorism.  Though our civilized society can hardly comprehend what passions lay behind arbitrary killing and there is a tendency to want to defeat terrorism through some reasonable set of policies involving righting wrongs and removing impediments towards conciliation, there is also the reality that day-to-day a cycle of terror and response perfectly forms its own symbiotic stimuli, stimuli that itself advances the very cancerous malevolence.

This is not to say that the problem of terrorism is unfathomable or insolvable nor that civilized society is condemned to live in a state of constant terror.  Yet we do now live in a society increasingly and completely shaped by the existence of terrorism.  One cannot travel or transact business without some continuous reminder that terrorism has a global reach and influences almost everything we do.  The assumption is as much that someone is plotting as it is that the authorities are ever present in front of and behind the scenes watching and listening to stop them.  We are told that if we see something we should say something.  That basically means something out of place, a package or a person that doesn’t belong, an outlier who isn’t complacent or anesthetized through the customary appetites of mass entertainment or team spirit.

One could get ephemeral here, but let’s be blunt: Living in a terror state means actual changes in the character of government and civil society.  The total population is potentially subject to modes of systematic cataloging and monitoring justified as a proactive necessity to find people who don’t want to be like us.  One could gloss over the hardest cases and speak of revolutionaries or freedom fighters or just dreamers who want political or social change.  And one could promiscuously label every mass murderer or arch criminal as terrorist.  Yet while we parse and debate what the situation is and what to do about, while we argue about who is responsible or even who is behind it, while we lament colonial legacies or intractable conflicts, while we decry government fitness or tinker with military strategy, policemen on the block and the soldiers and spies in the field have a job to do.  Their quest is never ending.  Because whether the number of terrorist attacks this year is on the rise or in decline, whether the lethality of individual incidents is up or down, whether the war is producing desired outcomes or not, whether it’s Spring or Winter somewhere in the world, no one in the world of pondering and punditry can seemingly control what will happen tomorrow, next week or next year.

Terrorism is merely a tactic, the critics of the war against terror say; and violent extremists are in the minority in the Islamic (or Jewish or Christian) worlds. Some adhere to the conventional wisdom that killing terrorists merely produces more.  What the world needs is: If people would just talk reasonably, if the west would be less interventionist and military force were indeed only used as a last resort, if greater care were taken in minimizing collateral harm to civilians, and if wealth and power were just properly distributed.  And if there were more fairness and justice in the world, if everyone just adhered to the universal norms of human rights, if religious zealots were deprived of a pulpit from which to propagate their hate, the allure and the practice of terrorism would decline.

And indeed all of those tracks might be appropriate and needed.  But what about those who don’t want to be like us, who don’t want to be reasonable, who don’t want to talk or even more, who get their inspirations from GOD?  Clearly the majority of Muslims decry violence, but there are also plenty who just don’t want to be a part of a standardized or homogenized one-world that the majority on the north of the planet carelessly build.  And though extremism aptly encompasses the very definition of those who refuse to be a part of the mainstream, what separates the majority of international terrorists from say local lawbreakers and what distinguishes a certain group of Muslims from ultra-orthodox Israelis who also refuse to compromise or capitulate to the State is that only Islamic extremists believe that their enemy is the United States itself, or the state of Israel, or the West, or democracy, or even modernism; and thus they justify striking out against all of those things in the name of GOD or as part of a defense of their lives.

The vast majority in government and the international community doggedly adhere to the convention that the problem isn’t Islam per se.  They voice that the problem is some deviant group or now the latest: that it is “violent extremism” of no religious or ideological rooting.  Such a formulation avoids the condemnation of any religion and seemingly preserves an inalienable right to worship freely.  But it also somewhat deceptive.  Extremism is too vague to accurately describe either the real problem or potential solutions.  And it sweeps up those who merely want to exercise another inalienable right – free speech – into a domain of state control and suppression.  And the reluctance to say that the prime problem today is violent Islamic extremism makes the fight against “terrorism” scatter into ancillary questions of whether there are sufficient investments in gun control.  We could of course digress into a discussion as to whether a lobotomized society and a citizenry powerless against the state isn’t precisely what any government naturally seeks, but that intellectual journey with regard to international terrorism has no tangible destination.

