What do two short-lived US secrets tell us about state secrecy?

The United States Air Force has a drone base in Niger from which it flied unmanned aircraft into Mali to provide military intelligence for the French military involved in Mali’s civil war. The United States State Department orchestrated the denial of European countries’ airspace to the presidential plane of Evo Morales on July 2.

These are now former secrets, documented in the mainstream press of the United States. Neither lasted very long. Surely the Malian rebels saw drones flying above them and guessed the US military was taking sides against them. And even more surely, Evo Morales knew that the US was behind his plane’s emergency diversion to Vienna. Yet these acts were classified; the US role in blocking the Bolivian presidential plane was publicly denied. What can we learn about United States state secrecy from them?

This is a time of highly controversial disclosures of government secrets. It’s also a time of unprecedented classification of government documents as secret: a US government audit found 3,507,782 people hold security clearance to access Confidential/Secret documents, and 1,409,969 hold Top Secret security clearances as of October 2012. In Fiscal Year 2012, the US government classified 95,180,243 documents, declaring 23 million of them top secret (ISOO annual report). The government spends $8 to $12 billion per year on keeping these documents secret.

Within this mountain of so-called secrets live millions of banal pieces of data: personnel files of agency employees, details of weapons systems, operational details of military deployments. While it’s reasonable to debate how much of this material truly needs to be secured in this way, that’s not the material people are willing to risk their freedom to bring to the world. Instead, the real state secrets are government actions that are carried out covertly. Recently whistleblowers have shown us that the military kept records of killed civilians in the Iraq War, that the US illegally spies on diplomats at the United Nations, that the United Kingdom violated the Land Mine Ban treaty, that the US could document massive government corruption in Tunisia (helping to spark revolt there)  and that the NSA spied on the electronic communication of people around the world [some of these revelations are described here]. Every day, diligent work by journalists exposes other secrets to the people whose governments try to keep them.

The drone base in Niger is an example of quasi-secrecy. About 100 Air Force troops deployed in February and set up a base. On February 22, the Washington Post described the operation, which was mentioned in a vaguely worded letter to Congress under the War Powers Act. While the paper reported on the troops, their mission and even the type of drones used, it had to resort to anonymous sources to provide these details. It also noted “Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress.” The President of Niger has been more forthcoming, providing the basis for further reporting in March. Even in February, the Malian rebels targeted by these aircraft were already well aware of the US aircraft, “The Associated Press reported finding an al-Qaeda document in Timbuktu, Mali, that listed 22 tips for avoiding drones.”

The only ones left in the dark by this policy of secrecy are the people of the United States. When the press asks questions about drones, US officials try to avoid the word, and give pseudo-answers like this one: “What the President indicated is we’re going to continue to provide the support that we’ve been investing in this operation.  And what we’ve provided is, for instance, logistical support and other types of backing for those nations that are putting peacekeepers into Mali” (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, June 27). For four years, the Obama administration directed its press secretary to talk like this:  “When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists'” (Robert Gibbs). In effect, the United States is supplying targeting information for a war in Mali, and actually killing people in half a dozen other countries, but refusing to talk about it.

The case of the Morales plane diversion went beyond secrecy to lies. Days before the operation, President Obama responded to a question explicitly raising this possibility: “Mr. President, will you use U.S. military assets to in any way intercept Mr. Snowden should he at some point in the future leave Russia to try to find safe passage in another country?” The President’s answer was unequivocal: “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker” (transcript). On July 2, Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was denied entry into French, Spanish, and Italian airspace and its landing to refuel in Portugal was cancelled. As reflected by the emergency gathering of the Union of South American Nations in response, this was a major violation of diplomatic protocol. It rapidly became clear that the diversion was the use of state power (backed by the possibility of force—i.e., the scrambling of jets) in an attempt to intercept Mr. Snowden.

From the beginning, the Bolivian government identified the United States as the evident cause of the incident. With Morales still on the ground in the Vienna airport, Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra stated:

“This was orchestrated, rigged, by the US Department of State which has provoked this situation utilizing certain European countries, under the suspicion that Mr. Snowden was onboard the presidential plane.”

“Esto fue orquestado, amañado por el departamento de Estado de Estados Unidos, que utilizando algunos países europeos ha provocado esta situación, con la sospecha de que en el avión presidencial estuviera el señor Snowden.” (EFE, 2 July)

This narrative is not only the most plausible one, it is backed up by Austrian press reports that the country’s Foreign Office received a late-night call from US Ambassador Ambassador William Eacho alerting them to Snowden’s presence on President Morales’ plane. It is also suggested by the Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo’s statement that “They told us that [Snowden] was onboard,” and further describing the source of the communication as a diplomatic secret.

Meanwhile, the US State Department was busy issuing a cascade of non-statements.

