Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Leaky Government, the Safest Kind There Is

I’m not sure what all the fuss and bother is about this or that administration leak.  When I look back on this presidency, or almost any that preceded it, I’m stunned by just how close we may have come to total disaster were it not for the leakers. James Reston famously said that “a government is the only vessel that leaks from the top” and thank goodness for that.


At the very end of the Clinton administration, in fact the last few days, Congress passed a bill that would make it a crime to leak any classified government information, including stuff from whistle-blowers and even ambassadors. To his everlasting credit, Clinton vetoed the bill, saying that it would
“unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.” There seems always to be a patriot at hand when we really need one. Ten weeks later, George W. Bush sat himself in the presidential chair, so that’s how close we came to chilling legitimate activities.


It was an accident on the part of Congress, a misjudgment of ten weeks that would have substantially changed our history. Congress passed the legislation by voice-vote. You always know they're guilty as hell when they operate by voice-vote.


Not to drag this to too fine a point, but the bill Clinton vetoed would have made it a crime to disclose (read that leak) any classified information regardless of its effect or the reason for disclosure. It takes nothing more than a rubber stamp marked ‘classified’ to meet that criteria.  Thus substantially all of the revelations that have brought GW down to his present level of acceptance would have been kept from the public, save for the veto of this outrageous bill.


At the time, CIA Director George Tenet complained to the Congress that government ‘leaked like a sieve.’ George was the overzealous keeper of a whole bunch of secrets, starting with the secret that Saddam actually had no weapons of mass destruction (true), our troops would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators (false), there would be no substantial ongoing resistance (false) and casualties both civilian and military could be kept to a minimum (false). The only thing he was right about was that government, particularly the CIA, does indeed leak like a sieve, which prevented us from torturing our way through the entire war.


The Vietnam War came apart as the lies of the Johnson administration were leaked, so damaging and personally wounding that president that he declined to run for re-election. Leaks brought down a stonewalling Nixon government as well. Leaks nearly, but not quite, brought down Tony Blair and his ministry. All of these are, arguably, examples that deserved a thorough airing in the light of day. But they are the big ones, the showy illustrations that are easily remembered. The important leaks, the ones that protect our freedoms and expose our ethical lapses are filtered out to (who else?) an interested press.


It's absurd to me to equate freedom of speech with the freedom to burn a flag or pay off our legislators. Freedom of speech is (for me) the freedom to leak information and the freedom to take that leaked information and print it. Within limits, but the limits are very few. I would rather trust the press to judge those limits than the government.


We come to everything late in this magnificent country of ours and that’s probably a strength as well.  Roughly half of the electorate was aghast at what was being done in the name of conservative politics during George Bush’s first term. Manipulating an admittedly easily manipulated Democrat opponent, Karl Rove was able to engineer a second (this time actual) election of Mr. Bush. The neoconservatives had everything under control, the second term on autopilot and no worries. In ten short months the whole fabric of neocon government began to come apart like a cheap sweater.


It came apart because of it's inability to keep secrets.


I don’t know where we go from here. There are certainly more political variables than were evident just a few months ago. But I am confident that we will right ourselves, come back around to our core values and begin the work of regaining our international reputation. Terrorist activities are not permanently gone from our shores, but terrorist activities were never what this was all about, they were merely the screen.


The screen is not yet gone either, but it is less opaque.
______________________________________________________


See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.