International terrorism today constitutes a definable problem set.  It takes place mostly in (or originates in) the Muslim world and the vast majority of attacks are perpetrated by Islamist champions.  Islam may not be the problem and the world is not officially at war with a religion but something about the religion itself forms the basic substrata.  Even if Islamic terrorists are unsanctioned and out of the mainstream, their violence is unique in its influence and global reach.  Whether terrorists espouse political, Sunni, or Shi’a justifications for violence, questions are obviously raised regarding Islam’s compatibility with western (and globalized) aesthetics, the role of the religion in civil society, and the international implications of the antagonistic and irreconcilable cleavages within the religion that has existed for hundreds of years.

With the attacks of 9/11, all of these problems immediately became matters of international security and stability.  There was almost instant and unanimous agreement that al Qaeda, which had found sanctuary in Taliban-led Afghanistan, needed to be eliminated.  Fighting commenced, governments’ united, international institutions strengthened; and the laws and norms to contain terrorism gained global support.  Though gross mistakes were made in the conduct of that war and correction after correction followed, though new and different war strategies were adapted, and though it took almost a decade for the intelligence and law enforcement organs to learn new ways and sharpen their skills, by 2010 or thereabouts, al Qaeda central, and the threat of an international attack of 9/11 proportions seem to be almost defeated.  The “Arab Spring” then breathed new life into governmental reform; it was as if “moderate” Islamic society itself had reached its limit and was starting to address the so-called root causes.

But stability was not to be and a half dozen decentralized al Qaeda affiliates had subsequently emerged, each exerting broader influence alongside a growing cluster of non-al Qaeda groups.  The so-called Islamic State (commonly referred to as ISIS or ISIL) then started rampaging over the territory of failed states and beyond.  Brutal and shocking acts of violence were perpetrated, many seeming to be precisely for the purpose of shocking the civilized aesthetic.

Spring faded.

There is no denying that more people were killed from terrorist acts in 2014 than ever before, then again in 2015, and now in 2016.  In the same year that the United States and its glorious coalition of reason launched its war against the Islamic State in 2014, more worldwide groups were newly designated as foreign terrorist organizations then in any previous year, including 2001.  Where just a few years earlier the demise of al Qaeda was seen as spawning “lone wolves” floating leaderless outside a disrupted network, now tens of thousands of foreign fighters, almost half from western countries, were also flocking to the war zone to join the Islamic State.  That flow has been disrupted but thousands have returned home, and tens or hundreds of thousands more already are home.  The affiliation of terrorism today is as simple as an individual declaration.

So terrorism hasn’t been defeated by war.  Not even weakened.  There is no nation in the Middle East that is more stable today than it was in 2001.  An entire generation of Muslim youth has now lived most of their life in a state of war.  They have been and continue to be radicalized online, the Internet and social media emerging as the main instruments of terrorist communications, news, ideological dissemination, and recruitment.  Terrorism has moved into a new phase, one not dominated by the brotherhood of battle that bonded the Afghan mujahedeen or the Palestinian militant united in a common cause but into a true global jihad, impersonal, dispersed and amorphous.  The old al Qaeda survives and State-sponsored terrorism doggedly persists, but the new terrorism is a vastly accelerated and grandiose crusade to conquer the lands of pre-modern Islam, an endeavor that is both possible and absurd but one that helps to clarify exactly what the problem is and what possible answers could be.

Every terror extravaganza unfolds in the same way: The act, the shock, the personal testimony of the victims, the news media saturation; government action, over-reaction, assurances and complete obliviousness; security heightened, ever heightened.  The partisan voices blame whoever is in office. The racists blame a people. The militarists decry weakness and demand a greater war effort. Then the reasonable start their seminars and commissions to ask what went wrong – for something always did – and the noose tightens, on society, on free speech, on last year’s/month’s/week’s or yesterday’s threat.  No one steps outside their allocated and adopted lane in this cycle: The reasonable, the unreasonable, the military, the news media, nor the mob. All along, the scourge and threat of terrorism grows.

“They” are winning: admit it.  One after another and then another, individuals having outsize impact through random violence. And the world is terrorized.

It isn’t the randomness of Nice or Dallas or Brussels or Istanbul that should come as a surprise, nor the willingness of this current generation to break the rules and jump the median in society’s orderly lane to bring violence and death to the most common places.  It is the rapidity of all of this that is surprising, that is, if one considers the so-called western army: hundreds of thousands of police, millions in uniform, tens of thousands of “analysts” and experts, the peta-billions of data the intelligence agencies collect.

