Book Reviews

Secrets and Lies

Secrecy is necessary in the battle against terrorism. But a little transparency about secrecy ought to be possible.

By Tara McKelvey

Tagged Civil Libertiesnational security

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State By Dana Priest and William M. Arkin • Little, Brown and Company • 2011 • 320 pages • $27.99
Fixing the Facts By Joshua Rovner • Cornell University Press • 2011 • 280 pages • $35

Sitting in his office in Rawalpindi one day last fall, General Athar Abbas, the military spokesman for the Pakistani Army, told me how fed up he was with American officials talking to the press about security issues. “If the statements were to be given in private, they would be just as loud and clear,” Abbas said of the information that was being shared. But with their instinctive tendency toward openness, Americans were making negotiations over security issues harder by being so forthcoming to journalists. Pakistani officials got even angrier when Admiral Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in September that the Pakistani military had been linked to a terrorist attack, apparently to force them into severing their ties with militants. They derided his statement, making it clear that they intended to maintain their ties with leaders of certain terrorist groups, and underscored Abbas’s point that these discussions are most effective when they take place behind closed doors.

Like any tool, secrecy can be used for good or evil. Officials have to keep some activities under wraps in order to protect the lives of Americans and others who are involved in risky operations abroad. Unfortunately, officials also use secrecy and its corollary, the selective release of classified information, in a destructive way—as a cudgel to beat others into submission, the way that Mullen tried (and failed) to do to the Pakistani officials, or as a way to cover up incompetent or even criminal acts.

Two new books, Top Secret America and Fixing the Facts, examine the subjects of secrecy and transparency, issues that have vexed Abbas and other officials in Rawalpindi and that have also been a source of tremendous and ongoing tension in Washington. Abbas may have found Americans too willing to be open, but standard operating procedure for the American security apparatus is not too far from what the Pakistanis prefer: Secrecy is, in fact, our norm. President George W. Bush was notoriously secretive while he was in the White House, hiding information about the harsh treatment of detainees, CIA-run black sites, and other shameful government acts.

Barack Obama ran on a platform of transparency and promised to pull back the curtains on the government. As it turns out, promising to be open is easier than carrying out that mandate when you’re President, and Obama, like those who served in the White House before him, has discovered that secrecy is a powerful weapon. He has arguably been more focused on maintaining discretion in his Administration than his predecessor was, bludgeoning dissenters for speaking to the press with legal threats and prosecuting more people for leaks than any President before him. President Bush began inquiries into the case of Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency official who had contacted a Baltimore Sun reporter about his efforts to reduce government waste, but President Obama decided to prosecute. In addition, other officials, including an FBI translator, have been punished for leaking documents to the press in Obama’s aggressive campaign to keep secrets from journalists.

Nobody expects the President to reveal everything that he is doing; still, Obama has ramped up the number of covert operations that the CIA conducts to an unprecedented degree, already authorizing more than four times as many drone strikes in Pakistan, for example, as Bush did during his entire two terms in office. The secrecy surrounding these operations has made it difficult for journalists to cover the story and also for Americans to evaluate whether or not this strategy is worthwhile. Taken on an individual basis, these operations should naturally remain secret in order to protect the Americans who are involved in them. But when covert operations are conducted for years, and are administered on a scale this vast, the President should make an attempt to clarify their legal foundation and to provide this information to the media; Americans could then make an informed decision about the extent of their use and whether or not these kinds of operations are consistent with the principles and values of the United States.

In Fixing the Facts, Joshua Rovner, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, lands squarely on the side of the Pakistani general, at least when it comes to discretion. Rovner states that American officials should take greater care to keep quiet about security and intelligence issues because if these matters are discussed only privately, as Abbas has requested, ordinary people will not have a chance to squabble over them. The President and his deputies thus will be able to manage delicate issues in a way that serves the long-term interests of the country and not the short-term goals of domestic politics. In contrast, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin warn against the dangers of this kind of approach to national security in Top Secret America. They argue that there has been entirely too much secrecy in Washington in recent years and that this new, turbo-charged subterfuge has led to a bloated bureaucracy, overspending, and ineffective governance.

Government secrecy is an important and urgent topic. To be completely open and transparent about the subject at hand, however, neither book is much fun to read. Top Secret America has a staccato style and is woven around data points rather than characters or scenes; it reads like newspaper articles that have been cobbled together (indeed, the book is based on an award-winning Post series) and never coheres into an engaging narrative. Meanwhile, Fixing the Facts is dense and punishing, like the prose in a lumbering college textbook. Despite their stylistic weaknesses, though, both of these books make valuable contributions to the field of secrecy and are worth the slog.

