No, America isn’t 100 percent safe from terrorism. And that’s a good thing

Juliette Kayyem writes: Admit it. After the terrorist attacks in Brussels this past week, after the brief reflection for those lost or wounded and the sense of “oh, no, not again” passed, other thoughts quickly followed. My own selfish but natural worry, as a mother of three: Should we cancel that trip to Europe this summer?

In the nearly 15 years since 9/11, the questions I’ve fielded from family and friends have varied but never ceased: Should I buy a gun? (Only with training and safety measures at home, and certainly not to combat Islamic terrorists.) Is Times Square safe on New Year’s Eve? (Like every crowd scene, you have to stay alert, but security is high at events like that.) Or my personal favorite, because it combines parental insecurities with disaster management: Is Tulane a good school so many years after Hurricane Katrina? (Yes; it had a few rough months, but your kid should still apply.)

All these queries about a world in mayhem boil down to: Is my family safe? The answer is both simple and liberating: No, not entirely. America was built vulnerable, and thank goodness for that. [Continue reading…]

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Noam Chomsky: Why national security has nothing to do with security

Think of it as the true end of the beginning.  Last week, Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the final member of the 12-man crew of the Enola Gay, the plane (named after its pilot’s supportive mother) that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, died at age 93.   When that first A-bomb left its bomb bay at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, and began its descent toward its target, the Aioli (“Live Together”) Bridge, it was inscribed with a series of American messages, some obscene, including “Greetings to the Emperor from the men of the Indianapolis.” (That ship had delivered to the Pacific island of Tinian parts of the very bomb that would turn Hiroshima into an inferno of smoke and fire — “that awful cloud,” Paul Tibbetts, Jr., the Enola Gay’s pilot, would call it — and afterward was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine with the loss of hundreds of sailors.)

The bomb, dubbed Little Boy, that had gestated in the belly of the Enola Gay represented not only the near endpoint of a bitter global war of almost unimaginable destruction, but the birthing of something new.  The way for its use had been paved by an evolution in warfare: the increasing targeting of civilian populations from the air (something that can be seen again today in the carnage of Gaza).  The history of that grim development extends from German airship bombings of London (1915) by way of Guernica (1937), Shanghai (1937), and Coventry (1940), to the fire bombings of Dresden (1945) and Tokyo (1945) in the last year of World War II.  It even had an evolutionary history in the human imagination, where for decades writers (among others) had dreamed of the unparalleled release of previously unknown forms of energy for military purposes.

On August 7, 1945, a previous age was ending and a new one was dawning.  In the nuclear era, city-busting weapons would be a dime a dozen and would spread from the superpowers to many other countries, including Great Britain, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel.  Targeted by the planet’s major nuclear arsenals would be the civilian inhabitants not just of single cities but of scores and scores of cities, even of the planet itself.  On August 6th, 70 years ago, the possibility of the apocalypse passed out of the hands of God or the gods and into human hands, which meant a new kind of history had begun whose endpoint is unknowable, though we do know that even a “modest” exchange of nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan would not only devastate South Asia, but thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter also cause widespread famine on a planetary scale.

In other words, 70 years later, the apocalypse is us.  Yet in the United States, the only nuclear bomb you’re likely to read about is Iran’s (even though that country possesses no such weapon).  For a serious discussion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, those more than 4,800 increasingly ill-kept weapons that could incinerate several Earth-sized planets, you need to look not to the country’s major newspapers or news programs but to comic John Oliver — or TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky. Tom Engelhardt

How many minutes to midnight?
Hiroshima Day 2014
By Noam Chomsky

If some extraterrestrial species were compiling a history of Homo sapiens, they might well break their calendar into two eras: BNW (before nuclear weapons) and NWE (the nuclear weapons era).  The latter era, of course, opened on August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but — so the evidence suggests — not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst instincts.

Day one of the NWE was marked by the “success” of Little Boy, a simple atomic bomb.  On day four, Nagasaki experienced the technological triumph of Fat Man, a more sophisticated design.  Five days later came what the official Air Force history calls the “grand finale,” a 1,000-plane raid — no mean logistical achievement — attacking Japan’s cities and killing many thousands of people, with leaflets falling among the bombs reading “Japan has surrendered.” Truman announced that surrender before the last B-29 returned to its base.