On days like this, for now every day is that day, I feel angry at the cycle and even angrier at the systemic rigidness of how we maintain the lanes in the road. The same voices go on, magnified by social media, dangling the same bait for their consumers.  Governments act with their mindless officiousness and pretend understanding, the reasonable fight for a middle ground while the pressures of left and right (whatever they are) increase and almost overlap, crushing out anything that even represents humanity.  It happens everywhere and on both sides.  It is truly Orwellian.

On days like this, it is so easy to point at the pundits or the politicians, and then like clockwork, to punch away at the police, the psychiatrists, the perpetrators, the priests, the pornographers, even the people.

I want to decry the brutality.  I work to expose government ignorance and incompetence.  But what is needed is far more difficult: The enemies of civil society have transformed and adapted to ply their trade while the reasonable curate a remote and mechanical response apropos yesterday’s war.  We go round and round through the solutions of better intelligence, better policing, more controls on society, more bombs and even more reasonableness, all the while skirting the reality that extremists might need to be obliterated in a very unreasonable way.  They need to be because that is the only way the forces fighting them can stop being the very stimuli for their growth. Isolationism and walls isn’t the answer, but nor is merely addressing “root causes”.  Islam isn’t the problem, per se, any more than fundamentalists of any religion are claimed to be representatives of the goodness of their faith.

On days like this, I want to pause to think.  Pause.  Think.  Look inside.  Search my own conscience.  Think.  Learn more.  Cry.

It is as old as man, as old as time, this thing we call war.  From the age of 18 when I volunteered to join the U.S. Army to today, I have studied war.  I have learned that the only creed that exists to move us forward is to pay attention to the fundamental rules of war.  War is the last resort but it is also the only one.  But it is only just, can only be justified, if it holds open the possibility, the probability, that through it, both sides can hope for some restoration of peaceful relations.  I believe in just war – not for the righteousness of one cause over another, but for the restoration of peaceful relations between peoples.

It is a terrible thing, this thing called war.  It can indeed be barbaric, but the sweep of history has transformed war undertaken by the state into an efficient forever.  And on the other side?  It has transformed as well: terrorism is deadlier, dispersed and survivable, a type of war that is now being waged on society.  I myself often question the label of war, but war isn’t one immutable thing and what we now wage in contrast to 2001 is too vast to allocate solely to the police.

So we are at war, like it or not.  And I don’t like it.  But if that war demands the obliteration of one side, if that is the only choice to restore peaceful relations, it is indeed terribly unreasonable and tragic. But that is the circumstance we find ourselves in. And that stark objective isn’t some right or left wing possession, nor some pro- or anti-anything.  It is merely the reality of the history of the world, of mankind.

Who will wage this war I describe?  And how will it be fought? Those questions come later.  First, we need to recognize and admit that the war we do wage, and the war they wage, isn’t a just war, that it does not leave open a path to reconciliation.

Second, we have to understand that our own mechanics and that the lanes we have established are crowded and unclear, that the sound bites are utterly insufficient and insignificant, and that our reasoning behind what we are doing is faulty.

So I don’t like it that we are at war, in a state of perpetual war.  But more, I don’t like how it is being fought or the cause that it is supposedly advancing.  Yes on days like this, I’m tired and traumatized but I can still think clearly: So to me.  It’s simple.  We need a just war against terrorism.  And we need leaders who equally believe that what has passed for reasonable for the past decade and a half is no longer so. That doesn’t mean bombs and more bombs but nor does it mean some reasonableness test for admission to peaceful and civil society with everyone else denied admission. Think.  What we are doing isn’t working.

We have to struggle to bring dignity to our enemies’ cause, to recognize their humanity however repugnant they may be.  If we conclude after that they are just pure evil and that they have no place in society then we need to pull ourselves together and embrace an uncompromising war to better humanity.  It won’t be pretty what I’m hinting at.  But it is a better path to peace than an unjust and muddled reasonableness that we currently find ourselves in, one that destroys our own society and threatens our own security and freedoms in its ineffectiveness and carelessness.

Rodney King and War, 25 Year On

Thinking About Technology

William M. Arkin
Presentation at the DOD National Security Management Course, 10 April 2001

“In the aftermath of Desert Storm, no image of violence was as stark as that of the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.  The videotape was plastered all over television, a kind of visual catharsis to censorship and virtual, seemingly inhuman firepower.  The black and white video, shaky, and grainy, surreptitious, had instant credibility.  It was amazingly similar to gun camera video clips that had become commonplace in the Pentagon’s telling of the very unanimated story of their air war.

