Scott Horton on How Secrecy Erodes the Ability to Wage War

In his latest book, Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare, Harper’s scribe and Columbia University legal scholar Scott Horton writes that government secrecy and lack of public input are undermining the democratic process for going to war.

You write that in most democracies “the people have no say about whether their nation goes to war or makes peace.” There’s a whole literature on this within academic circles, about whether democracies are thus less likely to go to war or win in crisis bargaining because democrats face greater “audience costs.” My question though is, given that two-thirds of Americans thought Saddam attacked us on 9/11, why do we want to open up decisions to go to war to the public?

The answer is not simply that people should take a vote on something like war. But there needs to be a process of informing the public, then discussing the issues, then making a decision. It’s not a matter of conducting a snap poll to make decisions. The core concept of a knowledge-based democracy is partaking in decisions to make war. But the process of informing them is an indispensable prerequisite. Secrecy negates this entire process. It makes it impossible to have this informed public process. I’m also not so sure that democracies fight fewer wars.

Indeed, you describe this contradiction at the heart of our democracy’s ability to, in effect, wage war. Namely, that we cannot know too much or else it would endanger our safety. Yet with this veil of ignorance, we cannot make fully-informed decisions about war and peace. So there’s a kind of “just trust us” aspect to how government and its national security apparatus is run.

Correct. I don’t believe in trusting the government. That’s the fundamental point. I believe in forcing governments to disclose information so it can be vetted and criticized and so we can make decisions. The leadup to the Iraq War provides a great example of the mischief that invocations of secrecy can play. In particular we had one man, Richard Cheney, trying to make the case for invading Iraq on the back of claims that al-Qaeda was in some alliance with Saddam Hussein and that Iraqis were building WMDs, and insisting on all sorts of secrets.

Right, so you describe this need to over-classify everything within some sectors of the government’s national security agencies as classified. You write that “Secrecy is highly corrosive to any democracy.” But don’t we need some secrecy?

There are three areas in particular where secrecy is justified: Sophisticated weapons systems, cryptography, and the methods and means of intelligence acquisition. But even here, there are exceptions. This has been an accelerating problem since 1996 and the sheer quantity of classified information. We’re now spending $11 billion a year to keep it classified. The majority of it shouldn’t be classified. We’ve created a huge problem because we have key policy issues that need to be discussed but because it’s unavailable [to the public], we can’t discuss it.

You’d like to see more congressional oversight over matters of war and peace and decisions to use force. Given the dysfunction of this Congress, do we really want them to have a veto over such decisions when they can barely pass the most meaningless of legislation? Wouldn’t it needlessly politicize such decisions and turn every crisis abroad into the next Benghazi?

No. I don’t assume that Congress does all of this well. But I argue that all these pieces fit together. A well-informed and deeply engaged citizenry, as well as a press deeply engaged to discuss issues, makes it more difficult for lawmakers to deal with this issue irresponsibly. All these pieces have to be changed at the same time. They all interrelate. Congress doesn’t deal with these issues responsibly unless there’s public pressure to do so. We have also seen the distorting element of campaign finance. If you look at key up-or-down votes of issues of consequence to the National Security Agency, one factor that would allow you to reliably predict  how [lawmakers] vote was how much money they took from the intelligence and defense communities.

Let’s discuss the accusations against General David Petraeus, who is facing felony charges by the FBI for illegally passing along classified information when he ran the CIA. But is that just our obsession with secrecy and what he did was pretty innocuous? Or, as Glenn Greenwald and others have pointed out, does this episode just show the hypocrisy of the Obama administration, since it’s gone after Petraeus with kid gloves whereas it’s pursued journalists like James Risen and whistleblowers quite aggressively in the name of protecting state secrets?

I would start by noting that there’s been an internal investigation, not a decision to bring charges. That rests with Eric Holder. That fact alone shows their claim that there is no political element is risible. These decisions are essentially political. But that’s OK. These sorts of prosecutorial decisions should be subjected to political raison d’êtat, or interest of state. We have a criminal statute that would allow them to pursue thousands of cases every year against virtually everybody at senior levels of the national security establishment. Instead we are getting a relatively modest number of cases. What are the rules the justice department is using on whom to go after? This is why Eric Holder is in an embarrassing position – because the Justice Department has not provided an explanation for what cases it takes and what cases it rejects. Now, did the leak do some damage? Why should we care about leaks that did not do any damage to national security? The answer, as usual, is: We don’t know because it’s all classified and they can’t tell us. Dianne Feinstein says it didn’t present any harm. It’s highly embarrassing to Petraeus, but I haven’t seen anything that merits a serious investigation, much less prosecution.

Your book opens with the lack of public discussion about the decision to intervene in Libya in 2011. Full disclosure: I fully supported that decision, but maybe disagreed with every decision Obama’s made since then, barring maybe opening up Cuba. But you make it sounds as if there were these evildoers in the Pentagon or CIA, these so-called “lords of secrecy,” who were withholding the truth to just launch a war for fun’s sake.

