It’s fair to say that those in our national-security apparatus have an S&M fetish. (No, no — not that S&M! Wash your mind out with soap.) Their fixation is with the “Sources and Methods” of their spying. They’re so secretive that they’re willing to sacrifice their credibility at the very same time that they’re asking everyone to trust them.
That’s a huge reason President Barack Obama, and all those who flout their security clearances, have been unable to sell the American people on taking military action to punish the murderous regime in Syria for the nerve-gas attacks. Each time Secretary of State John Kerry or the president trots out to declare that intelligence proves that the henchmen of Bashar al-Assad launched the sarin rockets and killed more than 1,000 men, women and children, we wait to see the proof. Nope, they reply. We can’t show you; we have to protect sources and methods.
That’s why they’ve gotten so crazed about the massive leaks from Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. They risk exposing the techniques and individuals that allow our spy vacuum cleaner to suck everything into the espionage black hole. Of course, they also shed a harsh light on the abuses they tried to keep cloaked-and-daggered in the darkness. From Syria’s brutal attacks on innocent civilians to America’s massive collection of every citizen’s private communication, to candid descriptions of world leaders and, oh yeah, eavesdropping on even the friendliest ones, all of those dubious practices have been laid out for everyone to see, much to the consternation and embarrassment of the keepers of the keys to the classified kingdom.
So people demand answers, and we get a token few. Then, if folks are still restless, maybe a few more. Someone at the top suddenly decides to put out the brush fire by releasing what had been a jealously guarded “Eyes Only” document or two. Just a couple, and they’re usually heavily redacted to protect those sources and methods. We don’t really learn a lot —but enough to wonder why they kept this stuff so closely held to begin with.
The whole thing can get silly. First of all, we come to find out that more than 4 million Americans hold some sort of clearance for access to classified information, and more than a million of those are eligible to see stuff stamped “Top Secret” or even way beyond that. It can be futile, though. I can tell you as a reporter that getting access to some of it is a piece of cake, particularly when we’re being spoon-fed by some government official or another who’s trying to sell his or her take on whatever the issue is.
Furthermore, what we discovered with Manning’s massive WikiLeaks dump is that much, if not most, of it is information that participants in this democracy should have anyway. Wouldn’t it be terrific if we had a better idea how the decisions that impact our lives are made?
This is not to say that there aren’t good reasons to keep some of the material hidden. Sources and methods sometimes do have to be protected, but it’s obvious that there is a ridiculous overclassification of stuff that has no business being kept from the public. We get periodic promises that something will be done to correct this, but the secrets just keep piling up.
We’re also having a hard time forgetting how badly we were burned by a Bush administration that manipulated intelligence to drag us into Iraq, where more than 4,400 in the U.S. armed forces were killed and tens of thousands wounded.
The memory of that has complicated the effort of those who advocate action against Syria. It will take real candor for them to succeed. Keeping secrets won’t cut it, even to protect S’s and M’s. That excuse is just too tortuous.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.