Gun camera video tapes, of course, are carefully chosen for the audience’s entertainment during an otherwise difficult to imagine technological enterprise.  Press briefings and video selections emphasize airpower’s perfection and downplays its destructiveness.

Is it the case that the very nature of airpower, and of emerging cyberwarfare, defies heroic description?  There is, of course, real danger for the pilots.  But bombing soon enough becomes a production process, in which the occasional pilot death is more akin to an industrial accident than the result of what we think of as military combat.

We found ourselves at the end of the Gulf War, in the midst of old-fashioned massacre called the Highway of Death.   General Schwarzkopf, adamant that he would not be another commander disgraced for letting a beaten enemy get away, let fighter-bombers be his cavalry.  Almost immediately, a panic set in amongst military and political leaders in Washington and London at the scale of killing on the ground.  They had caused it, even willed it.  But they had not imagined what it would be like.  Somehow when the video screen turned buildings and bridges in the cross hairs to human beings, a tide shifted.  Despite all that Iraq had done, death became awfully hard for the American government and military leaders to justify.

It is such an uplifting anti-heroic approach to death, one that goes back to ancient times, one that is the very basis for what we call the laws of war.  For a soldier it means that any death on the battlefield means potentially ones own death.  The more anti-heroic we are, the more we come to grips with the limitations of the use of force and our own ambivalence about casualties, the more we see this issue as not about the deficiencies of this or that administration or policy-maker, the more we recognize our developing aesthetic about war, the better we will protect human life and the environment.”

Announcing the publication of my new book Unmanned

Unmanned R1-5

UNMANNED is an in-depth examination of why seemingly successful wars never seem to end. The problem centers on drones, now accumulated in the thousands, the front end of a spying and killing machine that is disconnected from either security or safety.

Drones, however, are only part of the problem. William Arkin shows that security is actually undermined by an impulse to gather as much data as possible, the appetite and the theory both skewed towards the notion that no amount is too much. And yet the very endeavor of putting fewer human in potential danger places everyone in greater danger. Wars officially end, but the Data Machine lives on forever.

#PZintel: NRO Monitored the Deepwater Horizon Spill

We’ve been tweeting top secret tidbits about the world of national security for the last few months from our Twitter account @GawkerPhaseZero, using the hashtag #PZintel. Give us a follow; and if you have intel to share, contact me at A round up of our latest tweets can be found on Phase Zero, including: more about the diversion of National Reconnaissance Office satellites to monitor the devastating 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and how there is a new version of Most Wanted Playing Cards in action.

Loitering With Intent: An Excerpt From Unmanned in Harper’s Magazine June 2015 Issue

This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine features an exclusive excerpt from my book, Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, from Little, Brown and Company, out next month. A brief intro from the essay has been included below; for the full version, visit Harper’s website.


By William M. Arkin

If you have spent any time thinking about the exponential increase in the use of unmanned vehicles over the past decade, you have probably thought about the Predator drone. Every second of every day, about fifty Predators are airborne. Each weighs more than a ton and has wings that extend the length of four automobiles. They fly at altitudes of 15,000 to 25,000 feet and can stay aloft for more than forty hours. They conduct deadly missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fly quietly over Yemen and Syria, assist law enforcement in Africa and Latin America, patrol borders, monitor oceans, and do civilian and scientific work of all kinds.

Government propaganda, the news media, and Hollywood movies characterize drones almost exclusively as high-flying hunterkillers and all-seeing information machines. In fact, more than 90  percent of the world’s drones are small, short-range, and unarmed. Only about 5 percent of the drones operated by the U.S. government are as large as manned airplanes. Predators, which garner so much of the public’s attention, make up an even smaller subset—there are just a few hundred worldwide. Most U.S. military drones belong to a single type—a 4.2-pound spy machine called the Raven. These and other human-portable devices are all but standard government issue for soldiers these days, like binoculars or radios. They are remarkable, to be sure, but they are remarkable mostly in the way of smartphones: omnipresent, ultraconvenient, annoying, distancing, and subtly threatening to privacy and security. There’s no doubt that they exert an influence on our society, even if the ultimate nature of that influence is unclear.

The civilian market for unmanned vehicles has expanded to serve scientific, industrial, consumer, educational, and entertainment purposes. Drones play an increasing role in industries as diverse as real estate and journalism, weather forecasting and agriculture. They identify forest fires and pipeline leaks, relay radio signals, and assist in archaeological and environmental research. They have also, of course, become popular with local, state, and federal law enforcement. Border agencies and police departments, emulating their military counterparts, have acquired unmanned vehicles not just for bomb disposal and other dangerous missions but also for intelligence collection and surveillance. Advances in information technology, nanotechnology, and even genetics, together with the continued miniaturization of nearly everything, are propelling an astonishing acceleration of drone capabilities. The future promises personal drones of amazing sophistication that weigh just a gram.

