In 1961, after The New York Times downplayed the impending Bay of Pigs debacle, President John F. Kennedy remarked to editor Turner Catledge, “Maybe if you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson tasked Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to visit Vietnam in December or early January of 1964 to assess the war situation. Battlefields were toured. Briefings by generals were attended. The secretary twice publicly voiced optimism about the progress of South Vietnam’s war effort. But in the White House, McNamara told an opposite story, as Benjamin Bradlee of The Washington Post recounts based on the Pentagon Papers: “[E]verything was going to hell in a handbasket in Vietnam.”
But that assessment was concealed from Congress and the American people. If it had been disclosed, the United States might have been saved from the Vietnam War calamity the heartbreak of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Church Committee revealed the intelligence community’s secret lawlessness in Operation Shamrock, Project Minaret, assassination plots, and the overthrow of Chile’s President Salvador Allende in favor of the murderous Gen. Augusto Pinochet. With impunity, the general later ordered the assassination of Allende’s foreign minister Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffat at DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C., for denouncing his crimes against humanity.
These examples are but the tip of the secrecy iceberg.
Secrecy from time immemorial has been a recipe for government stupidity, recklessness, incompetence, and lawlessness all compounded by group think.
The First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and press are premised on this understanding. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black elaborated in New York Times v. United States (1971): “The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
To justify the unjust Mexican-American War, President James K. Polk lied about the killing of an American soldier on American soil and risk of British or French colonization of Mexico.
Ulysses S. Grant served as a junior officer in the war. He was not squeamish about killing, as demonstrated by his Civil War record. In his personal memoirs after serving two terms in the presidency, Grant condemned Polk’s manufactured war as, “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
The Mexican-American War set the precedent for chronic executive branch concoctions to justify a cavalcade of gratuitous wars: the Spanish-American War (USS Maine), World War I (munitions on the Lusitania), the Korean War (a police action), Vietnam (second torpedo attack), the Persian Gulf War (new world order of peace and security, freedom and the rule of law), the Bosnia and Kosovo wars (dissolution of NATO’s southern flank), the Iraq war (WMD), the Libya war (genocide), and the wars against Syria and ISIS (existential threats).
Depend upon it. The President of whatever political stripe will soon fabricate national security dangers to justify wars not in self-defense against China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. With the acquiescence of a craven, invertebrate Congress, the White House — by telling fairy tales — will transform our republic into a carbon copy or worse of the monarchy we repudiated at Lexington Green in 1775.
The intelligence community also routinely stumbles for want of intellectually uncompromised outside scrutiny. It was wrong in labeling Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossedegh a dupe of the Soviet Union to justify his overthrow in favor of the corrupt and megalomaniacal Shah. It was wrong about the Domino Theory. It was wrong about a global communist monolith including the Soviet Union and China. It was wrong about the “missile gap.” It was wrong about the Bay of Pigs. It was wrong about Gorbachev. It was wrong about Saddam’s WMD. It is wrong about characterizing climate change as a national security threat.
Justice Louis D. Brandeis was right. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
To forestall the evils of secrecy, the executive branch should be completely transparent with Congress, which would have discretion in proper cases to refrain from public disclosure. Congress has proven a more trustworthy steward of state secrets than the executive. In 1988, CIA Director George Tenet complained to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the executive branch “leaks like a sieve.”
Transparency can be easily accomplished by congressional enactment of a bill that provides: “No monies of the United States can be expended to collect, analyze, share, communicate or store intelligence that is not shared with the House of Representatives or Senate as each chamber shall direct. Any action of the executive branch intended to circumvent the transparency purpose of this provision, directly or indirectly, is also prohibited.”
All that is missing is political spine.