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SECRETS 

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It was a dark and stormy night at sea on August 4, 1964.

Off the coast of North Vietnam, sailors on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy saw “ghostly blobs.” Fearing that they were enemy torpedo boats, the American ships took evasive action and began firing.

Reports were radioed back to Washington. Told that American forces were being attacked, President Lyndon Johnson ordered air strikes against North Vietnam.

Johnson prepared to go to Congress to ask for a war powers act—very much like the one President Bush got for Iraq. The National Security Agency (NSA) went to work on the presentation of the proof that the bad guys had shot first.

The NSA’s careful analysis of North Vietnamese and American signal traffic revealed that the United States had not been attacked. The ghostly blobs were tricks of light and darkness. The NSA did not inform the president of the error. Instead, they doctored the documents and committed a series of small forgeries—changed some dates and used bad translations—to turn the mistake into an official lie.

Based on NSA evidence, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 416-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate, authorizing the war in Vietnam.

In 2001, NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok wrote it up for Cryptologic Quarterly, a classified publication. The article, “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August, 1964,” reveals that Johnson wasn’t told about the deception for four years. When Johnson found out, he reportedly said, “Hell, those damn stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”

It was kept secret from us, the American public, for 31 years, until Hanyok’s article was declassified in 2005. (Available at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv.)

Secrecy, in the name of national security, is an invitation to lie. The offer is frequently accepted. Informants lie to agents who lie to bureau chiefs who lie to management who lie to cabinet officers who lie to the president who lies to us.

They do it to cover up failures: “For eight years, from 1986 to 1994 [the CIA] knowingly gave the White House information manipulated by Moscow and concealed the fact. To reveal it would have been too embarrassing. Ninety-five of these tainted reports warped American perception of the major military and political developments in Moscow” (Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA by Tim Weiner).

For money: From the summer of 2002 through June 2004, the US made secret payments of $335,000 a month for intelligence about Iraq to a group run by Ahmad Chalabi. “Internal reviews by the United States government have found that much of the information…was useless, misleading, or even fabricated” (Richard A. Oppel, Jr., The New York Times, May 18, 2004).

To advance a political agenda: Chalabi’s bogus information was spread far and wide by Bush, Cheney, Tenet, and Powell to make the case for war. It was also leaked to the New York Times. The paper printed it as news and helped make the nonsense reputable.

There are a thousand reasons to lie. The impulse is normally kept under control by the threat of exposure. But in a culture of secrecy it is unchecked. The system necessarily becomes corrupt.

As the Vietnam War went on and on, the Department of Defense commissioned a secret study of the war. It showed that the government had lied about the war. It also made it pretty clear that we didn’t have a clue how to win it. Naturally, the DOD wanted to keep that information to itself. They feared that if the public knew, they couldn’t continue to fight a war they couldn’t win.

Daniel Ellsberg made a copy of the study—“The Pentagon Papers”—and gave them to the New York Times, who began to publish them. The Nixon Administration sued to stop them, in the name of national security. “The Pentagon Papers” revealed little or nothing the “enemy” didn’t know. What the president wanted to hide under the cloak of national security were lies and incompetence.

The first of the three columns in this series examined the CIA’s track record in analysis. Statistically, their predictions are ranked lower than that of Maria, the storefront Gypsy on East 101 Street; tossing a coin; and asking Bill O’Reilly.

This happened for a reason. And the reason is the culture of secrecy, where lies and incompetence can grow like mold unexposed to sunlight.

On those rare occasions when they were right, it didn’t help. The administration could choose to ignore CIA analysis, as it did in the summer of 2001 with the warnings of an impending terrorist attack; or, put enough pressure on it to pervert it, so as to make the case that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda and was concealing weapons of mass destruction. The administration could do so because the process was hidden under the cloak of national security.

In the second, we took a look at covert actions. There were many spectacular blunders—some very public, some very secret. There were some straight up successes that helped create stable democracies in Western Europe and Japan. Others led to establishing tyrants, torture, and death squads. Some had unintended consequences, notably, abetting the rise of militant Islam, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

The disasters—and the millions of deaths that ensued—were enabled because the planning and the execution took place in secret. There was no debate over whether, for example, it was better to risk a real democracy in Iran back in 1953, rather than put in a complacent, friendly despot. No debate over letting elected leftist leaders like today’s Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales try their experiments and let them run their course, rather than foment coups.

The Cold War was the Golden Age of spy versus spy. The Soviets were much better at it than we were. But the factors that made them better—their obsession with secrecy and a closed society—were factors that brought about their downfall.

Secrecy corrupts everything it touches. The more secret we become, the more inept and incompetent and noncompetitive we become. If an idea, an organization, or a plan is good, it will remain sound under scrutiny. If it’s bad, it needs the darkness of “state secrets” to grow and flourish.

The only governmental information that requires secrecy is tactics. The sort of things that we allow the police to keep secret in a democratic society, transferred to an international scale: who we are making a case against; the names of informants; when the raid will take place; how many agents or troops are involved, and so on.

It’s no secret that the government looks down on the world, in detail, from above. Google Earth does it too. It’s no secret that phone calls are listened to and e-mails and financial transactions are monitored. There’s no reason not to have courts oversee it. Or else we’ll be checking up on journalists, activists, and politicians an administration doesn’t like, as has been happening under most of our recent presidents and as—I’m hazarding a guess—we are doing now.

If we could go back over the last 60 years and throw out all our “secret intelligence” services and redo everything in public, it is likely we would have done better. Those things we have done most well, we’ve done mostly in public view.

As we go into the future, the more we do in public and the less that’s in the closet, the better off we’ll be.

Speaking of...

  • The final installment of Larry Beinhart’s series on the perils of government secrecy.

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