#PZintel: Aerostat balloons over Afghanistan and DIA HUMINT at 70+ Embassies!

Make sure to follow us on Twitter @GawkerPhasezero to reveal secrets large and small, as well as speculate on rumors that have echoed from the depths.

Here is a round-up of the intel we’ve published over the last week:

19 May, 2015 : 37 Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) tethered aerostat surveillance balloons now over AF & Iraq

19 May, 2015 : (DIA) nows has at more than 70 Embassy and non-Embassy locations worldwide, including 12 African countries

18 May, 2015 : New NORTHCOM CONPLAN 3475 dealing with Regional War on Terrorism (RWOT) focuses on counter-narcoterrorism

18 May, 2015 : Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command has grown to 12k soldiers in 30 states & PR

13 May, 2015 : New acronym Persistent (PG) means more than it seems – EVERYTHING feeding into automated picture

12 May, 2015 : Flying from 2 Middle East locs Global Hawk conduct near 24/7 coverage in 5 different mission sets

11 May, 2015 : Underground Facilities Analysis Center (UFAC) working on analysis of UG facilities in .

#PZintel: National Security’s Newest 140-Character News Source

Last week saw the launch of Phase Zero’s new Twitter-based, short-burst reporting about things of interest in the world of spying and killing. Using the hashtag #PZintel, @GawkerPhaseZero will be using the condensed platform to continue revealing secrets large and small, as well as speculate on rumors that have echoed from the depths.

Here is a round-up of the intel we’ve published so far:

11 May, 2015 #PZintel: New anti-money launder & CT-finance program aimed at Iranian-owned, Dubai-based Money Service Businesses (MSBs) dealing with #WMD

11 May, 2015 #PZintel: Admin has approved new counter-network threat finance action plan, including Pentagon and civil agencies. Where does $$ come from?

8 May, 2015 #PZintel Cyber Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace manual directs Cyber National Mission Force (CNMF) who conduct cyber intelligence

8 May, 2015 #PZintel: RC-135 Rivert Joint, Combat Sent and Cobra Ball #NSA aircraft and systems have cost #3.2B since 1981 and still flying #RAF too

8 May, 2015 #PZintel: #FBI Special Flight Ops Unit flies #Gulfstream V’s on recon, #VIP and courier missions #gettingslizzard

7 May, 2015 #PZintel: FBI aviation flies 30+ recon arcft that have been involved in DC Sniper, #OKC, and police corruption cases.

6 May, 2015 #PZintel: Before #JadeHelm, Abraxas mngd $80M prgm teaching SOF personnel in SW US to conduct clandestine collection

6 May, 2015 #PZintel: Not just #FBI planes over Baltimore- #NationalGuard Joint Incident Awareness and Assessment (IAA) Team (JIT) brokered other recon

5 May, 2015 #PZintel: Super-secret #JSOC activates Task Force 9 to replace Task Force 27 as #counterterror force in the field. More info, anyone?

5 May, 2015 #PZintel: #Predator and #Reaper #drones currently flying 11,000 combat air patrols annually, 30 a day worldwide

4 May, 2015 #PZintel: The real #NCIS has a $450 million budget, 2300 personnel, over 194 offices, agents in over 40 countries.

4 May 2015: TIL #PACOM monitors 600+ infrared events/year, assessing #Chinese #Russian #DPRK launches to determine immediate threats- 2 a day! #pzintel

Phase Zero: Week in Review 5.8.15

The following posts appeared on Phase Zero last week:

The Army Is Developing Killer Robots

Cancel Your Summer Vacation Plans to Afghanistan

We Don’t Know Jack About Joe – and for Good Reason

Targeted Killing is Just Good Business

Behold the Stupidest Government Report Ever

Why Is Jordan so Eager to Suck up to the Pentagon?

Phase Zero: Week in Review 5.1.15

The following posts appeared on Phase Zero last week:

The Secret Mountain Our Spies Will Hide In When Washington Is Destroyed

Drones Author Discusses Imprecision, Legal Blindess, and the CIA : An Interview with Andrew Cockburn

We’ll All Be Thugs Soon

Americans All! (Please Ignore the Mexican Colonels)