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The Scandal of Our Age

June 17, 2012 - 10:05 pm - by Victor Davis Hanson

Like Nothing Before

In the Watergate scandal, no one died, at least that we know of. Richard Nixon tried systematically to subvert institutions. Yet most of his unconstitutional efforts were domestic in nature — and an adversarial press soon went to war against his abuses and won, as Congress held impeachment hearings.

As far as national security went, Nixon’s crimes were in part culpable for destroying the political consensus that he had won in 1972, at a critical time when the Vietnam War to save the south was all but over, and had been acknowledged as such at the Paris Peace Talks. But Watergate and the destruction of Nixon’s foreign policy spurred congressional cutbacks of aid to South Vietnam and eroded all support for the administration’s promised efforts to ensure that North Vietnam kept to its treaty obligations.

Iran-Contra was as serious because there was a veritable war inside the Reagan administration over helping insurgents with covert cash that had in part been obtained by, despite denials, selling arms to enemy Iran to free hostages — all against U.S. laws and therefore off the radar. The Reagan administration was left looking weak, hypocritical, incompetent, and amoral — and never quite recovered. Yet even here the media soon covered the story in detail, and their disclosures led to several resignations and full congressional hearings.

Quite Different

What I call “Securitygate” — the release of the most intricate details about the cyber war against Iran, the revelations about a Yemeni double-agent, disclosures about covert operations in and against Pakistan, intimate details about the Osama bin Laden raid and the trove of information taken from his compound, and the Predator drone assassination list and the president’s methodology in selecting targets — is far more serious than either prior scandal. David Sanger and others claim that all this was sort of in the public domain anyway; well, “sort of” covers a lot of ground. We sort of knew about the cyber war against Iran, but not to the detail that Sanger provides and not through the direct agency of the Obama administration itself.

Here is the crux of the scandal: Obama is formulating a new policy of avoiding overt unpopular engagements, while waging an unprecedented covert war across the world. He’s afraid that the American people do not fully appreciate these once-secret efforts and might in 2012 look only at his mishaps in Afghanistan or his public confusion over Islamic terror. Ergo, feed information to a Sanger or Ignatius so that they can skillfully inform us, albeit with a bit of dramatic “shock” and “surprise,” just how tough, brutal, and deadly Barack Obama really is.

Yet these disclosures will endanger our national security, especially in the case of a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. They will probably get people killed or tortured, and they will weaken America’s ability for years to work covertly with allies. Our state-to-state relations will be altered, and perhaps even the techniques and technology of our cyber and special operations wars dispersed into the wrong hands. There is nothing in the recent “exclusive” writings of David Sanger or David Ignatius that was necessary for the American people to know at this stage, unless one thinks that we had a right to the full story of the Doolittle Raid in 1942, or that Americans by July 1944 needed an insider account of the date and planning of D-Day, or that we should have been apprised about what was really going on in New Mexico in 1944.

Here is why Securitygate is a national outrage and goes to the heart of a free and civil society.

National Security

Iran probably knew of U.S. covert involvement against its nuclear facilities, but now it knows that that the entire world also knows. There is no more plausible deniability on our part. The information about the nature of the cyber war is so detailed, the partnership with the Israelis rendered so complex, and the disclosures about technology and technique so explicit, that the Iranians will not only better defend themselves, but use these details to encourage and support even more terror against the United States. How ironic that Obama once called Guantanamo al-Qaeda’s “chief recruiting tool” only to keep it open, and instead give them a real recruiting tool in the disclosure of the inner workings of the war on terror.

Pakistan is a veritable enemy and Iran an explicit one. But now both will recite endlessly David Sanger’s catalog of our efforts to subvert them, and claim any new anti-American efforts on their part were simply justified tit-for-tat. Why would the Gulf states help us, when they come off as brutal supporters of the old doomed dictatorships? Europe and our allies no doubt knew all about predators and the cyber war, but their publics did not. Expect even more anti-Americanism, as our enemies decry targeted assassinations and efforts at subverting governments.

