Case Studies Detail Damaging Culture of Secrecy
Weinberg, Steve, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
Case studies detail damaging culture of secrecy
Reviewing "Nation of Secrets" by veteran investigative reporter Ted Gup is an assignment I wish I could have missed. You see, if those employed at government agencies, private-sector corporations and nominally not-for-profit institutions cared about the common good, they would practice transparency instead of secrecy as their default position. In such a world, Gup would not need to write a book called "Nation of Secrets."
Furthermore, if most journalists took seriously their job to ferret out hidden information while afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, they would invoke local, state and federal open-records laws far more vigorously than they do.
Instead, secrecy abounds in American society, while too many journalists do far too little to combat it effectively. Hence, Gup's book - which is thorough, thoughtful and practical - seems necessary.
The disturbing catalog of secrecy in Gup's book will sound familiar to regular readers of The IRE Journal, its sister publication, Uplink, and the IRE Web site. Gup moves far beyond cataloguing, however, to delve deep into the culture of secrecy that journalists and other U.S. citizens have allowed to grow.
The freshest, most practical parts of "Nation of Secrets" can be found in the case studies of the author's own battles against secrecy, as well as narratives of battles fought by others who care about a transparent society. Gup wrote lots of sensitive stories at The Washington Post and Time magazine. More recently, he has fought through barriers of secrecy as a freelancer writing about the Central Intelligence Agency and other bastions of darkness.
In the book's first case study, Gup highlights Melissa Mahle, who joined the CIA as a covert operative in 1 988. An Arabic speaker, Mahle received undercover assignments in the Persian Gulf. She found the secrecy seductive - never questioning how it could compromise democracy - until it began to work against her.
Even before her personal downfall, Mahle noticed the ramifications of secrecy within the agency. "The dichotomy of it is us-against-them," she told Gup, "but inside the building, it's a different game. Does that mean we use secrecy against each other? We certainly do. One of the tried-and-true tactical moves is if you are running an operation and all of a sudden someone is a critic and tries to put roadblocks up to your operation, you classify it and put it in a channel that that person doesn't have access to, and that's an abuse of classification." The result: ill-advised or downright illegal operations continued, shielded from constructive criticism.
After Mahle reported herself for violating a CIA rule regarding contact with foreign nationals, she hoped she could resume her operations. Instead, the agency dismissed her. Now she is forbidden from discussing the details ofthat dismissal and has experienced agency censorship of a book she wrote about her government service. She has learned, she told Gup, about the "strong inclination to use secrecy to cover up failure and to cover up bureaucratic practices that would not withstand scrutiny."
After sharing the Mahle case study, Gup offers the first of three chapters on the mindlessness of national security, as document after document is classified secret for no legitimate reason. If a report by a careful consultant tells the Defense Department that U.S. soldiers are needlessly dying in Iraq because of inadequate body armor, the attitude should be to disclose the shortcomings, prosecute the manufacturer and solve the problem. Instead, the attitude is to hide the report. To those familiar with classification abuse, it sometimes seems that the most common designation ought to be CYA, or "cover your ass."
In 1992, Gup broke a story about a government bunker buried beneath the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Members of Congress were to be sheltered there if an enemy destroyed Washington, D.C. Gup writes: "For 30 years the massive facility had been lovingly tended by a secret cadre of government communications and security experts posing as the resort's television repair crew. Over the decades, they had become increasingly cut off from the world. . . .In time it seemed that the enemy they feared the most was disclosure itself and the sundering of their secret world."
Gup's previous book ("The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA") is about government operatives killed in the line of duty. Until that book was published seven years ago, their identities remained secret because of alleged national security concerns. Gup explains the selectiveness of secrecy at the CIA. As he interviewed current and former CIA officers, "they would coyly provide clues that allowed me to quickly identify agency fatalities, but they would never utter or write down an actual name." Why? In some cases, at least, agents wanted to be able to pass a polygraph test by truthfully denying they had supplied names to Gup.
In the last section of "Nation of Secrets," Gup moves beyond the national security apparatus to show the complicity of journalists, university administrators, lawyers, judges and corporate executives in the maintenance of closed records and unnamed sources.
When a journalist penetrates the barriers, as Gup shows, the results can illuminate the excesses and inefficiencies of power in stunning ways. Gup receives tremendous reinforcement for that truism from Tim Weiner, a New York Times reporter who has conducted in-depth investigations of the Defense Department and the CIA. Weiner's new book, "Legacy of Ashes," exposes the CIA's decades-long incompetence, which accounts in part for the success of the 9/11 attacks.
In making that argument, Weiner avoids anonymous sources, blind quotations and hearsay; instead, he relies almost entirely on internal CIA documents. Weiner states that the book "is based on my reading of more than 50,000 documents, primarily from the archives of the CIA, the White House and the State Department; more than 2,000 oral histories of American intelligence officers, soldiers and diplomats; and more than 300 interviews conducted since 1987 with CIA officers and veterans, including 10 directors of central intelligence."
Weiner's endnotes constitute a textbook in themselves, comparable to "The Puzzle Palace" by James Bamford, the classic book that exposed the National Security Agency 25 years ago through skillful mining of public sources.
For example, in his chapter about the CIA's Iranian operations, an endnote explains the usefulness of "two classified CIA Clandestine Service histories." Weiner obtained a redacted copy of a 2003 report titled "Zindabad Shah!" The other is "Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran," written in 1954 by a CIA propaganda officer named Donald Wilber. Additional sources cited by Weiner regarding the CIA's Iranian operations include Soviet intelligence reports as revealed by Vladislav M. Zubok in an article for the journal Diplomatic History; the private personal papers of Gen. Robert McClure, as summarized in a book by military historian Alfred H. Paddock Jr., available from the National Defense University Press; a memorandum from President Dwight Eisenhower to Army Secretary Robert Ten Broeck Stevens, available in the Eisenhower papers; and recollections from named individuals in a Foreign Affairs Oral History Program collection created by Charles Stuart Kennedy, a retired Foreign Service officer.
All his research allowed Weiner to disclose the CIA's deepest secret and state it with confidence: Despite all its propaganda, for the 60 years of its existence the CIA has proved itself nearly worthless when it comes to fulfilling its mission.
BY STEVE WEINBERG
THE IRE JOURNAL
Steve Weinberg is senior contributing editor to The IRE Journal and a former executive director of IRE.…
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Publication information: Article title: Case Studies Detail Damaging Culture of Secrecy. Contributors: Weinberg, Steve - Author. Magazine title: Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal. Volume: 30. Issue: 5 Publication date: September/October 2007. Page number: 34+. © Investigative Reporters & Editors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.