Those were the auspicious opening days of the NWE.  As we now enter its 70th year, we should be contemplating with wonder that we have survived.  We can only guess how many years remain.

[Read more…]

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Poll: Most Americans say Snowden leaks harmed national security

The Washington Post reports: Americans increasingly believe that former federal contractor Edward Snowden’s exposure of U.S. surveillance programs damaged national security, even as the programs have sparked widespread privacy concerns, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll has found.

Six in 10 Americans — 60 percent — say Snowden’s actions harmed U.S. security, increasing 11 percentage points from July after a cascade of news reports based on his disclosures detailed the National Security Agency’s expansive web of telephone and Internet surveillance efforts. Clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe disclosures have harmed national security.

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Rethinking open checkbook for America’s security colossus

The New York Times reports: Last week, a Bangladeshi student was charged in an F.B.I. sting operation with plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. A Somali-American man was convicted of sending young recruits from Minneapolis to a terrorist group in Somalia. In Libya, extremists responsible for the killing of four Americans last month in Benghazi remained at large.

The drumbeat of terrorism news never quite stops. And as a result, for 11 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the security colossus constructed to protect the nation from Al Qaeda and its ilk has continued to grow, propelled by public anxiety, stunning advances in surveillance technology and lavish spending — about $690 billion over a decade, by one estimate, not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that may be changing. The looming federal budget crunch, a sense that major attacks on the United States are unlikely and new bipartisan criticism of the sprawling counterterrorism bureaucracy may mean that the open checkbook era is nearing an end.

While the presidential candidates have clashed over security for American diplomats in Libya, their campaigns have barely mentioned domestic security. That is for a reason: fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Americans, in a Gallup poll in September, said that terrorism was the country’s most important problem.

But the next administration may face a decision: Has the time come to scale back security spending, eliminating the least productive programs? Or, with tumult in the Arab world and America still a prime target, would that be dangerous?

Many security experts believe that a retrenchment is inevitable and justified. [Continue reading…]

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Drones, Asia and cyber war

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Top secret America

Part One:

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Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

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Crime and punishment

Norway's prison guards undergo two years of training at an officers' academy and enjoy an elevated status compared with their peers in the U.S. and Britain. Their official job description says they must motivate the inmate 'so that his sentence is as meaningful, enlightening and rehabilitating as possible,' so they frequently eat meals and play sports with prisoners. At Halden high-security prison, half of all guards are female, which its governor believes reduces tension and encourages good behavior. -- Time Magazine

Reading Anders Behring Breivik’s account of his preparations for his July 22 attacks in Oslo and Utøya evokes a certain dread at the sight of such a deliberate effort to cause carnage. Breivik expresses no doubt about what he is doing other than the fear that he might run out of funds and be unable to rent the car in which he intends to load explosives.

Mass murder, committed with such cold calculation surely merits the harshest punishment. Many Americans are thus now perplexed to learn about the apparent leniency of Norway’s penal system. Eli Lake’s views, as expressed in conversation with Hans-Inge Lango, will be shared by many.

But if Norway’s approach to crime is really sending the wrong message, just look at the numbers: an incarceration rate of 71 per 100,000 Norwegians versus 743 per 100,000 Americans; and while in Norway 80% of prisoners once released never return to jail, in the US almost 70% end up back behind bars.

Americans should not be asking whether Norway is capable of being tough enough with terrorists, but instead why a country that spends more on its security than any other also imprisons more of its own citizens than any other. (And for any of the xenophobes out there who might want to attribute America’s high incarceration rate to the high number of immigrants in this country, Germany has a similar proportion of immigrants and an incarceration rate of 85 per 100,000.)

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The tyranny of the national security state

Andrew Bacevich writes:

American politics is typically a grimy business of horses traded and pork delivered. Political speech, for its part, tends to be formulaic and eminently forgettable. Yet on occasion, a politician will transcend circumstance and bear witness to some lasting truth: George Washington in his Farewell Address, for example, or Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural.

Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower joined such august company when, in his own farewell address, he warned of the rise in America of the “military-industrial complex.” An accomplished soldier and a better-than-average president, Eisenhower had devoted the preponderance of his adult life to studying, waging, and then seeking to avert war. Not surprisingly, therefore, his prophetic voice rang clearest when as president he reflected on matters related to military power and policy.