July 3: At the State Department, a spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, declined to say whether American authorities had asked other countries to deny airspace to the Bolivian plane. “I would point you to them to describe why they made decisions if they made decisions,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. (NYTimes)

July 8: Journalist: And just to follow up, does – is there any more information on where the original information or the leak came from that Snowden was on that plane? Does the U.S. have any more idea –MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything for you on that, no. (State Department briefing)

July 9: QUESTION: Earlier today at the OAS, a French diplomat – a very young French diplomat, I might say —

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — said that the French Government had, in fact, revoked permission for President Morales’ plane to go, but he said that it was a technical error based on a ()misunderstanding. Do you and the United States have any idea what that technical error – that technical reason that was based on a misunderstanding or an incorrect assumption might have been?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t. (State Department briefing)

In an interview with Spanish-language CNN, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen* (R-FL) was more direct in admitting US responsibility:

And so, for us, there was a great concern that these countries could give him sanctuary. Therefore, the United States sent that quite severe, quite direct message to—this time it was to Evo Morales, it could have been to other people. We are saying to all countries in a very open manner that this man [has] felonies against him. That he should come to the United States if he is a man of honor…

Así que para nosotros, este gran preocupación que estos países le pudieran dar santuario. Por eso los Estados Unidos envió esa mensaje bien duro, bien directo a … en esta vez fue a Evo Morales, hubiera sido a otras personas. Le estamos diciendo a todos los países de una manera bien abiertamente que este señor [tiene] felonías americanas en su contra. Que venga a los Estados Unidos si es un hombre de valor… (CNN Video posted by Ros-Lehtinen’s office [at 7:30])

So, Bolivia knew of US involvement. Other countries knew of US involvement. A senior legislator claims that the act was designed to send a message of the position of the US government. But the US government formally claims to have no idea how this action happened. The only possible target for these denials is the US public. We are meant to pretend that our government was not involved in this international incident, that such involvement is a product of Evo Morales’ paranoia rather than an obvious and widely discussed pattern of US behavior. (And so, the New York Times will continue to publish sentences full of hypotheticals like this one: “Latin American leaders condemn refusal to let plane carrying Bolivia’s Pres Evo Morales fly over European nations because of what Bolivian officials say were suspicions that Edward J Snowden was on board.”) Given the standards of American journalism, we—and we alone—will have to wait for an actual leaked document from the State Department before our press takes seriously what the rest of the world confidently knows.

Like these two examples, many state secrets are not about protecting complex operations or securing the lives of operatives. They are about keeping the public out of decisionmaking. They are about reducing accountability. They are about subverting democracy. Alongside making a mockery of such basic principles, they make dangerous, unpopular, and/or immoral behavior by government officials easier.

Fortunately, part of that dynamic is beginning to weaken.

Government without Secrecy

“We Open Governments”
“We Open Governments”

The publication of logs of the Iraq War and diplomatic cables by Wikileaks has raised the prospect of the US government being denied the prerogative of secret wars, secret foreign policies, secret decisions, and secret outcomes. The Snowden disclosures and the avalanche of additional investigative reporting that has followed in their wake have done the same for the surveillance state. (It’s worth noting that every single one of these disclosures have exposed wars, policies and outcomes, rather than the operational security that enables them to be carried out.) Snowden, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and William Binney are all examples of government officials who allowed their conscience to override the classification of information.

In a discussion on Talking Points Memo, a reader (“MB”) suggests that these disclosures are just the beginning of a tidal wave. MB points to a post-Cold War generational value shift “toward a greater emphasis on issues that assumed global cooperation, such as environmentalism and humanitarianism, and … significant value on cross-cultural exchange.” Polling data backs this up: “Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world” compared with 48 to 64 percent of older generations. On foreign policy, Millennials value listening to allies more, favor diplomacy over military force more strongly, believe that excessive military force causes more terrorism, and believe it is morally acceptable to refuse to fight in a war you don’t believe in—all by 2-to-1 margins. MB observes:

The national security apparatus is designed to defend itself against Cold War threats: agents who commit espionage in the service of a foreign power for ideological reasons, or for personal gain. It seems that it is not at all prepared to defend itself against espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one’s own detriment. It may not ever be possible to do so. On some level, this line of business requires that all those involved completely accept the utility and purpose of the mission, and accept that international relations are a zero-sum game. Otherwise, anyone could walk out of their office with a thumb drive and publish the contents online.

What does the world with thousands of thumb drives look like? (Other than a half-dozen presidents of Obama’s generation ordering international manhunts to track them down.) In evaluating the impact, value, and morality of these disclosures, our focus should be on the incentives created by transparency on war, foreign policy, and surveillance. How do diplomats, warriors, and spies change their behavior when they know their deeds will be exposed? (Especially when those disclosures are more likely when the acts are morally objectionable.) There are grounds for hope that “opened governments” will be more cautious and less destructive because they have more reason to fear public awareness of their actions.

* Ros-Lehtinen is former chair and a continuing member of House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and thereby has clearance to be briefed on this kind of diplomatic activity.


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