Pentagon Morality

As a standard-bearer for responsible disclosure, Wikileaks is a deeply flawed organization. Too much Julian Assange’s brainchild, its moralizing and the obvious glee in spiting institutions it exposes serves only to undercut the often important information Wikileaks brings to light. I suspect that its high-profile will only serve to make sources, like Bradley Manning, more reticent about sharing classified information. This is especially true in light of the fact that the Afghanistan war documents apparently compromised the identity of some Afghans who have aided NATO forces. What conscience-driven whistle-blower is going to entrust information that could harm comrades and allies to an organization that does not respect the import of the information? Wikileaks may have harmed its mission.

This all looks rather bad until you consider its adversary, the Department of Defense. The other day, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell demanded that Wikileaks “do the right thing” by returning the leaked information to the DoD, and removing it from Wikileaks’ website and computers. It was when the DoD invoked the justice and morality of its cause that I remembered exactly why an organization like Wikileaks is so important.

The only reason the government is appealing to Assange’s and Wikileaks’ better angels is because, for once, it has absolutely no coercive power or legal protection. Men like Morrell or Adm. Mullen are shocked, shocked that an organization devoted to the disclosure of classified information would leak information that offers insight into American operations and might reveal the identity and methods of classified sources. Missing from this self-righteous anger is an acknowledgment that the government has made a habit of classifying any information that sits still long enough for its lawyers to get to it. We need leakers and snoops to steal government information because the government has long since stopped providing it legally.

Where was this dedication to “the right thing” when the US kidnapped Maher Arar? Or sent him abroad to be tortured? Where was justice when it came time to hear his case in court? Nowhere, because “national security” means the government can do as it damned well pleases.

When Reuters used the Freedom of Information Act to inquire exactly why in the hell two of its Baghdad bureau reporters were slaughtered by American gunships, did the DoD own up to what had happened? Of course not. They gave assurances that the shooting was in accordance with the rules of engagement, and blew off the FOIA request. It only became a problem once Wikileaks released a video showing the shitty judgment and half-assed oversight that led to the killing.

(If you’re going to offer a “we can’t judge” defense or complain that the video doesn’t show enough conquest, save us both some time and don’t. From 7:30 on the long version of the video, it’s an unambiguous fuckup.)

Then we have the Obama administration descending on leakers and whistle-blowers with the zeal of the Inquisition. This isn’t just about people ratting out his administration, it’s going after people who called the Bush administration on illegal activity and waste. Now it’s true that there are proper channels for employees to take their grievances, but proper channels are worthless if they’re controlled by the same corrupt people you’re trying to expose. In such cases, speaking truth to power is a quick way to ruin your career. Maybe your life. So it’s little wonder that troubled federal employees choose to go the press. Or, to even better protect their anonymity, go to Wikileaks.

But, come on Wikileaks, do the right thing.

    • Spades
    • August 6th, 2010 11:10am

    This whole leak thing ain’t a big deal. The only real harm that has come from it was the fact that Wikileaks revealed the names and locations of various Afghan informers and translators who aided US armed forces. To be honest I hope that the founder of Wikileaks (who was the one who divulged the info to the public) should get arrested. Really what is the big deal? Its not like troops were killing civilians on purpose. Accidents happen! As far as I’m concerned I really can’t critique any of the soldiers here.

      • Flitcraft
      • August 6th, 2010 3:26pm

      The great thing about the video of the gunship killing those reporters, good Samaritans, and wounding those children is it gives us an idea of what it looks like when “accidents happen”, and how they happen. So when you mistakenly kill a dozen people with your multi-million dollar gunship, while not under enemy fire and facing no apparent threat, it allows people like you and me to watch and reach the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, accidents don’t just “happen.” Maybe sometimes mistakes are the product of poor judgment, over-eager trigger fingers, and disregard for the lives of the civilians who live in the war zone. A disregard you apparently share.

      But this is really all off-topic. My point is that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies have fallen in love with secrecy, as a shield to cover up mistakes and crimes. And the things that emerge when that secrecy is breached are bad enough to make me wonder what else is being withheld, and why. As I tried to point out above, there have been a great many serious abuses of power during this war, and nobody is being held to account except the folks who try to expose them.

      So I hope Wikileaks keeps operating, because while some of the leaks might be problematic, they’re nowhere near as bad as the secrets the government keeps as a matter of course.

