by Mike Gravel (U.S. Senate, 1969-81)
As a twenty-three year old Second Lieutenant, my first assignment in the Army was as a top-secret control officer for the Communications Intelligence Service in Germany, capable of classifying and declassifying government documents.
When I was a forty-one year old U.S. senator, the Nixon White House provided a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Congressional leaders. The Papers, a history of American involvement in Vietnam, were placed with great fanfare in a room in the Capitol under armed guard where only senators and House members could enter. Although the Papers contained thousands of pages and had already been summarized in the press, we were not allowed to enter the room with a pen or paper. Members of Congress, charged under our Constitution with putting American troops at risk in Vietnam, were not permitted to take notes.
Informed by this ridiculous tableau, I had no difficulty in subsequently accepting the Papers offered me by Dan Ellsberg and releasing them in my official capacity as a U.S. Senator. The Nixon Justice Department charged me with putting American troops at risk in Vietnam and pursued me all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed that my actions were protected by the Speech and Debate clause of the Constitution. That case established the principle that any Member of Congress can release classified information within the confines of the Congress without fear of prosecution by any other arm of government. Sadly, Members of Congress have not availed themselves of this constitutional authority and responsibility since the revelations to the public of the secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. Then as now, with the Wikipedia leaks on the Afghan War, it took someone outside of the government officialdom to represent the public interest.
A National Security Memoranda released by Daniel Ellsberg revealed to the American people the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia and provides a classic example of the venality of government’s claim that leaking secret documents jeopardizes our troops in the field. The secrecy of this activity was not a secret to the people of these neutral countries, who could see the bombs falling on them. The purpose of the “secret” classification was to deny knowledge to the American people for fear they would react adversely to the covert and illegal activities of Nixon Administration’s prosecution of the war.
Similarly, the only damage done by the release of the secret Pentagon Papers was to the integrity and credibility of three Presidential administrations that had lied to the American people about the origins of the Vietnam War and its illegal prosecution.
These anecdotes typify the misuse of the classification system in the military and the government at large, where more than 900,000 people have classification authority. In my experience, considerably more than fifty percent of what is held secret does not merit that classification. The system is used primarily for personal aggrandizement or to avoid accountability for errors in judgment by people responsible for government policies.
The trove of classified documents recently released by WikiLeaks to responsible media outlets, including the New York Times, are purported to have originated from Private Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst whose individual courage favors rather than detracts from democracy. These raw reports of combat activity are not a threat to the safety of our troops, as the White House and Pentagon leaders would have us believe because the secret classification hides nothing from the enemy insurgents. What the reports do demonstrate is how our military leaders manipulated the data to create a positive view of our military operations in Afghanistan.
The unwarranted secrecy blocks the view of the President, the Congress and the American people of the Afghan War, makings a mockery of “civilian control” of the military establishment.
PFC Manning is now being held for a possible court marshal. Manning should not be tried for following the dictates of his sworn allegiance to uphold the Constitution. He did not swear allegiance to the military leaders, who he knew were abusing their authority by misrepresenting events on the ground. If there is to be a trial, it should be of those who were essentially lying to the public and the Congress in order to support their preordained views of the war.
Our society is so acculturated to the military establishment’s control over public policy that no responsible person in the Congress or the Administration dared to question whether General Stanley A. McChrystal was putting our troops at risk last year when he leaked to the world (including the enemy) the detailed blueprint of how NATO forces were going to prosecute the Afghan War.
In another instance, President Obama was ill served when the public was denied crucial information during the period when he was evaluating what to do in Afghanistan. Both were victims of the classification system that denied us the experienced views of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Kabul. In two cables, on November 6 and 9, 2009, classified TOP SECRET and NODIS (meaning “no dissemination” to anyone but the most senior officials to whom the documents were addressed), Eikenberry, a former general, stated he could not “support [the Defense Department’s] recommendation for an immediate Presidential decision to deploy another 40,000 here.” Either the President was kept out of the loop along with the public, or for fear he would appear weak on defense he chose to cave in to the Pentagon. In either case, thousands have died as result of his decision to intensify the Afghan War. Public knowledge of the Eikenberry cable could have provided a courageous President cover for a different life-saving decision.
These anecdotes of our classification system not only cover over our military failures but more importantly call into question the very system of civilian-military relations, the principle upon which rests civilian control of our military. This principle offers the guarantee that our democracy will not be subverted by very powerful armed forces and its politically-savvy officer corps. In the words of Andrew J. Bacevich, the former military Colonel and scholar: “In practice, civilian control—expectations that the brass, having rendered advice, will then loyally execute whatever decision the commander-in-chief makes—is at best a useful fiction.”
I do not question the necessity of classifying sensitive diplomatic negotiations, nor the need to classify “order of battle” information about troop movements, nor the schedule of our Trident submarine fleet on picket duty in the world’s oceans, nor the technical design of our advanced weapons. Neither the public nor the Congress needs to know such information. However, I do question a classification system so prone to abuse by those in authority whose actions in the past and whose present conduct continues to derail the proper functioning of a democracy in a free society.
One seldom hears a serious complaint against the self-serving leaking by those in authority in Washington. Mainstream media thrives on the secrets leaked to them. But those on both ends of accepting and tolerating unbridled secrecy are in effect subverting our democracy by accepting secrecy as “the way Washington works.”
How odd that a PFC shows more courage and greater sensitivity to the Constitution than generals and admirals and of course our courageous members of Congress. PFC Manning is not the one who should be tried.