Monday, June 20, 2005

Security and Character

Conservatives recommending a more obedient course at the media often point to the good relationship the government and media had during World War 2. “Loose lips sink ships” was the motto for a press that let the government decide what could be published, for the sake of tactical secrecy. As united as our country was during that great trial, this does not mean our government acted immaculately in its ability to censor.

After 60 years of protection for security, our government has just released a journalist’s report of what Nagasaki looked like in the aftermath of our nuclear bomb. And it wasn’t pretty. Of course, any of us raised on Cold War paranoia about the bomb, or even read Hiroshima aren’t very surprised. But this definitely was breaking news back then. And how did our government deal with this report?

Gen Douglas MacArthur, who headed the US occupation of Japan, was so angered by the reports that he personally rejected them. The originals were never returned.
Anthony Weller told Mainichi he thought the account was quashed because it could have turned US public opinion against the build-up of a nuclear arsenal.

(If anyone can figure out legitimate security reasons for hiding this information, let me know. Even if there are some, this dramatic example would not undermine my conclusion.)
My congressional district recently had a primary for a special election, in which the Republican primary candidate (the inevitable winner of the general election) won solely with the slogan “Character Matters”. During Clinton’s presidency I had many arguments with people in this district whether his peccadilloes and lying under oath were a reason to vote against Democrats. I felt character did matter, but not as much as policy, and the differences between his character and any other politician, particularly with regards to what actions he was empowered to take, were overblown.

Let me be clear now. There are sometimes when character matters a great deal in being president, perhaps more than anything else. It’s called “classification”. Our government can make news disappear, be it killing a journalists report or hiding information from within the government. We won’t even know something was hidden or why. It can take actions based on classified reasons, and we have to trust not only that they are making the correct decision – but that they even have the right to withhold this information. As the Nagaski report shows, our government even at its best can still kill a report only for the worry of public opinion.

Let’s proceed to a more mundane example. Recently, the White House hired an intern for some random lower level Correspondence Office job. She was president of the University of Pennsylvania’s College Democrats. When she showed up for work, she was told she had to leave while her security form was still processed, and they’d get back to her. Nine days later she still hadn’t heard anything, and had to take another job.

This is just one of a number of political actions our current administration has taken citing security as a reason. Removing protesters to places far out of sight of any presidential visits. Three attendees at a Presidential Social Security speech were kicked out by someone claiming to be a Secret Service agent because they were dropped off in a car with a Kerry bumper sticker. Many reports about the treatment of detainees in our detention system for foreigners, do not make it to light of day. Senate Democrats are demanding documents on UN Ambassador-nominee John Bolton, which the State Department is refusing to provide.

In this War on Terror, we have to assume our government is making the right decisions even when we can’t know what they are. Even more so, we have to believe that our government is classifying based on actual security, and not on what would be politically inconvenient. That is entirely about character.

When the government uses “security” to hide information about the results of a nuclear bomb, or to pettily fire interns who were Democrats, all without any accountability, then they are saying that we can not trust them with that secrecy.


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