Ike’s farewell address, nationally televised on the evening of January 17, 1961, offered one such occasion, although not the only one. Equally significant, if now nearly forgotten, was his presentation to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953. In this speech, the president contemplated a world permanently perched on the brink of war—“humanity hanging from a cross of iron”— and he appealed to Americans to assess the consequences likely to ensue.

Separated in time by eight years, the two speeches are complementary: to consider them in combination is to discover their full importance. As bookends to Eisenhower’s presidency, they form a solemn meditation on the implications—economic, social, political, and moral—of militarizing America.

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2011: A Brave New Dystopia

Chris Hedges writes:

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.

Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement. Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.

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The corrupt system that turns American generals into war profiteers

When corruption has become systemic, it no longer gets called corruption.

When America’s decorated military elite believe that retirement means that it is now their turn to line their pockets by profiting from the United States’ profligate arms spending, we are witnessing what the Boston Globe refers to with the blandest of euphemisms: a routine fact of life.

When a country is in dire economic condition, it’s government running a massive deficit and yet it still expands its military spending, we are witnessing the effect of the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” possessed by the military-industrial complex — a danger about which Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned America, yet his warning went unheeded.

An hour after the official ceremony marking the end of his 35-year career in the Air Force, General Gregory “Speedy’’ Martin returned to his quarters to swap his dress uniform for golf attire. He was ready for his first tee time as a retired four-star general.

But almost as soon as he closed the door that day in 2005 his phone rang. It was an executive at Northrop Grumman, asking if he was interested in working for the manufacturer of the B-2 stealth bomber as a paid consultant. A few weeks later, Martin received another call. This time it was the Pentagon, asking him to join a top-secret Air Force panel studying the future of stealth aircraft technology.

Martin was understandably in demand, having been the general in charge of all Air Force weapons programs, including the B-2, for the previous four years.

He said yes to both offers.

In almost any other realm it would seem a clear conflict of interest — pitting his duty to the US military against the interests of his employer — not to mention a revolving-door sprint from uniformed responsibilities to private paid advocacy.

But this is the Pentagon where, a Globe review has found, such apparent conflicts are a routine fact of life at the lucrative nexus between the defense procurement system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and the industry that feasts on those riches. And almost nothing is ever done about it.

The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades and found that, for most, moving into what many in Washington call the “rent-a-general’’ business is all but irresistible.

From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.

In some years, the move from general staff to industry is a virtual clean sweep. Thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired in 2007 are now working in defense roles — nearly 90 percent.

And in many cases there is nothing subtle about what the generals have to sell — Martin’s firm is called The Four Star Group, for example. The revolving-door culture of Capitol Hill — where former lawmakers and staffers commonly market their insider knowledge to lobbying firms — is now pervasive at the senior rungs of the military leadership. [Continue reading.]

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The American Surveillance State

Glenn Greenwald writes:

One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian government is its fixation on hiding everything it does behind a wall of secrecy while simultaneously monitoring, invading and collecting files on everything its citizenry does. Based on the Francis Bacon aphorism that “knowledge is power,” this is the extreme imbalance that renders the ruling class omnipotent and citizens powerless.

In the Washington Post today, Dana Priest and William Arkin continue their “Top Secret America” series by describing how America’s vast and growing Surveillance State now encompasses state and local law enforcement agencies, collecting and storing always-growing amounts of information about even the most innocuous activities undertaken by citizens suspected of no wrongdoing. As was true of the first several installments of their “Top Secret America,” there aren’t any particularly new revelations for those paying attention to such matters, but the picture it paints — and the fact that it is presented in an establishment organ such as the Washington Post — is nonetheless valuable.

Today, the Post reporters document how surveillance and enforcement methods pioneered in America’s foreign wars and occupations are being rapidly imported into domestic surveillance (wireless fingerprint scanners, military-grade infrared cameras, biometric face scanners, drones on the border).

In this respect — whose significance can hardly be overstated — Barack Obama is worse than George Bush: Bush’s excesses and the ideology he represented could be circumscribed by his administration and in theory America could purge itself of the effects through the ritual purification of an election. What Obama is doing is normalizing those excesses so that the Bush era can be perpetuated without being tainted by the names Bush and Cheney.

