Manning’s ‘Secrets’ v. Over-classification

Exclusive: The U.S. government wants to lock away Pvt. Bradley Manning for life because he released hundreds of thousands of classified documents that he believes revealed war crimes and other wrongdoing. But overlooked is how much damage over-classification does to the Republic, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

I thought of Pvt. Bradley Manning when I recently received a response to one of my Freedom of Information Act requests to Ronald Reagan’s presidential library. I was seeking documents about President Reagan’s secret strategy of aiding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war with Iran.

Reagan’s tilt to Iraq in the early 1980s – while his administration also was winking at Israeli weapons sales to Iran – was part of a clandestine U.S. approach to the region which generated huge profits for arms dealers while feeding sectarian violence and political animosities that echo to the present day. It seemed to me that it was way past time to know the full truth.

Protesters marching on June 1 in support of Pvt. Bradley Manning. One of the marchers was ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern, whose face appears over the yellow ‘E’.

However, though many of the events in question are now more than 30 years old – and thus are commonly thought to be readily accessible under FOIA – the reality is that the U.S. government still makes seeing such documents extremely difficult.

The letter from the Reagan library said the archivists would not even begin to process my request for “128 months,” that is more than 10 years, and then the process would involve time-consuming declassification reviews in which various agencies with “equity” interests would each have to sign off, along with whoever the sitting president is.

And, were I to die or lose interest in the interim, the process would go back to square one, waiting for some other interested American citizen to put in a new request and starting the clock again. In other words, we might all be dead before these records will be open to the public.

There is an old saying that “justice delayed is justice denied,” but the concept also applies to historical accountability. History delayed can mean accountability denied.

Plus, there’s no guarantee that some hypothetical historian far into the future will fully understand what the documents mean once they are, hypothetically, released. Since the people who lived through the relevant era might have left the scene, references or details may not be understood. In other words, there’s a great danger that the history will be permanently lost.

Besides the loss of history, there is also a more immediate concern: If the American people don’t know what their government did – and who did it – they can be led down the same dangerous paths by the same people who created the dangers in the first place. On a geopolitical level, it’s a bit like one of those suspense stories in which the young heroine fleeing a serial killer is putting her misguided trust in the villain as he poses as a protector of her safety.

For instance, if the American people had been allowed a full understanding of what George H.W. Bush had done as Vice President and President, would they have been so gullible to have allowed his eldest son to elbow his way into the White House? It was their misguided trust in the elder George Bush that bought Junior the benefit of the doubt. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Similarly, if the American people knew the complete story about the neocons who were credentialed by the Reagan administration – including their role in Central American atrocities and their clever use of propaganda – would the public have been so easily duped into the Iraq invasion?

Or, if they knew that Robert Gates was a behind-the-scenes figure in some of the scandalous operations of the Reagan era – as much evidence suggests – would they have trusted him as a Wise Man brought in to counsel leaders, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would his “words of wisdom” be fawningly transcribed by U.S. journalists? [See Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Endangering Democracy

In other words, America’s overly classified history, which is locked away in government vaults for decades, is itself a threat to national security, not to mention an affront to anything close to a meaningful democracy. The hyper-secrecy also creates fertile ground for nutty conspiracy theories, further destabilizing the Republic.

So, the cavalier expression that I often heard in the 1980s when news executives grew bored with Iran-Contra and related scandals – “oh, let’s leave that for the historians!” – wasn’t just bad journalism; it was a threat to the nation and to the world.

To this day, Americans have gotten only glimpses of Reagan’s cynical policies in the Middle East. Snapshots have emerged from the Iran-Contra Affair, which exposed some of the clandestine arms shipments to Iran, and from a sworn affidavit by Howard Teicher, a staffer on Reagan’s National Security Council who disclosed some of the secret collaboration with Iraq.

But nothing close to the full history has ever been revealed – and many conflicting assertions remain, such as whether the Iran side of this operation originated from treacherous Republican-Iranian contacts behind President Jimmy Carter’s back before Election 1980 and whether Teicher’s affidavit is entirely accurate. That is where my FOIA request came in.

