Thursday, February 1, 2018

More Light, Not Less

“Have you ever seen so many open-government groups and reporters argue to keep secret alleged government abuses against US citizens?”
—Journalist/author and former CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, in a tweet about the infamous FBI memo, yesterday
In May 1975 three prominent anti-war activists paid a visit to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where they participated in a panel discussion about the Vietnam War. One was Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest who, as one of the Catonsville Nine, burned draft records in 1968. Another was David Dellinger, a longtime radical who was tried as one of the Chicago Seven. The third man was Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who provided a classified Defense Department study (popularly called the Pentagon Papers) to The New York Times, The Washington Post and 16 other newspapers.

The UCSB student newspaper Daily Nexus reported on Ellsberg’s reflections on how his illegal act affected the course of the Vietnam War:
 Ellsberg attributed the end of the war more directly to Nixon’s fall from power. He noted that most people now concede that the manner that the war ended was inevitable, but he added that this “was as true in 1945 as in 1975.”
 He said the Pentagon Papers raised many questions but gave few answers. They did show, he said, that all Presidents involved in the war said they were on the edge of victory although they all knew they were not.
 He said their goal was to avert a defeat in Vietnam, “which means they had 30 years of success.”
 He said that Nixon’s fall made the difference in American air power and troops in Indochina and that the lack of power and troops was crucial to the communist victory. He maintained that without the subsequent congressional action of preventing troops to be used in Southeast Asia, the war could have continued ten more years.
The quality of the student reporter’s writing could have been better, but give me a break. I was only 22 at the time.

I have been thinking back lately to my personal brush with Ellsberg and the other anti-war figures of the time for a couple of reasons. One is the release in December of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which dramatizes the story of that newspaper’s decision to report on the Pentagon Papers’ content despite threats of legal action by the U.S. government. Another reason is the current political debate raging in Washington over the imminent release of a House Intelligence Committee memo. The memo was classified because it includes classified government information. Democrats and the FBI strongly oppose the release, arguing it could compromise sensitive information on FBI operations and methods.

Interestingly Republicans, who normally err on the side of national security, want the memo want released. More interesting, though, is the fact that Democrats, who usually err on the side of exposing potential government abuse, are energetically arguing against its release. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that politics is the main motivator on both sides.

Personally, my instinct is always to err on the side of releasing information rather than keeping it secret. This is not to say that there are not things that the government should legitimately keep hidden, but it is well known that the ability to classify information is way over-used and employed too often for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment—or worse. Democrats also argue that the memo, which was drafted by the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (who happens to represent the district adjoining my old home town in California), should not be released because it is one-sided. That is a silly reason. You can be sure that there will be plenty of rebuttal and that the memo will be dissected and discussed by people on all sides in the media for a long time to come. Democrats even drafted their own memo and then promptly began complaining that it had not gotten declassified like the Republican one—even while it continues to work its way through the same exact non-rushed process that the Republican one has gone through.

What are Democrats and the FBI so worried about? Is it related to the Justice Department’s inspector general investigation (as reported by The Washington Post) into why recently-departed Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, for three weeks in the days leading up to the November election, sat on the discovery of a bunch of Hillary Clinton emails found on the unsecured private laptop of former Congressman Anthony Weiner? (McCabe’s wife was a Democratic candidate for Virginia’s state senate and received a half-million-dollar donation from a PAC run by close Clinton associate Terry McAuliffe.) Or does it have to do with what some conspiracy theorists think were dodgy grounds—tied to Clinton campaign opposition research—that the FBI used to get FISA warrants to spy on the Trump transition team?

There could reasonably be nothing at all to any of this, but frankly, the way Democrats are carrying on only makes it all seem more—not less—suspicious.

It’s enough to make you want to buy a ticket to a Spielberg movie and lose yourself in the fantasy of a time when the political left—and more than a few journalists—thought that throwing sunlight on government secrets was less risky in the long run than not being curious.

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