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The Israelification of America

As the Transportation Security Administration faces a barrage of criticism, some indignant Americans are calling for the “Israelification” of US airports — as though the security procedures used in a tiny Middle Eastern ethnocracy with one international airport could easily be scaled up for America.

Ironically, Israelification is not what we need — it’s what we already have.

Consider the real outrages of the last decade that, simply because they were done in the name of national security, the majority of Americans found tolerable:

  • a global war on terrorism that led to massive increases in defense spending, the creation of multiple new intelligence and security agencies, and Washington’s enslavement to fear-based politics — that was OK;
  • with disregard for international law, the invasion of Iraq on a false pretext — that was OK;
  • the kidnapping, secret imprisonment and torture of individuals most of whom had nothing to do with 9/11 — that was OK;
  • the authorization of warrantless wiretaps — that was OK;
  • the implementation of a remote-controlled assassination program — that was OK;
  • in short, the normalization of war crimes all of which were deemed justifiable because of 9/11 — that was OK;
  • but “don’t touch my junk” — there are limits to what Americans will tolerate.

TSA administrators are no doubt frustrated by the fact that had the new pat-down procedures been implemented in late 2001, they would probably have been welcomed by a population that widely supported the idea of doing “whatever it takes” to stop “the terrorists.”

The problem, then and now, is that air transportation security is imagined to be about catching terrorists. On this count, the TSA seems to have a poor record.

At Slate, Juliet Lapidos notes:

In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report noting that SPOT’s [“Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques”] annual cost is more than $200 million and that as of March 2010 some 3,000 behavior detection officers [BDOs] were deployed at 161 airports but had not apprehended a single terrorist. (Hundreds of illegal aliens and drug smugglers, however, were arrested due to the program between 2004 and 2008.) What’s more, the GAO noted that at least 16 individuals later accused of involvement in terrorist plots flew 23 different times through U.S. airports since 2004, but TSA behavior-detection officers didn’t sniff out any of them.

Does this imply that the TSA’s BDOs have yet to pinpoint the way a terrorist walks, talks, or dresses? The TSA’s “failure” in this instance might simply mean that the individuals who escaped their attention were not at those times actually doing anything suspicious.

The point is, there are justifiable and unjustifiable grounds to turn a person into an object of suspicion. A system that simply on the basis of religion, ethnicity or nationality, regards a person with suspicion, is unjust and will be ineffective. Indeed, a system which even regards its targets as “the terrorists” conjures up the false notion that it is dealing with a class of people rather than a class of behavior.

Which brings me back to my initial claim that the Israelification of America is already deeply entrenched. Israel’s fear of the Arab world has been transplanted into American consciousness to such a degree that we are moving toward the absurd conclusion that if this country operated even more like Israel than it already does, then we would be able to feel as safe as the Israelis do.

Living inside a fortress and defining ones existence in terms of threats posed by eternal enemies, is a good way of justifying spending more and more on increasingly elaborate fortifications. But those who invest deeply in this mindset and who profit from its perpetuation, have the least interest in exploring what we need to understand most: why our enemies think the way they do. Delve into that question, and the notion of eternal enmity quickly evaporates — thus the perpetuation of the myth that we are under threat not because of what we do but because of who we are.

Meanwhile, next time a TSA officer offends your dignity, spare a thought for the Palestinians who while passing through IDF checkpoints suffer vastly worse when attempting no more than to travel from one town to the next.

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Expanding secrecy and diminishing privacy in Obama’s America

The US government might not have enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for a US citizen but it claims the right to kill such a person and to keep secret its reasons for doing so.

The U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi is now on the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command capture-or-kill list of suspected terrorists. He is not however on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list and has not been indicted. It is believed that he is being hunted down and that he will be killed, if his exact whereabouts become known, but even if that is the case, this “does not foreclose Anwar al-Aulaqi’s access to the courts,” claim Barack H Obama, Robert M Gates and Leon E Panetta, the defendants in a federal case brought by Aulaqi’s father.

Nasser al-Aulaqi has an old-fashioned conception of justice and believes his son has a right to due process and not be subject to a summary execution.