Which brings me back to Bradley Manning whose trial for leaking government secrets is set to begin on Monday, with the prosecution seeking life imprisonment for the young private who is accused of aiding the enemy. Most fair-minded people would agree that some of Manning’s information was beneficial to the public’s right to know, revealing details of human rights violations and exposing corrupt government officials around the world.

However, the conventional wisdom within U.S. government circles and the mainstream news media is that Manning’s wholesale release of secrets to WikiLeaks endangered civilians who collaborated with American forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere and impaired U.S. foreign policy by revealing the frank opinions of American diplomats.

Yet, while it may be true – although it remains unproven – that some innocents were put at risk and that U.S. diplomacy has been made more complicated, Manning’s unauthorized release of hundreds of thousands of documents must be weighed against the U.S. government’s hiding of hundreds of millions of documents.

The simple truth is that the vast majority of those “secret” documents do not represent any reasonable threat to national security. And, to the contrary, the continued over-classification represents a clear and present danger to the Republic, both because secrecy undermines democracy and because ignorance makes voters vulnerable to deceptive politicians who, in turn, can inflict serious harm on the real national security.

So, when you hear someone condemning Bradley Manning for releasing government secrets, you might think about my attempt to go through the proper channels to see 30-year-old documents on U.S. policy toward Iraq — and being told that I’ll have to wait at least “128 months.”

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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20 comments on “Manning’s ‘Secrets’ v. Over-classification

  1. iGregor on said:

    Of course, as you claim, this is “an affront to anything close to a meaningful democracy.” But, then, given how far US politicians have sold out the citizenry to the moneyed class during the last three decades, and more, it’s no longer believable that the United States government “…is anything close to a meaningful democracy.”

  2. Bill Chapman on said:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and important piece, Bob. If you and others here who’ll read don’t know it, take a look at Edward Shils’ fine look at similar issues in the 1950s, The Torment of Secrecy.

  3. incontinent reader on said:

    Bob: Very glad you have explored this aspect of the case, and, Bill: Thanks for the cite. There is a bibliography with links to some reviews from the 1950′s that were written about, or discussed the Shils book at: http://www.unz.org/Pub/ShilsEdward-1956

    • incontinent reader on said:

      Just a short correction, it is a list of only a few articles, some of which are copyright protected and must be purchased, however the August Heckscher article is accessible. (Heckscher was a voice of reason during the McCarthy period and debated Sidney Hook over the teacher firings and blacklists.)

  4. Karen Romero on said:

    This is what I KNOW and KNOW for sure. If they do not release Bradley Manning the Satanic Bush Regime will go to HELL sooner than expected. There is a GOD and the Bush Regime is not GOD!

  5. Kathy on said:

    After reading Bob Parry’s article on the tremendous courage Obama has displayed in his term as president, will anyone challenge the fact that Obama has not changed any of Bush’s Satanic policies? He has enhanced all the evil that Bush espoused in his time in office? I own books by Parry and I wish that he would start carping on the evils of Bush and fast forward to the greater and more effective and democracy destroying Obama policies.

    • charles sereno on said:

      “Out of the mouths of babes…” Have you ever noticed how much J Edgar’s face resembles that of a fetus?

  6. F. G. Sanford on said:

    “In other words, there’s a great danger that the history will be permanently lost.” But…isn’t that exactly the point? If not fear of accountability, what else could be the incentive to so ruthlessly persecute and to so viciously prosecute? It is a given that theses “secrets” were over-classified. The real revelation should be glaringly self-evident. There are more heinous, more incriminating and more damning secrets to be protected at all costs, and the scapegoating of Bradley Manning is but a warning to those who would dare venture into that dark swamp where the proverbial “bodies are buried”.

    “The individual is handicapped by coming face-to-face with a conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists. The American mind simply has not come to a realization of the evil which has been introduced into our midst. It rejects even the assumption that human creatures could espouse a philosophy which must ultimately destroy all that is good and decent.” J. Edgar Hoover, The Elks Magazine, August, 1956

  7. Eddie on said:

    Bob Parry – A followup note to your comment regarding ‘over-classification’
    I recall the during the Watergate era when some light was finally shed on the US Government’s over-classification, it was actually amusing to see that some of the classified files (of the FBI & CIA, I believe) would have PUBLIC NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS STAMPED “TOP SECRET”! I think the inanity of that is SO striking that I think it should be brought-up more often.

