Film Exposes the Seduction of Secrecy

By Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor

"Eight years later came 9/11, famously labeled a failure to “connect the dots.” Eyewash. The CIA, FBI and others had dots. They hoarded them like marbles."

So, was the "failure to prevent" an intentional act to further an agenda, as well as treason and mass murder by US policy makers- or more like manslaughter, only involving "incompetence", criminal negligence, dereliction of duty and horrendous administrative and policy decisions rooted in ignorance, territoriality, ego, partisanship, spite, suspicion- or just the inevitable, "blameless" result an institutionalized culture of secrecy that "supposedly" has been changed? Instead of pursuing these questions, he continues with secrecy issues, the subject of the film being reviewed (in CQ Politics). Article has a nice summary of the bin Laden satellite phone-1998 NSA leak publication-Bush propaganda. In reference to abuse of secrecy:

"Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? A government of men, as it were, not laws.

Which is why, of course, we need courts, and leakers, and those who midwife their secrets into print."

This is the same guy who wrote this about Sibel Edmonds, Jan 26, 2007:

National Security Whistle Blowers: The ‘Undead’?

"Edmonds is the former FBI language specialist who surfaced in June 2002 with a strange tale of how she had been fired by the Bureau after telling supervisors that a foreign intelligence ring had penetrated the translators’ unit where she worked, among other sensitive issues.

Now why would they do that?

You can’t find out much, because then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft invoked a “state secrets privilege” to stop her suit against the FBI for wrongful dismissal.

A gag order prevents her from adding details to another of her sensational charges, that government eavesdroppers had intercepted the Sept. 11 hijackers plans.

Edmonds, born in Iran of Turkish origins, also claims she discovered unsavory links between U.S. defense and intelligence officials, weapons makers, Israel, and Ankara."

If you know of any good material to send him, his email's at the bottom of the article:

Film Exposes the Seduction of Secrecy (pasted in full)

In a riveting new documentary called “Secrecy,” former CIA operative Melissa Boyle Mahle tells the damnedest story about how a spy agency can outfox itself by over-classifying its files.

Mahle describes how the CIA’s Somalia analysts were deprived of intelligence in other parts of the building because they didn’t have a “need to know.” As a result, they were unable to warn U.S. troops that the rag-tag bands ransacking Mogadishu had been trained up by al Qaeda.

As a result of that training, they had the wherewithal to bring down American helicopter gunships.

“They were entering the jihad movement,” she says. “And yet that Somalia analyst never had access to that intelligence.”

And so, Blackhawk down.

Eight years later came 9/11, famously labeled a failure to “connect the dots.” Eyewash. The CIA, FBI and others had dots. They hoarded them like marbles.

Supposedly, the post-9/11 uber-spook National Intelligence Directorate has solved that problem, although a continuing stream of worrisome reports don’t leave one confident.

But filmmakers Peter Galison and Robb Moss are after far bigger game than insider hijinks in “Secrecy,” which debuted to stunning reviews at Sundance in January.

It’s since been limited to local screenings in Boston and San Francisco, drawing scant national attention. Robb told me they are “working on” getting a national distributor.

And it needs one. This vivid and disturbing exposure of the human dimension of the conflict between the government’s duty to keep secrets and the peoples’ right to know deserves a national audience.

One of its more interesting insights is how sexy secrets are.

“Secrecy is something like forbidden fruit,” former NSA official Mike Levin says, framed in harsh light, an ominous sound track playing.

“You can’t have it. It’s classified. That makes you want it more,” says Levin. “If somebody discloses that we listen to a cell phone that Osama bin Laden is using to talk to his deputy Zawahiri who’s in Peshawar, Pakistan, this fact would do damage to the national security. So it has to be kept classified.”

Former CIA official James Bruce expands on the notorious cell phone incident.