As Glenn Greenwald points out:

[W]hat’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

At the very same time that this administration is pushing to expand the boundaries of state secrecy and extra-judicial power it also wants to restrict citizens’ rights to privacy as it seeks sweeping new regulations for the internet that would provide the government with the means to access all electronic communications.

The New York Times reports:

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

In the post 9/11 national security culture, arguments in favor of the expansion of government power are invariably framed in terms of enhancing the security services’ ability to track down “bad guys.” But as the article notes, enhanced surveillance capabilities will also create opportunities of others.

Several privacy and technology advocates argued that requiring interception capabilities would create holes that would inevitably be exploited by hackers.

Steven M. Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor, pointed to an episode in Greece: In 2005, it was discovered that hackers had taken advantage of a legally mandated wiretap function to spy on top officials’ phones, including the prime minister’s.

“I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. “If they start building in all these back doors, they will be exploited.”

The Greek case — sometimes referred to as the Greek Watergate — is interesting for several reasons. As the Times in another report today on the Stuxnet attack notes, “The level of skill needed to pull off the [Greek] operation and the targets strongly indicated that the culprit was a government.”

Indeed, the list of targets alone makes it hard to imagine that this was anything other than an intelligence agency-run operation. The phones bugged included not only those of the Greek prime minister and his wife but also, IEEE Spectrum reported, those of:

…the ministers of national defense, foreign affairs, and justice, the mayor of Athens, and the Greek European Union commissioner… Others belonged to members of civil rights organizations, peace activists, and antiglobalization groups; senior staff at the ministries of National Defense, Public Order, Merchant Marine, and Foreign Affairs; the New Democracy ruling party; the Hellenic Navy general staff; and a Greek-American employee at the United States Embassy in Athens.

Given the context of the then-upcoming 2004 Athens Olympics which were widely regarded as a potential target for a major act of terrorism, it seems quite likely that this was a CIA-run operation.

Since we live in what is still widely regarded as the “freest” nation on earth, as the Obama administration quietly moves to expand its powers, we should have no doubt that the national security culture that is being established here as a new normal, will also serve as a model for other nations that will justify even more extreme restrictions on civil liberties by virtue of the similarities these measures bear to the American way.

The architecture of world government is not being crafted at the United Nations but behind closed doors at the NSA and the CIA. The people we should be most afraid of are the people who promise to make us feel safe.

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Daniel Ellsberg: Obama tougher on leaks than any other US president

The Economist interviewed Daniel Ellsberg who pointed out President Obama’s hypocrisy:

Do you think the government is actively working against Wikileaks?

Ellsberg: I’m sure they are, in the sense of trying to discover the sources of truth-telling from within. This administration has shown more eagerness to prosecute leaks than any other administration in our history. As a matter of fact, Barack Obama has now, with the prosecution of Bradley Manning, indicted as many people for whistleblowing or leaks as all previous presidents put together. Did you realise that?

Economist: I did not.

Ellsberg: Well it’s a small number. It’s three. It’s that small because we don’t have an official secrets act the way that the British and most countries do. And therefore we’ve only had three such prosecutions in the past. I was the first, with Tony Russo, under Richard Nixon. And two other presidents each brought one case. Obama has now prosecuted three people. Two of whom are being prosecuted for acts carried out under George Bush and for which Bush chose not to prosecute — Thomas Drake, who is under indictment, and Shamai Leibowitz, who pleaded guilty (a mistake in my mind). So Obama’s famous position of not looking backward seems to apply only to crimes like torture or illegal warrantless surveillance. He’s given absolute amnesty to the officials of the Bush administration. But in the case of Thomas Drake, who told a reporter about a billion-and-half-dollar waste at the NSA, and in the case of Shamai Leibowitz, who says he exposed acts to a blogger that he regarded as illegal, Obama was willing to look backward and prosecute. With Manning he has shown more eagerness to do that. I think we can assume that those who don’t use Wikileaks’s technology to get the information out can be assured of prosecution. I have to assume that if I had now put out the Pentagon Papers as I did, using that now outmoded technology of Xerox, Obama would prosecute me to the full extent of the law. [Emphasis mine.]

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Secrets worth revealing

“Dr Ellsberg, do you have any concern about the possibility of going to prison for this?”

“Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?” Ellsberg responded when asked by reporters about the repercussions he might face after leaking the Pentagon Papers.