    Additionally, the fact that we now have some 16 government ‘intelligence’ agencies (and their attendant internecine conflicts/protection) makes me very skeptical of the US government’s hard-line position on these intelligence matters.

  8. Evan Whitton on said:

    Secrecy is always the bottom line on corruption

  9. EthanAllen1 on said:

    Robert, as you have tirelessly pointed out for many years the government’s power to classify its actions secret, like all such powers granted to it in our society, are granted to it Constitutionally by the good faith and will of the citizens being governed. It follows that any abuse of this power, be it by revisionist politicalization, false justification, or any other false premise, is not in the public interest, and therefore clearly unconstitutional.
    For my part, the operative paragraph in your instant piece is:

    “The simple truth is that the vast majority of those “secret” documents do not represent any reasonable threat to national security. And, to the contrary, the continued over-classification represents a clear and present danger to the Republic, both because secrecy undermines democracy and because ignorance makes voters vulnerable to deceptive politicians who, in turn, can inflict serious harm on the real national security.”

    The current operation of our governments secrecy apparatus not only flies in the face of Constitutional muster, it violates the oath of office that every federal official, elected or not, swears to uphold. I submit that this issue may be ripe for a concerted effort on the part of all of us, that understand the serious implications and ramifications of it, to organize a consortium of writers, academics, and legal scholars to take formal aggressive action.

    It is the very health and future of our republic that hangs in the balance; and as you have often proclaimed, it is our history that is being compromised by those who ostensibly are sworn to our service.

    As Usual,
    EA

  10. AnneC on said:

    I remember the military was going to throw the book at someone who photographed flag-draped American caskets right after W. Bush invaded Iraq. Then there were the objections when PBS showed photos of fallen military heroes at the end of the news broadcast. Many of the soldiers were young people who joined the National Guard to get an education and to help hurricane victims.
    There does need to be some reasonable penalty for leaking classified information. There also needs to be a distinction between civil disobedience and espionage. A sentence of life in prison is the penalty our military thinks is appropriate for going into a village and murdering sleeping children along with their parents. This probably causes more danger to our troops and our county than informing the voters in this country about the problem of military disinformation and violence.

  11. charles sereno on said:

    Bob, do I understand this correctly? You have to stay alive for 128 months before your request begins to be processed? And should you pass away in the interim, anyone else would undergo the same procedure? Migod, sure saves on paper shuffling, dunnit?

  12. Coleen Rowley on said:

    It’s been reported that 6 million government documents were classified “secret” in 1996 but 92 million were classified “secret” by 2011. There seems to be no concrete criteria other than if the AG says it’s classified. Read Secrecy Project Director Steven Aftergood’s piece about this at: http://blogs.fas.org/secrecy/2013/06/ig-ag/

  13. Don Bacon on said:

    We shouldn’t speak generally of “secret” documents. Let’s get the definitions correct.

    Government classification

    Confidential
    Such material would cause “damage” or be “prejudicial” to national security if publicly available.

    Secret
    Such material would cause “serious damage” to national security if it were publicly available.

    Top Secret
    Such material would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security if made publicly available.

    • Don Bacon on said:

      So the correct generic term is “classified documents” not “secret documents.

  14. Mike Strong on said:

    You can bet that the locals are far ahead of the agencies secrecy policies when it comes to knowing what is taking place. I learned that a long time ago on a small newspaper. The locals had the info they just enjoyed seeing me write about it publicly. And that point goes directly to the matter of endangerment. Does anyone really think that translators and office workers were not visible each and every day going to and coming home from work? That they were not observed? Or that the people they went to work for were not being observed?

    An instance: In Benghazi the real deal was that the locals figured out that the consulate “employees” were really CIA agents, just by observing and maybe following. It was the presence of the CIA which endangered the ambassador just as the presence of CIA agents hidden in health organizations endangers the real health workers.