The Pentagon papers dilemma
When a new movie dots the “I’s” and crosses the “T’s”…you know you have seen something of incredible value. Such was my feeling as I exited “The Post” which I saw in France where it was re-titled “The Pentagon Papers.”
The film documents the theft of thousands of pages of classified documents which analyzed multiple U.S. Presidents’ perpetual lies to the American people about the necessity for – and the viability of- the war in Viet Nam. The revelation of these secret documents about a war which sent thousands of U.S. conscripted young men to their early deaths in a cause which repeated Presidents knew they could not win became a landmark case for the “Freedom of the Press.” In the U.S. government’s case against the New York Times which revealed the content of the classified communiques, the Supreme Court determined that it is the mandate of the Press to protect the public, not their government- nor the lies perpetrated by elected or appointed leaders of past governments. It was determined that fabrications which were told to unite a nation in a war effort, carefully tucked away in classified documents did not deserve protecting. There is most certainly a difference between protecting the future of a nation with secret – classified documents, and protecting the legacy of those who created prior policy through deception.
Government manipulation in order to garner their population’s support has become a serious issue in more recent war efforts as well. Many will recall the two Gulf wars and the USA’s determination to bring down Saddam Hussein. There were multiple deceptions in the effort to convince the public that the first and second Gulf wars were critical to American interests. After the first war, it was quite clear that President Bush intended to re-enter Iraq to “finish the job” as Saddam was still alive. Bush pretended to give Hussein a chance to “prove that Iraq had no chemical weapons” before announcing the invasion. I remember wondering at the time- exactly how is one expected to prove that something does not exist? Some claimed that the USA had sold the very same WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction) to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war between 1980 and 1988. Thus, it is claimed, that the U.S. knew that they did, in fact, exist- and wanted to know what happened to them. It was clear from that day forward that by issuing an ultimatum which could not be fulfilled, war was inevitable.
In the case of the United Kingdom, we remember then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s fear mongering in order to get the British public to support troops being sent to Iraq to assist the US effort. The claim that Saddam Hussein could deliver weapons of Mass Destruction to the United Kingdom within 45 minutes were later found to be a total fabrication. Blair blamed his military sources, and tried to justify the lie as troops died on the front lines. I was living in the U.K. at the time and was mesmerized by the passion Blair imparted in his televised speeches to the public to win their consent.
Very strange, unexplained moments existed in these Iraq wars. Why did the USA announce it would be attacking in a few months time, only after it had created a coalition of support from other nations to proceed? In fact it provided sufficient time for truckloads of unknown product to be delivered across the Iraqi border to Syria. The trucks were caught on video from satellites and the world saw the activity. Why were there no attacks on those caravans? If Iraq was moving Chemical weapons to Syria, was that not disturbing? Why was the potential enemy given time to prepare and presumably remove from their country that which would incriminate them? These are questions,- the answers to which are hidden today in top-classified documents.
On the one hand, it is critical for governments to have documents which are top-secret in order to protect the future of their actions as regards a nation’s security. The United States has at least five levels of classified documents. Clearly military documents and those related to development of armaments and defense fall within those requiring total secrecy and are never likely to be divulged. On the other hand, it was concerning to discovery that the U.S. government has determined that no court has the right to decide whether a level of classification is incorrect. Hence, anyone in power with high level security clearance can decide to hide a document and there is no potential for even a court of law to correct that decision. In a healthy democracy, there is no room for absolute power. Documents which relate to past decision-making, must … at a reasonable point in time, become available for public analysis. Long term secrecy is absurd as it essentially leaves no one alive to accept any responsibility for their actions. It seems that it would be reasonable to place a maximum ten year secrecy veil on high level classified documents which are non-military communications. It seems that at the end of a predetermined period, these documents should be published for public consumption- not simply “unlocked” on the chance that someone might ask for a specific one. After a reasonable wait, an elected President or his appointees would presumably be out of office, however they would still be alive and could be held accountable. This would certainly not appeal to those who intended to abuse their power and by definition would make Machiavelian or subversive activities less attractive to those considering them. Whilst there is in place in the US, a way for documents to be requested by the Press when investigating a story, there also seems to be multiple ways for the authorities to block access. The laws are only as good as the intent of those implementing them. Making once classified records public is greatly different than waiting for an investigative reporter to request a specific communication.
Current Democracies are in crisis. The public no longer knows who to believe on any issue. It forces us all to look at each decision with a skeptical eye and it has resulted in a total distrust of elected officials. This is an incredibly unhealthy state of affairs. It is necessary for the political pendulum to re-adjust in order to win back the faith of the public which needs to know that its basic institutions are intact and beyond repute.
None of this will happen without innovative leadership. Where are the voices of those who look to win back the trust of those who feel disabused? The need for those of courage who are prepared to defend the public is greater now than it has been in the past. With the cyber-space ability to spread untruths with the click of a button, the system needs to repair itself in order bto be seen as rock-solid.
Asking Congessmen, Members of Parliament or Knesset Members to lead this critical battle is unrealistic. It needs to come from a sitting President or Prime Minister…or from someone aspiring to fill that role in a forthcoming election. “Accountability” and “transparency” would be the perfect platform for an innovative candidate prepared to take the risk and display real leadership.
For free nations to flourish, they must have confidence of their people.
There is a massive task ahead for democratically elected world leaders to restore the trust which we all require. The cumulative mass international abuse of power has eroded that which we all hold dear. Younger generations don’t remember the events that have brought us to this crisis. Their cynicism is unfortunately well deserved and their trust must be earned anew.