George W. Bush turned off the world by waterboarding three known and confessed terrorists — with help from the American Left who publicized that fact hourly for eight years. Barack Obama, we now read, has not only personally selected several hundred suspected terrorists for airborne execution, but alternates between reading their terrorist biographies and theology as he picks who lives and who dies. I am sure Catholic theologians appreciate the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine bulked up the American president’s fortitude when he chose to press the kill button over Waziristan. Crude presidents watch Patton or wear flight suits under “Mission Accomplished” banners; sophisticated metrosexual wartime Presidents read theology. I am surprised only that we did not hear from leaks that Obama had read these didactic texts in the original Latin.

Is the world to be outraged that Russia sends war material to Syria or Iran arms to Hezbollah — when it matter-of-factly now reads that almost all communications inside Pakistan are intercepted? Do we need to know that the U.S. warped medical vaccination programs to gain information about bin Laden — right out of a scene from the film Man on Fire? I bet the Gates Foundation and other American philanthropic organizations will appreciate the doubt that will now be cast on their own vaccination efforts. In the world war of ideas, we accuse Iran of wanting to wipe out Israel and they now will accuse us of resorting even to manipulating vaccination programs for the sick and poor for our own national security. Do we really need to know — or rather does the world need to know — that we sabotaged video cameras in Pakistan? Wait — I err in the use of the past tense: we are still sabotaging video and photographic equipment in Pakistan.

We live in dangerous times, with a war in Afghanistan, a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, a duplicitous nuclear Pakistan, an estranged nuclear ally Israel, an Arab Spring gone haywire, a failed reset with Russia, and almost all of the above conniving over Syria. The work of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, New York Times reporter David Sanger, and all their assorted subordinate reporters and Obama administration officials may well help to set off a conflagration unlike any in our time.

The Timing and Theme

Why are we suddenly learning in spring of 2012 of all sorts of classified information about the administration’s war on terror? Why not in 2009? Why is all the disclosed information in the press predictably designed to offer another side of Barack Obama in an election year? The president turns out not to be the familiar senator or presidential candidate Obama, who once demanded that Guantanamo be shut down, who mocked renditions and tribunals, who opposed preventative detentions, who wanted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court, and whose team characterized the Major Hasan murders as workplace violence and the Mutallab plot as “allegedly” or came up with the laughable euphemisms “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters.”

In other words, all the prior public knowledge of the Obama administration’s conduct of the war on terror had helped contribute to real public worries about its national security reliability. In contrast, all the recent disclosures paint a much different picture of the real “Obama Doctrine” — a Nobel Peace Prize laureate reading his St. Thomas Aquinas as he struggles with blowing up bad guys from the air, takes out bin Laden, unleashes a cyber war against Iran, or sends his agents into Yemen. A Hollywood scriptwriter could have done Obama the “paradox” no better: ruthlessly sensitive, decisively reflective, and tragically underappreciated.

The decision to disclose a multifaceted covert war on terror and ensure the continuance of the administration Barack Obama is supposedly far more important to our long-term national security than is any short-term damage that follows these disclosures.

The Role of the Press

We all know how the deplorable practice of “leaking” works. But in truth, these were not quite leaks: information was not “leaked” by rogue insiders or hostile outsiders, but rather given freely to the press by administration officials.

That fact alone makes Securitygate different from any other past scandal over publicized classified documents or insider accounts of covert operations — or even Bob Woodward’s mythography and insider psychodramas, where he only imagines what presidents and secretary of states are “really” thinking silently to themselves.

Usually liberal reporters nurture and stroke unnamed sources and would-be whistle-blowers who claim worry about an administration’s stealthy and dangerous national security efforts. Sometimes they divide and conquer — warning reluctant sources that when the proverbial stuff hits the fan, their own silent narratives will be drowned out by the connivers who squawked. Message? If you can’t beat them, then beat them to the punch.

When the leaked story goes public, the administration in question goes bananas; after all, its most private protocols and operations are rendered worthless as they enter the public domain. Our Woodstein-like reporters in question predictably fancy themselves Edward R. Murrows, as if speaking truth to power. They earn praise from the New York-Washington, D.C., corridor, with all the accruing beneficia of strong book sales, career promotions, TV appearances, or often prizes for their “courage.” The leaker, if found out, often likewise is canonized, in Daniel Ellsberg fashion, as he usually beats the rap.