    • Spades
    • August 6th, 2010 4:15pm

    Listen just cause I’m not bleeding my heart out for a bunch of people I don’t even know or have even met doesn’t mean I don’t care whether civilians die or not. I’m just saying that these are mistakes. The reason why I rarely criticize troops for there actions or for their mistakes and why I rarely agree with critiques about troops is becuase I don’t know what it is like out there and neither do you. You and I don’t know what it is like to load up into a Humvee and go out in patrol and get hit by an IED or a stray mortar round. It is easy to criticize troops for these mistakes when you and I are sitting here comfortably in our homes, not faced with the prospect of death coming to take us at any moment, not faced with the deaths of our close friends, and certainly not faced with the frustration of dealing with unconventional warfare and having restrictions (ROE) placed on how you fight and at what times you can engage. That is probably why those guys in that video about accidently killing civilians were so trigger happy. Imagine it: getting hit with mortar rounds and IEDS all day long but finally having a chance of getting revenge on what you assume to be “Them”.

    It is pretty clear that in that video that those gunship operators let their emotions get the best of them. That isn’t the professional way of handling things but its understandable to say the least. Now does that mean I think the killing is be justified? No. I simply see it for what it is: a mistake.

    As for the whole government keeping secrets thing I have to ask: What else is new? The government always keeps secrets and really what does it matter? So what if a bunch of JSOC (Joint Special Operation Command) guys are hunting down Taliban leaders and are either killing them on the spot or capturing them so that they can be tortured for information (this stuff was among the info from the Wikileaks documents). These guys are the elite. The best we have in our armed forces. They know what to do and are very disciplined. Hell I’m fine with their witch hunt. It is a direct way to cripple the enemy.

    It is war. The Taliban are the enemy. It is not like they are an honorable adversary. They have suicide bombers and before NATO came in they controlled most of Afghanistan through violence. That is just the tip of the iceberg of what they have done. Why should we show them compassion in the first place? The Afghanistan War is justifiable in my mind. They attacked us and we retaliated. Am I saying that any event in which we accidently kill a civilian or groups of civilians it is justifiable? No. I simply see it as a mistake. Is the mistake thing always true? No there are times in which troops have killed civilians on purpose and I definately don’t see these events as justifiable or understandable. The soldiers or Marines that purposely kill civilians should go to jail.

    I simply feel that when it comes to war I rarely criticize our troops or our government. I just let them do what they got to do and thats all. If they make mistakes like that then that is what they are, mistakes. Thats all.

      • Flitcraft
      • August 6th, 2010 5:04pm

      I simply feel that when it comes to war I rarely criticize our troops or our government. I just let them do what they got to do and thats all.

      Yeah, I think you’ve made that pretty clear. You hero-worship the troops, have no interest in whether or not all this military activity is going to produce any positive results, and refuse to question anything the government does in the course of a war. Your commitment to passivity and indifference is impressive.

      My original post wasn’t about the decisions of soldiers on a battlefield, but the government’s habit of using secrecy to evade debate or accountability. You latched onto a single paragraph and made the entire debate about that, but you’re not coming within hailing distance of the point I was making. It’s evident that you want everything to be about fighting the Taliban, which just goes to show that I’m talking about the forest while you’re fixating on the trees.

        • Spades
        • August 6th, 2010 5:34pm

        That is the thing though. The government always keeps secrets and even if they revealed to us all of these things (civilians getting killed by accident or an airstrike that didn’t quite make the mark) what difference would it make? Sure the American opinion of the war is more negative then before but the civilians are still going to get killed by accident and the airstrikes are still gonna miss and hit the wrong targets. Sure some people are going to try and denounce the war by using this event as evidence that the war is simply unjustifiable and the government is lying to us constantly but really what difference does it make? The protestors who don’t have any really emotional or physical connection to the war or war in general will eventually lose interest and slump back into the uncaring and indifferent state that they were in before. People who just started to denounce the war due to this event or began to question it will simply forget about it. The media will forget about it and eventually the rest of the country will forget about it or at least begin to think that it wasn’t that big of a deal.

        That is why I am so passive when it comes to war and how the government deals with it. Sure I can get up and try to make a difference or at least acknowledge that they are making serious mistakes or covering things up but really what good will that do? Nothing at all. So why even bother? The government will always cover things up whether we make a stance on the issue or not.