“In 1998, there was press coverage in several newspapers [that] we had an intercept capability of Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone communications,” Bruce says. “When that press coverage exposed that intelligence collection capability, to no one’s surprise, except perhaps of the press, we lost the ability to monitor those satellite communications of Osama bin Laden.”

It’s enough to make you fire on the newspaper delivery truck with your licensed assault weapon.

One problem: It’s not true, according to reporters who later looked into it.

“The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president,” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported after Bush had harped on the theme, tying it to the loss of 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center. “But it appears to be an urban myth.”

“The al Qaeda leader’s communication to aides via satellite phone had already been reported in 1996 — and the source of the information was another government, the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time,” Kessler wrote. “The second time a news organization reported on the satellite phone, the source was bin Laden himself.”

Curiously, that’s not in the film.

Co-director Galison, a distinguished professor of the history of science and of physics at Harvard, defended the omission in a telephone interview last week.

“It’s very hard to get to the bottom of why he [bin Laden] stopped using the phone,” he maintained, citing a — get this — a classified CIA study of the issue, only a summary of which has been released.

That’s called irony.

But the film frames an even more egregious abuse of press freedom, which has the added value of being true: The Washington Post’s publication of the NSA’s intercepts of telephone calls between Iran and its Lebanon-based guerrilla proxies, Hezbollah, in 1983.

The communications abruptly stopped, intelligence officials said. A Hezbollah suicide bomber later caught U.S. Marines napping in their barracks at the Beirut airport, killing and wounding hundreds.

The Post’s publisher at the time, Katharine Graham, later apologized.

Not to take anything away from the film, I think there are better examples the directors could have drawn on.

The question of whether to reveal the CIA’s secret flights and prisons in print, for example, is a far more apt illustration of the kind of agony editors — and intelligence officials — face.

There’s little doubt now that at least part of the information about the “ghost flights” was provided by intelligence officials in moral anguish over such methods.

In 30 years of reporting on national security issues, I’ve never met a reporter who would deliberately publish legitimate secrets about the sources and methods of U.S. intelligence, just for the hell of it.

Nor have I met an official who would blithely disclose such a secret, just for the hell of it.

But Levin told me that government officials sometimes disclose secrets inadvertently, because “they haven’t been properly briefed or indoctrinated” on how sensitive certain kinds of information is.

Lest one think “Secrecy” is a press-bashing vehicle, however, the film is really a showcase of the government’s abuse of its classification powers, particularly during the Bush administration.

And its visual power is sometimes almost overwhelming.

You may think you know everything there is to know about military tribunals and Guantanamo, for example.

But watching and listening to a defense lawyer’s account of a prison visit — a story that seemed cut from a movie version of a totalitarian state’s justice — gave me a new and visceral understanding of how far we’ve slid.

Even Mike Levin, a secrets “hawk” who told me he would never have appeared in the film if he’d known he’d be book-ended by “anti-secrets bloggers and pro-FOIA filers,” thinks the administration has gone too far.

“The secrecy system is good if we manage and implement it properly,” he told me last week. The law “is spelled out clearly. But the White House and Justice Department and . . . the Department of Defense don’t follow it.”

Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? A government of men, as it were, not laws.

Which is why, of course, we need courts, and leakers, and those who midwife their secrets into print.

“I really resent accusations that we’re not patriots or that we are indifferent to the security of the United States if we publish things that the government says are secret,” Gellman says in the film.

“I think what I do is every bit as patriotic as what a soldier does or what an intelligence officer does. I think that people who look only at security are misjudging what kind of society they’re supposed to be defending,” he says. “And I think ultimately the idea that the president and the president alone can decide what we will know is profoundly un-American.”

I agree. (But then I would, wouldn’t I?)

“Secrecy” frames the issues pretty well, in as compelling a format as anything whose stars are talking heads could. But it doesn’t offer any solutions.

That bothered me.

The real problem is that — in some cases — there may not be any.

Jeff Stein can be reached at jstein @