As a reporter for the Post, Priest broke the story about the CIA black sites, an archipelago of secret prisons that were located in Europe and Asia, and other shocking aspects of the global war on terror. In Top Secret America, she and Arkin examine the machinery behind national-security policy in Washington and crack the cone of silence that surrounds this kind of government work. Much of the research for the book was drawn from databases compiled from public records that track staffers, consultants, and others who work for the CIA, FBI, and other federal agencies that have either been created or expanded since 9/11.

In addition, the authors interviewed hundreds of individuals who work in the intelligence industry. Priest comes across “buildings without addresses, offices without floors, acronyms without explanation,” many of which blend into the suburban neighborhoods of Maryland and Virginia, and tracks down mysterious companies that are not listed in building rosters, populated by office workers who focus on “Special Programs,” a term, she explains, that “had originated at the dawn of the nuclear age.” She visits a Maryland bar where people who work for the National Security Agency hang out, as well as undercover agents who, a source tells her, are there “to make sure no one is saying too much.” She also reveals details about major figures in this top-secret world, such as General Stanley McChrystal, who chewed his nails, “got bored easily,” and had a “17-5-2” time-management plan, which entailed 17 hours a day for work, five for sleep, and two for eating and exercising; she also reveals that he “considered his Ranger vow never to leave a fallen comrade behind more binding even than his marriage vows.”

As those details suggest, Priest is a formidable investigative journalist. Indeed, she and Arkin have compiled an unprecedented amount of information about secret government operations in their own database (available on The Washington Post website), an invaluable resource that other journalists and secrecy experts have used. They are also crystal clear about one thing: The government’s propensity for keeping so much of its bureaucratic activities under wraps, especially when it comes to national security, is dangerous. “Why would anyone just simply trust the government with all that power and responsibility?” she asks.

But Priest’s instincts as an investigative journalist also paradoxically blind her to the bigger story—namely, the long-term repercussions of these covert operations and their impact on individuals, both here and abroad, and on the principles and values of the United States. Filled with impressive granular detail, Top Secret America never takes a step back to get a grand perspective of the national-security landscape—to look beyond the fact of secrecy itself. Throughout the book, Priest and Arkin eagerly tell the reader what they have exposed, cataloguing a list of hidden acts unveiled. But considering what they find, the lack of an urgent and comprehensive reckoning with—even moral disgust at—the norm of American security policy is conspicuous.

The problem may lie in how close the authors seem to be to their sources. The book suffers from the occasional lapse in tone, with Priest and Arkin sounding more like cheerleaders for the government than dispassionate journalists. Take, for instance, Arkin’s reporting from an air base in Doha, Qatar in 2008—a visit he made at the time he was writing a study sponsored by the Air Force. Arkin’s excitement is palpable, and he writes sympathetically about the people who are trying to kill terrorist suspects, to the point of seemingly sharing their impatience with obstacles they have to overcome in order to launch a lethal strike: positive identification, “visual chain of custody,” “collateral damage estimates,” and approval from the chain of command. He might have felt differently about all of those obstacles if he had been on the ground in Waziristan where the missiles were landing.

Priest, too, shows solidarity with her government sources. In one conversation, a source tells her about some of the harsh techniques that were being used on detainees during interrogations. Curiously, Priest does not ask about the prisoners; instead, she expresses sympathy for the Americans. “Must be hard on them,” she says. She may have been trying to win the confidence of her source but the impression such a scene leaves a reader is that she and her source are on the same team.

Early in the book, Priest talks about how Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, said that the CIA had been granted greater “flexibility” in its treatment of terrorism suspects after the terrorist attacks: “I have to say that—all you need to know—there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off.” Then Priest describes her reaction to Black’s remarks: “Most people focused on the references to the gloves coming off, which was certainly an enticing statement,” she writes. “But I couldn’t forget that other phrase, ‘all you need to know.’”

Priest appears to be proud that she noticed something in Black’s statement that others did not. But it’s telling she fixates on that phrase rather than the more alarming revelation: “the gloves came off.” And it’s telling too that she found that statement enticing. Many people found Black’s description chilling rather than enticing, and were appalled by what he was doing in the name of national security. They were less worked up about the fact that he wanted to keep these operations secret, and more disturbed about why: because CIA case officers were acting in a savage manner toward detainees, and Black did not want people to know what they were doing.

