In the run-up to the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq, we heard a lot of talk about secret intelligence that, it was claimed, verified every justification of combat offered by the President, the Vice President, the Secretaries of Defense and State and the National Security Advisor. Information of the sort to make NSA Condoleezza Rice believe in the “threat” of Saddam Hussein’s “mushroom shaped cloud,” that convinced Colin Powell there were “mobile chemical weapons labs,” -- secret information that could be announced but not detailed, and certainly not shared with ordinary citizens.
The classified military intelligence that lent sincerity to Donald Rumsfeld’s promises of a short, decisive, cheap, small force war; the confidential “defector information” used by Dick Cheney and his own secret intelligence operation to sell their assertions of a Saddam-Al Qaeda- 9/11 connection, had to stay secret, we were told, to protect our the secret services’ abilities to know so much.
Every falsehood used to convince the American people we needed to go to war with Iraq was credited to a “we can’t tell you” source.
We all now know that sources the Administration found credible had, in many cases, been previously discredited by respected professionals in other national security services, or disputed by other equally, -- hoo-boy – “credible” long-time expatriate sources, most of them wannabe Big Shots in the New -- “Thank you, Uncle Sam!!” – Iraq.
A story credited “foreign intelligence services” about Nigerian yellow-cake for Iraqi nuclear weapons was demolished by an experienced, American diplomat sent to Africa to evaluate it. For revealing that this secret intelligence was wrong, the investigating diplomat Joe Wilson saw his wife’s stellar intelligence career destroyed by Dick Cheney’s closest aide, Scooter Libby.
Not only was a highly skilled secret source of US intelligence exposed, secret American intelligence methods could now be deduced by anyone who reconstructed Valerie Plame’s overseas career. Especially shocking, coming from people who conistently claimed the reason they couldn’t let citizens in on secrets was that they had “to protect sources and methods.”
The Big Secret, of course was that we had no useful sources in Iraq, and our chief intelligence methodology was to accept every sleazeball’s bullshit (if it would help take us to war.)
It is now more than 10 years later. A “populist” Democrat President has replaced a conservative Republican, and he is trying to convince us to go to something everyone else but him calls “war,” in Syria.
Why must we do this? The brutal dictator President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has ordered up a consummate war crime, gassing human beings, and his military has carried out his order and killed some 1400 people. This act crosses “the world’s” moral “red line,” President Obama declares, and demands “limited and tailored” punishment only the US military can impose.
The logic is clear and simple. But how do we know the premise is true? The Administration’s answer is: we have secret intelligence that proves it. Dana Milbank in his brilliant column in the Wednesday Washington Post skewers Obama’s war-sellers’ addiction to secrecy.
Milbank notes it is their unwillingness to cite detailed evidence which, perhaps fatally, prevents the Knights of the Obama Table from making a plausible case to an already skeptical public, that this war is a good, or at least, a necessary not-war.
And most of all, Milbank identifies the central lunacy of the claim, once again, that playing “trust us” protects sources and methods. Edward Snowden and months of detailed coverage of his revelations have given virtually everyone in the world who cares a clear picture of what our spy services can do, and how they do it.
Can we actually listen in on conversations among Assad’s co-conspirators? Is a pig’s tail pork?
Might our satellites show us Syrian military manoeuvers, even the movement of chemical munitions from warehouse to warehouse and then to the front lines? Having heard of an ursine visit to my neighbor’s field, I am sure bears do shit in our woods.
As with everything in the ongoing global war over personal privacy and institutional surveillance, most reasonable people would agree, the snooping powers are capable of knowing almost everything.
Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests, it is the use of those info-gathering capabilities that cannot be trusted.
Inevitably, it seems, the American Surveillance Machine gathers too much, with too little careful selectivity, and far too little discipline about complying with legal limits (or democratic oversight.) Often, the Obama security services’ judgments about what is important, much less about what is threatening, or who demands punishment, seem deeply flawed. Sometimes these judgments seem more about politics than national security, more about self- than nation-protection.
This is why the law says the FISA Court must hear applications before approving surveillance, and why it is such a serious crime (yes, dammit, crime!) when applications presented to the FISA Judges contain falsehoods or distortions or when surveillance is done without any reference to the FISA process.
“Protecting” citizens from Gen. Clapper’s record is as wrong and futile as “protecting sources and methods” of his NSA, and all the "Other Government Agencies." It’s too late, Dudes. People know.
Which is why people want to know, for sure, what is the intelligence, what kind of sources make you so sure you’re right that America should green-light military violence?
Nothing less than pretty full disclosure is going to gain popular support. Without it, the whole thing is going to be “your war,” Mr. President, a pretty lonely, pretty weak position for the leader of American democracy to be in.