None of that was true of the released information about the bin Laden mission, subversion in Pakistan, the Yemeni double agent, the Predator drone protocols, and the cyber war against Iraq, or our covert war in Africa. The press were lapdogs, not bull terriers. The leakers were not misguided whistle-blowers, but careerist insiders. We don’t quite have an investigative press these days, but rather a Ministry of Truth put in charge of Barack Obama’s public relations: when the worldwide Left worries that Obama is too militaristic, we heard of deep engagement with Catholic theologians and a desire to go after former CIA agents, or more plans to close Guantanamo; when the Right is up in arms that Obama is not pursuing Islamic terrorists, then the drone tally, cyber war, and more details about Osama bin Laden suddenly are all over the news.

Complicity not skepticism is the theme of the work of a Sanger or Ignatius and their kindred reporters. Their aim is that we should be “surprised” about just how muscular is the Obama version of the war on terror — an appreciation that is especially timely in mid-2012, rather than, say, 2009 or 2010.

Doubt all that? The subtitle of David Sanger’s book – Surprising Use of American Power says it all, does it not? “Surprising” is a rather mild adjective that one might not usually expect from a New York Times “investigative” reporter hell-bent on rushing into print leaked material about controversial, legally questionable, and covert U.S. operations. “Surprising” is the sort of loaded adjective that reminds us of the press’s other favored word – “unexpectedly” – when citing the latest dismal economic news.

Cui Bono?

But outrage was not the intent of Sanger, nor of any of the other “reporters” who have been given exclusive access to either Obama administration insiders or once sort of, now kind of, classified materials. When one reads David Ignatius on the covert bin Laden raid, here are the sort of inanities that pop out: “This desire to reattach al-Qaeda to the Muslim mainstream is evident in the documents I reviewed that were taken from bin Laden’s compound the night he was killed. … As Wednesday’s anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaches, I have been going back over my notes of these messages. I found some unpublished passages that show how bin Laden’s legacy is an ironic mix.” Or “The scheme is described in one of the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound by U.S. forces on May 2, the night he was killed. I was given an exclusive look at some of these remarkable documents by a senior administration official. They have been declassified and will be available soon to the public in their original Arabic texts and translations.”

How does one seriously claim an “exclusive look” at “remarkable documents” that have been “declassified” and “will be available soon.” (Note the tense gymnastics.) Either a document is in the public domain for all, or it is not. One does not have an “exclusive” look at otherwise common knowledge. This is incoherent: “A senior administration official” calls up a senior Washington Post reporter to provide him with an “exclusive” look at unclassified documents in the public domain. Why would a “senior” official have to remain unnamed when all he was doing was passing along unclassified information?

What Next?

What should we expect next from the administration rather pleased at these disclosures? More of “how dare you!” denials from Barack Obama who is “shocked” that we might possibly conclude that he runs the defense of the United States like a poorly managed Tony Rezko land deal.

Expect the New York Times and Washington Post stable to likewise be aghast at any hint they were massaged, and in vain to point to all sorts of nuanced little qualifiers in their stories that we missed, but that really do prove their own independence and “worry,” “skepticism,” and “concern” over some of the shocking things they wrote.

“Classified” is now a postmodern idea, as we see from Ignatius. I think the damage-control procedure will go like this: although we, the public, could not read what the New York Times and Washington Post people read, these “classified” sources were still not really classified. You see, the president decides from moment to moment what is legally classified, what not. When given to a reporter to ensure the public knows that an Achilles rather than a Paris is our commander in chief, the documents in a nanosecond became declassified. In other words, once these leaks go into print, then immediately postfacto all such information was declassified all along: stupid us, we just never asked to read it or talk with these folks who had.

If — a big if — and when either Congress or the media goes after the damage that was done to U.S. interests, expect that almost every subpoenaed source imaginable is now “classified” — as in “How dare you ask for classified information that might endanger the national security just to find out how and why we released ‘declassified’ information that did no harm at all.”

Reader, forget politics. Just digest the nature, theme, the timing, and the damage of these disclosures. Do that and most of you will conclude they are offenses to the security of the United States — or, in the words of Barack Obama on another matter, “unpatriotic.”


Senator Obama calls Pres. Obama “unpatriotic” for adding trillions to national debt


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