History Matters, Secrecy Permits War Crimes by Presidents,
November 2, 2002
This extraordinary work comes at the perfect time, as an Administration is seeking to create new forms of secret operations invisible to Congress and the public, in pursuit of its war on Iraq and-one speculates-other targets of ideological but not public priority. The book covers seven areas I categorize as Background, History, Information Strategy, Pathology of Secrecy, Ethics, War Crimes, and Administrative.By way of background, the book establishes that the author was not a peacenik per se, as some might perceive him, but rather a warrior, both in terms of Cold War ideology and from actual experience as a USMC infantry company commander and an on-the-ground observer traveling across Viet-Nam by jeep instead of helicopter, generally in the company of the top U.S. ground expert in Viet-Nam, John Paul Vann. The book establishes-as George Allen has also told us in NONE SO BLIND, that intelligence did not fail in Viet-Nam, that Presidents do get good advice from good men, but that the position of President, combined with executive secrecy as an enabling condition, permits very irrational and ineffective policies, conceived in private without public debate, to go forward at taxpayer expense and without Congressional oversight. The author is timely in emphasizing that the “spell of unanimity” is very dangerous and provides a very false image to the public-the stifling of dissent and debate at all levels leads to bad policy.
The author does an effective job of bringing forward the lessons of history, not only from Truman and Eisenhower forward, but from the Japanese and French occupations of Indochina. We failed to learn from history, and even our own experts, such as Lansdale showing McNamara the rough equipment that the Vietnamese would defeat us with because of their “will to win,” were sidelined.
As a public administration and public policy text this book offers real value as a primary source. The author provides valuable insights into how quickly “ground truth” can be established; on how the U.S. Government is not structured to learn; on how the best answers emerge when there is not a lead agency and multiple inputs are solicited simultaneously; and most importantly, on how private truths spoken in secrecy are not effective within any Administration. The author stresses that Americans must understand what Presidents are doing in their name, and not be accomplices to war crimes or other misdeeds. He does a brilliant job of demonstrating why we cannot let the Executive Branch dictate what we need to know.
Interwoven with the author’s balanced discussion of how to get ground truth right is his searing and intimate discussion of the pathology of secrecy as an enabler for bad and sometimes criminal foreign policy, carried out without public debate or Congressional oversight. The author adds new insights, beyond those in Morton Halperin’s superb primer on Bureaucracy and Foreign Policy, regarding the multiple levels of understanding created by multiple levels of classification; the falseness of many written records in an environment where truth may often only be spoken verbally, without witnesses; the fact that the Department of Defense created false records to conceal its illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia, at the same time that the White House created false secret cables, used Acting Director of the FBI Patrick Gray to destroy evidence, and sought to bribe a judge with the offer of the FBI directorship. The author presents a compelling portrait of an Executive Branch-regardless of incumbent party-likely to make major foreign policy miscalculations because of the pathology of secret compartmentation, while also being able to conceal those miscalculations, and the cost to the public, because of Executive secrecy. He is especially strong on the weakness of secret information. As he lectured to Kissinger: “The danger is, you’ll become like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours” [because of your blind faith in the value of your narrow and often incorrect secret information. P. 236]
On such a foundation, the author discusses the ethics of Presidential leadership. He is especially strong-and relevant today-in discussing how Presidential appointees regard loyalty to the President as a mandate for lying to Congress and the media and the public. The author excels at bringing forward how our corruption in permitting corruption is easily recognized and interpreted by indigenous personnel-just as how whom we support is quick evidence of how little we know about local politics.
From here the author segues into the ethics of collateral damage and the liability of the American people for war crimes and naked aggression against the Vietnamese because of our deliberate violation of the Geneva accords and our support for a corrupt series of dictatorships in South Viet-Nam. Much of what we did in Viet-Nam would appear to qualify for prosecution under the International Tribunal, and it may be that our bi-partisan history of war crimes in Viet-Nam is what keeps us from acknowledging the inherent wisdom of accepting the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal in future wars. Tellingly, at one point his wife reads the Pentagon Papers and her tearful reaction is: “this is the language of torturers.”
Administratively we are reminded that the Pentagon Papers were 7,000 pages in total; that Neil Sheehan from The New York Times actually stole a set of the papers from Ellsberg before being given a set; that character assassination by the U.S. Government is a routine tactic in dealing with informed dissent; and that it is not illegal to leak classified information-only administrative sanctions apply, outside a narrow set of Congressionally-mandated exceptions.
This book is a “must read” for any American that thinks and votes.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert David Steele and has been reposted with permission. The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right