I don’t think it’s conspiratorial. They don’t even agree on the issues themselves. If you look at Libya, the “lords of secrecy” were split down the middle. Senior figures in the Pentagon were opposed to it. The director of the CIA was opposed. But others [in the administration] were for it. The question is who’s involved in consultation and advising the president for making this decision, and is there a public or a congressional process? Instead of trying to build public support for his initiatives, he is only focused on what the heads of the national security community think. He didn’t give an Oval Office speech or put his case for action to the public. This represents a dangerous departure from past wars.

Really? Did Reagan really go before the American people to explain why we went into, say, Grenada?

Yes, go back and look at Reagan. He made a speech on why he was authorizing a military operation in Grenada. He called in congressional leaders. That was an extremely limited operation. It had to do with freeing American college students supposedly in harm’s way who were under threat. Reagan also made such statements before the decision to bomb Libya [in 1986]. You see Obama taking the other approach to avoid building up public interest in the matter. There was even an April 1, 2011 [OLC opinion] that stated there were no American soldiers at risk of being injured or killed [in Libya] so the legitimate interest of the public was less [in Libya].

You write that “[c]onflicts that involve lower-profile military engagement are managed by largely anonymous national security elites.” I remember a friend at the NSC, one of these “elites” you describe in your book, and how his eyes roll whenever I raise the “world isn’t that dangerous” line. He is privy to a lot of classified intelligence and so he paints this doom-and-gloom picture of all these enemies out to get us. Is his view of the world as a dangerous place correct, and if so, doesn’t that in some way justify all the questionable extra-legal stuff our government does to protect us?

Does it justify an authoritarian state dispensing with democracy? No, it does not. [Your friend] may take into account pieces of intel that he may not be in a position to share with us, the public. That’s true. But frequently as not these tidbits of highly classified information turn out to be wrong and lead you in an incorrect direction and if they were exposed and discussed and questioned you might come to very different conclusions. Elites are often very sure about their analysis. The Vietnam War is an example, if you read David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest. Vietnam was the first war designed and led by a national security elite where they avoided public input.

I don’t believe in trusting the government. That’s the fundamental point. I believe in forcing governments to disclose lots of information so it can be vetted and criticized and so we can make decisions on it.

I think McGeorge’s Bundy recent memoir, Lessons in Disaster, also highlights this point.

Yes, and the point made at the end about Bundy was that this decision to avoid democratic debate and process was a colossal mistake.

Is it simply a question of scale? Is our national security infrastructure just too big and unwieldy? I’ll never forget that devastating Washington Post exposé of all the overlapping agencies in the national security establishment that basically replicate one another.

Scale is a part of it, but also what information is available outside the Beltway and what public discussions we can have. I think of the CIA’s covert warfare. The agency is authorized to conduct covert operations but it’s not supposed to be running ten-year campaigns with hundreds of strikes and thousands of casualties. There’s no public discussion of this. Political leaders cannot even say there is a drone war in Pakistan.

But implicit in your central argument is this assumption that more pubic input would put a brake on decisions to use force. I’m not so sure. For instance, the public overwhelmingly is in favor of drone strikes.

No they’re not. The opposite is the case.

But polls show that over 80% of Americans are in favor of drone strikes.

We’re talking globalthere’s overwhelming opposition to drones. Americans are the least informed audience globally. They know less than almost any other country in the world. So you get a distorted understanding in the U.S. because it’s all classified. Because of that you get press reports about what Langley wants you to hear. If Americans were better informed about what’s going on and whether the program, as it’s being run, is a reasonable one [these poll results would be different]. Everything is framed as whether a strike achieved its tactical objective and a report as leaked to the press by Langley is always that it did. But that often is followed up with more accurate reporting from the ground that says it didn’t. But what about broader discussions of what this ten-year campaign has achieved? If you looked at this, it has had some clear effects: It has turned people in Pakistan across the political spectrum against the U.S. It has allowed Islamist radicals in [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] to bond with peripheral tribals in a way they never could have hoped for. If you had a frank discussion, the conclusions would be obvious. [The program] was never presented as “Let’s wage a ten-year-war in Pakistan using drones.” Our entry into that war just sort of happened and then there was no fair or frank discussion of the merits or the results. Because it’s covert, we can’t have that discussion, and that’s fundamentally wrong.

Let’s shift subjects slightly. You mention the role of military contractors – which is now a $100 billion business. Here I guess you mean the Blackwaters of the world but also probably the less chesty private consultants sent to war zones to advise and basically get overpaid for dispensing war advice. But mercenaries, as you fully know, have been around for centuries. What’s new about today’s PSCs (private security companies)?

The citizen soldier is the ideal model since the time of the American Revolution – the soldier who goes to war to fight for patriotic motives as a representative of his country and not for commercial motives, who could be counted on and is reliable and trained and where service of that person is part of a political bond that unites him to his democracy. That’s a fundamental aspect of American democracy. If you just look at our military budget and how the money is spent, you’ll see a staggering reallocation from our uniformed military to military contractors. Consider the “boots on the ground” over the last few conflicts and you see the relationship between contractors and the uniformed military shifting dramatically. Over the last few years of the war in Afghanistan, contractors have outnumbered the uniformed military. When did the country have a public discussion to approve all of that?


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