The 40-year old former US military analyst who was then working for the RAND Corporation, knew exactly the risks he was taking. In 1971, his was a courageous act of conscience, clear-eyed and utterly responsible.

Almost 40 years later, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sees himself in the same role — with a difference. Assange seems to have become caught up in the mystique of whistleblowing and allowed the actors and the mechanism through which they reveal secrets to assume as much importance as the secrets themselves.

Someone using the handle Bradass87 seems to have been the source of the leaked Afghan war logs, which he described like this: “its open diplomacy … its Climategate with a global scope and breathtaking depth … its beautiful and horrifying … It’s public data, it belongs in the public domain.”

It would appear that Bradass87 is a 22-year old intelligence analyst, Private Bradley Manning. He was arrested on May 26 and was transferred today from Kuwait to Quantico, Virginia where he is in military custody and has been placed on suicide watch.

Assuming that Manning was indeed the source, it’s hard to believe that he deeply weighed up the risks he was taking. The comparison with the so-called Climategate is perhaps telling — another leak where the act of revelation had more significance than the content.

It was Assange who held up the Pentagon Papers parallel, which again perhaps said less about the documents than about the Wikileaks founder’s desire to be seen as a modern Ellsberg — even though Assange’s role is actually much closer to that of a newspaper publisher than that of a whistleblower.

Through Wikileaks, Assange has created a new and immensely valuable infrastructure for whistleblowing, but as with everything else enabled by the internet, the medium should not be confused with the content. But since in this case that is to a significant degree what has happened, the story that has captivated the media for a week has been a story about Wikileaks as much as it has been about the war in Afghanistan.

In the short run, this might provide a boost to Wikileaks and draw wider attention to its work, but in the long run the value of whistleblowing itself will be undermined if it comes to be regarded as political theater where the actors claim more attention that the text.

When asked to comment on the war logs, Ellsberg said that they are significant more for what they lack than what they contain: they provide no plausible justification for the war. But when asked by the Washington Post whether there are indeed important documents, yet to be leaked, declassified or otherwise made public, that could fundamentally alter public understanding of key national security issues and foreign policy debates, he gladly drew up a wish list:

1. The official U.S. “order of battle” estimates of the Taliban in Afghanistan, detailing its size, organization and geographic breakdown — in short, the total of our opponents in this war. If possible, a comparison of the estimate in December 2009 (when President Obama decided on a troop increase and new strategy) and the estimate in June or July 2010 (after six or seven months of the new strategy). We would probably see that our increased presence and activities have strengthened the Taliban, as has happened over the past three years.

2. Memos from the administration’s decision-making process between July and December 2009 on the new strategy for Afghanistan, presenting internal critiques of the McChrystal-Petraeus strategy and troop requests — similar to the November 2009 cables from Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry that were leaked in January. In particular, memos by Vice President Biden, national security adviser Jim Jones and others; responses to the critiques; and responses to the responses. This paperwork would probably show that, like Eikenberry, other high-level internal critics of escalation made a stronger and more realistic case than its advocates, warranting congressional reexamination of the president’s policy.

3. The draft revision, known as a “memo to holders,” of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from November 2007. This has been held up for the past several months, apparently because it is consistent with the judgment of that NIE that Iran has not made a decision to produce nuclear weapons. In particular, the contribution to that memo by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), since the INR has had the best track record on such matters. Plus, estimates by the INR and others of the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran later this summer. Such disclosures could arrest momentum toward a foreseeably disastrous U.S.-supported attack, as the same finding did in 2007.

4. The 28 or more pages on the foreknowledge or involvement of foreign governments (particularly Saudi Arabia) that were redacted from the congressional investigation of 9/11, over the protest of then-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

On each of these matters, congressional investigation is called for. The chance of this would be greatly strengthened by leaks from insiders. Subsequent hearings could elicit testimony from the insiders who provided the information (whose identities could be made known to congressional investigators) and others who, while not willing to take on the personal risks of leaking, would be ready to testify honestly under oath if requested or subpoenaed by Congress. Leaks are essential to this process.

Through the revelation of such documents, Wilileaks would demonstrate its value, but if such revelations are to occur it will most likely require a selfless act of courage from someone who occupies a higher perch in government than the one held by Private Bradley Manning.

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