In Fixing the Facts, Rovner takes the other side of the secrecy argument, claiming that information about national security should be jealously guarded. His book examines the “pathology” of politicization in national security—or, he writes, “the attempt to manipulate intelligence so that it reflects policy preferences.” Some policy-makers, he claims, believe “‘intelligence can be used the way a drunk uses a lamp post—for support rather than illumination,’” citing Thomas L. Hughes, author of The Fate of Facts in a World of Men.

Rovner’s book examines the decision-making of several presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, who continued to send troops to Vietnam despite overwhelming public opposition; Gerald R. Ford, who overhyped the Soviet threat; and Bush, who manipulated intelligence to bolster his case for invading Iraq.

Carefully documented and extensively researched, Fixing the Facts argues that intelligence is less likely to be politicized when sensitive national-security issues are kept away from the public. “Politicization occurred in every case in this study after intelligence estimates became the subject of public debate,” he writes. “The White House was willing to accept discomfiting intelligence on Vietnam as late as 1966, but not after it began to publicly defend its strategy by citing favorable intelligence on the course of the war.” He argues that presidents will make better decisions about national security if they are able to discuss issues and examine intelligence in a private manner, untainted by public squabbling. “Reestablishing the norm of secrecy will reduce the incidence of politicization without damaging the quality of public debate,” he writes in the last sentence of the book.

Abbas would agree. But it seems unlikely that American officials will ever be able to keep these kinds of policy discussions entirely private and hidden away from the public, nor should they. Many national-security issues, such as the amount of taxpayer dollars invested in homeland security, should be discussed in the open.

Both books offer compelling evidence to make their case, but neither goes far enough in its arguments. The issue lies not in the amount of secrecy, whether too much or too little, but in how secrecy and transparency are used by presidents to promote an agenda. The most glaring example is the way presidents have used the media to put a positive spin on secret counterterrorism operations. Priest and Arkin claim that the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose operators hunt down and kill terrorists around the world, works in the shadows and receives little acknowledgement, except when things go wrong. “In contrast to its successes, which usually went unpublicized, JSOC’s mistakes reverberated around the world,” they write.

In fact, the opposite is true. It is difficult if not impossible to analyze the night raids in Afghanistan in which special operators have accidentally killed or injured innocent people, for example, because commanders have released little information about such actions. And yet successful black operations have been trumpeted. Priest and Arkin write that CIA officials bragged about the killing of an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen in 2002, for example, because they “were so proud of what had happened that they wanted to share it with the public.” Years later, President Obama managed to keep quiet about the impending raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which took place the night before. But after the raid, Administration officials heralded their success and set up meetings with movie producers at the Pentagon to tell them about the attack; a film about the raid, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), is scheduled for a fall 2012 release. The success of the raid was also trumpeted in glowing news accounts about the special operators—stories that were written with the close cooperation of Administration officials.

The raid on Abbottabad was a success, but unfortunately that is not always how things turn out. “JSOC’s success in targeting the right homes, businesses, and individuals in its prolific night raids was only about 50 percent, according to two senior commanders,” write Priest and Arkin, who also note that “at least a dozen people once held by the CIA remain nowhere to be found.” The implications of these revelations in the book are profound. Americans have assaulted innocent people in Afghanistan, and have somehow disposed of others who were once held in black sites. Since there are no standards for America’s black operations, or at least none that are publicly divulged, nothing appears to have happened to the perpetrators. This is assault and battery, kidnapping, and perhaps murder, on a disturbingly broad scale.

The killing of bin Laden in May and Anwar al-Awlaki in September made it clear that American officials plan to “neutralize” rather than capture at least some of the Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries. And yet the questions remain: What is the legal basis for these killings, and how can Americans assess their value and necessity? “The American public does not have some burning, Assange-like desire to reveal operational secrets,” wrote American University’s Kenneth Anderson, an international legal scholar, on The Volokh Conspiracy blog in August, “but it does want to feel like there is some legitimate domestic process in place for accountability.” Yet Administration officials have not revealed their legal arguments in support of the targeted strikes, beyond a few brief remarks made by State Department legal adviser Harold Koh in a speech in Washington in 2010. Drone strikes also lack a transparent legal basis. We seem destined not to be able to get answers to these questions, and consequently, if anything goes wrong in the field during one of these attacks, there will be no way to know if people have been held accountable.

Read more about Civil Libertiesnational security

Tara McKelvey is a 2011 Guggenheim fellow and a correspondent for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. She is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.

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