August 08, 2003

Too Many Secrets

I finally finished reading Daniel Ellsberg's excellent book, "Secrets". The link takes you to the website for the book, which includes excerpts, photos and lots of other stuff related to the book. Ellsberg worked in various capacities with high clearances for the government during the Vietnam escalation. He finally left the government for ethical reasons and eventually leaked "the Pentagon Papers" to the press during the Nixon administration. These papers were a classified history of the decision-making process and intelligence on Vietnam over the previous 20-30 years.

This book tells Ellsberg's story, from his first days in the administration, to his various experiences in Vietnam, to his work for different administrations and so forth. Ellsberg doesn't just recount the history but talks about motivations, which is really interesting, especially in light of what's going on today in the government. Why did Ellsberg continue to function as a part of the apparatus promoting the escalation of the Vietnam war when he knew that it was a hopeless quagmire? Mainly, it was loyalty. Ellsberg talks about what it took to overpower that loyalty and why it was so difficult to do.

He talks about the manipulation of intelligence to promote the government's already-decided agenda (sound familiar?). He also recounts some of the macho-tough foreign policy, even using lots of excerpts from Nixon's oval office tapes. Like this one:

Nixon: "I want this clearly understood. The surgical operation theory [of bombing] is all right, but I want that place bombed to smithereens. If we draw the sword, we're gonna bomb those bastards all over the place. Let it fly, let it fly.

It's a wonder he didn't say "Bring 'em on." There was also a very interesting passage during which Ellsberg advises Kissinger on clearances and perspective:

Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all so much! incredible! suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools.

Over a longer period of time not too long, but a matter of two or three years you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

In the meantime it will have become very hard for to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.

You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."

....Kissinger hadn't interrupted this long warning. As I've said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn't take it as patronizing, as I'd feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn't have the clearances yet.

I'm reminded by this of the arrogance of people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al.

Posted by Observer at August 8, 2003 02:30 PM
Comments

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

It's access to info like this that makes me (perhaps erringly) trust decisions made by the President and his advisors. Who am I to say we do or don't need to do something, I'm kept in the dark.

Posted by: Humbaba on August 8, 2003 03:57 PM

The problem I have with that goes as follows... Note the comment from Ellsberg that goes,

In the meantime it will have become very hard for to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.


Now ask yourself whether W and the others have come to this point. Do I trust W to be able to rationally analyze the information presented to him? Not on your life. I want him to be able to talk to people who actually understand muslim life and tradition. I want him to talk to people who have studied the middle east and the politics, people and prejudices. Anything less puts our foreign policy in danger.

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on August 8, 2003 04:52 PM