        What I’m trying to say is that the government can do what it wants behind our backs. They have a knack for covering stuff up and while the documents are shocking, it isn’t suprising that the government would try to cover them up. They can and ALWAYS will do stuff like this. Is it justifiable or undertsandable? No I don’t think so. But it is a fact of life and I have learned to accept it.

        Also the reason why I “hero worship” troops is because they fight for our country and risk their lives everyday for us. The least I could do is show them some respect.

          • Flitcraft
          • August 6th, 2010 6:00pm

          Respect is all well and good, but how far up the chain of command does it extend? A lot of the people responsible for the worst abuses or excesses of the wars are not the people risking their lives. They are officials at the Pentagon, or they are staff officers at CentCom, or they are commanders in Kabul and Baghdad. It always sounds like you’re accusing me of wanting to haul lieutenants and enlisted men before a war crimes tribunal, but the truth is that I don’t think they’re the problem. On their level, I totally understand that a mistake is a mistake.

          But who authorized those gunship pilots to open fire without asking for more details? Or more importantly, who gave those pilots rules of engagement that let them identify that van as a threat? It’s not just that those pilots made a mistake, but that it’s like they weren’t even taking time to make important distinctions.

          But let’s get away from the battlefield for a minute. Can we at least agree that snatching a guy out of an airport and sending him to Syria to be tortured is seriously fucked up? The guy was completely innocent, and we locked him up and tortured him for a year for no good reasons. And he can’t bring suit in an American court because it would “expose state secrets”. Or the fact that the government repeatedly attempts to deny detainees the right to challenge their detention, despite the fact that we get a lot of prisoners without really knowing anything about them or how they were taken. These are grave injustices, and rather than working to correct them, we get the “sorry, we can’t do anything about it because of secrets and security” excuse.

          I understand better why you’re indifferent about this stuff. The government does pull shady stuff all the time, and it frequently gets away with it. But I can’t look the other way. Some of this is just regrettable, and some of it is a national disgrace. And as long as it’s going on, I really feel that citizens have a responsibility to call attention to it and ask that it stop. Otherwise, I think we’re guilty of giving tacit permission to law-breaking.

          Here’s the kicker, though: I think letting the government break laws and keep tons of secrets makes us less safe, harms our chances of defeating enemies like the Taliban, and weakens our ability to make the efforts necessary to win wars. Because secrecy hides incompetence and mistakes, and incompetence is only punished when it is exposed. Mistakes are only corrected when someone notices them.

    • Spades
    • August 6th, 2010 7:03pm

    I never knew about that torturing incident. I do indeed agree that it is messed up. Also the argument that we (as a people) should come together and protest against the government covering things up like the documents Wikileaks has released. However there are some things we simply can not change An example of that would be the government’s habit of covering things up or bending the truth. They do it all the time and even if we all took a stance that turns out to be successful, they will still do it. Its just that this time they’ll do it in a more discreet and nonconspicous manner. They’ll be have tighter information security.

    As for the gunship incident I still think it isn’t my place to criticize. There is a very good reason why. Have you ever read the book “The Good Soldiers”? There is a chapter that covers this incident but it is from the perspective of the troops on the ground. Apparently hours or so before the incident the area was hot with gunfire and explosions. Naturally this means that the troops were on the edge so they “loosened up” their ROE. These gunship operators were clearly on the edge too. They messed up. They were either too trigger happy or their trigger fingers were too twitchy. I think I misinterpreted your post Rob. I thought you were criticizing these gunship operators because you expect them to be perfect and make no mistakes. I have a better understanding now. There need to be reprucussions for incidents like this so that they don’t happen as often as they do.

    I also think you misinterpreted my thoughts on how the government conducts war. I said that I RARELY criticize the government when it comes to its conduction of war. I remember watching a scene from Fahrenheit 9/11 about how US troops in the early phases of the Iraq War would usually come in the middle of the night and snatch up people who were suspected of being insurgents or at least being sympathizers to the insurgent cause. They would then take these people and dump them into to prisons to be interrogated or tortured for information. Families who were victims to these night pickups often didin’t see their snatched up relatives for weeks, months, or even years.

    • Spades
    • August 6th, 2010 9:37pm

    I think that in the history books of the future Iraq will be our generation’s Vietnam and Afghanistan will be our WW2. Iraq will be the war in the history books that will probably get one whole paragrapgh or at least a page while Afghanistan will probably get 3 or 4 pages. All of the failures caused and mistakes made by the Bush and Obama Administrations will be omitted and only the victories will remain. I hate it when that happens. :(

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