The leakers: Mr. Snowden and Secretary Gates

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (PHOTO:  Pentagon)

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (PHOTO: Pentagon)

As a journalist who leans instinctively toward public disclosure and open debate, I’ve perched precariously on the fence when it comes to the fate of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Screen capture from an Edward Snowden interview, reproduced on Wikipedia with permission from Prism Films

Screen capture from an Edward Snowden interview, reproduced on Wikipedia with permission from Prism Films

Snowden – who remains a fugitive from American justice in Russia — cracked open a national, and in many ways a global, debate over government spying and the ways that our Federal intelligence agencies are monitoring US citizens.

He single-handedly sparked the kind of conversation that open, free societies need to have on a regular basis, especially in times of war about the measures we’re willing to take to protect ourselves.

How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice?  How much of our privacy will we hand over to secret courts and unnamed government bureaucrats?

How effective, really, are the oversight committees and judicial restraints on the proliferating espionage agencies, from the NSA to the CIA to the FBI to the many municipal police departments that now operate intelligence programs?

Snowden blew that whole series of questions wide open.

But I still think it’s important to acknowledge that in a time of war — and I do think that Islamic radicals remain a serious threat to the US and our security — giving up national defense secrets, even for the best possible reasons, can amount to an act of treason.

Some observers have pointed out that Mr. Snowden is really two things at once, a hero who shined a powerful light on our own government’s secret monitoring of its citizens, and a traitor whose actions may have put our nation at increased risk.

I think that’s fair.  But the conversation about Snowden’s fate has been further complicated this week by another set of leaks, these offered up by none other former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Secretary Gates’ new tell-all book reveals the inner workings of President Barack Obama’s White House when it came to framing national security issues and the war in Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates doesn’t just tip the public to intelligence gathering techniques and the clandestine workings of the NSA.  He allows the world to pry into the secret deliberations of our top military leaders, our commander in chief, revealing Mr. Obama’s hidden doubts and reservations.

“As I sat there,” Secretary Gates recounts, describing a closed-door meeting with Mr. Obama, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

This is, arguably, important information for the public to have and I think Secretary Gates should probably be free to disclose it.  Again, in a free society we should know what our president’s motivations are, even in times of conflict.

But Secretary Gates cracked open the inner workings of our president’s war policy in Afghanistan — revealing private information that will, plausibly, hearten our enemies.

He also offered up controversial information about Mr. Obama’s relationship with a foreign leader, Mr. Karzai, at a time when we still have more than 20,000 US service-members in harm’s way in that country.

Secretary Gates disclosed deep divisions between the military and civilian leadership within the administration and the Pentagon.  He also suggested that our troops continue to die in Afghanistan for cause in which Mr. Obama no longer believes.

Imagine a former defense secretary offering up similar information about a commander in chief’s secret deliberations during World War II or Korea or Vietnam while our troops were still in harms way in those conflicts.

It is nearly inconceivable.

Again, because of my predilection toward transparency, I think both men should be respected for having the courage to take the extraordinary step of pulling back the curtain on troubling aspects of America’s war on terror.

Is it possible that their revelations will do some harm to our security and result in some loss of life?  Sadly, yes.

But in a free society, that’s what patriots fight and die for — championing freedom not only from foreign threats but from domestic power and tyranny.

Yet for Secretary Gates to be feted in Washington and invited on the Sunday talk shows for his honesty and outspokenness while Mr. Snowden is forced to live as a fugitive?

That apparent double-standard opens the door to new and even more troubling questions about how we plan to carry on this conversation about freedom, national security, and transparency.

58 Comments on “The leakers: Mr. Snowden and Secretary Gates”

  1. The Original Larry says:

    KHL,
    I truly don’t understand. You make statements indicating blame and then say that’s not the case, it was only “background”. And you’re frustrated? Then, you offer to educate me (no thanks!) but go on to reveal your own ignorance of basic facts. You want to have peace talks between the Pakistanis and the Indians? Great idea, except that they have an unmitigated hatred of each other that pre-dates the establishment of either country. You want to negotiate with Iran? Another great idea, except that it buys time for Iran to plan the destruction of our chief (at least until lately) ally in the region. All worthy ideas (no sarcasm intended) but none that have a chance of happening given current circumstances. I do listen to you but I still don’t have an answer to the larger question: why does this go on, five years into a presidency largely predicated on stopping it?

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, you interpret my statements as laying blame. I insist that they are simply statements of fact that need to be understood in order to make a rational assessment policy. If you want to call it blame, fine, except that I DON”T BLAME BUSH for all of the problems in the world. Most of the underlying problems existed before Bush ever took office.

    If you want me to blame Bush I will be specific in the things I think he deserves blame for: he did not have an open mind to points of view that conflicted with his own or the opinions of his advisors. When millions of people marched to try to stop the push for war in Iraq he called them a focus group. I blame him for that. I don’t BB for invading Afghanistan – though I believe he should have made a more thorough effort to convince the Taliban to hand bin Laden over without our intervention.

    You are simply wrong about Pakistan and India. Before 1947 Pakistan did not exist but India did as a conglomerate of dozens of various kingdoms that had existed in relative peace for centuries. The political structure that formed the current states of India, Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) caused major upheaval in the region between Muslims and Hindus which might have been prevented under different circumstances one of which was the assassination of Gandhi who may have resolved differences with Jinnah had he not been killed. Then the Cold War intervened in Sub-Continent politics and the US was angered by India’s refusal to take sides against the Soviets – so we, the US, helped Pakistan to develop the atomic bomb. We, the US, wanted Pakistan and India to have an antagonistic relationship for decades. If we want them to find peace we could find a way to make that work.

    Saying that Israel is our chief ally in the region shows a tremendous lack of understanding of history. We have many allies in the region including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. We have also had some very complex relationships in the region with countries that we stabbed in the back like Iran for starters which was a great ally in WWII helping to keep the Soviet Union from falling while Stalin kept Hitler occupied so that the US and Britain could re-group on the western front. the we overthrew the democratically elected president of Iran in 1954 and installed the Shah who was our ally. Iraq was also our ally and under Saddam Hussein we stabbed them in the back by supplying Iran with weapons in the Iran Iraq war. Egypt has been a long time ally but Obama (okay, read this as I BLAME OBAMA) failed to defend the democratically elected president Morsi from a military coup.

    And who says that Israel is such a great ally. They have killed American citizens, attacked our naval vessels, and perpetuated a decades long conflict with the Palestinians that has spread conflict throughout the region.

    In fact, Robert Gates (remember him) has described Netanyahu as a danger to Israel’s future. Gates is also a primary proponent of the ‘surge” strategy used in Iraq and the in Afghanistan which you are condemning Obama for and, finally, Gates is a proponent of talks with Iran to resolve the nuclear development/weapons issue. Talks which seem to be working, just as talks worked to resolve the WMD issue in Syria.

    So don’t listen to me, listen to Robert Gates.

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  3. The Original Larry says:

    Bad history, KHL! Iran was pro Axis in WW II, right up to the Allied invasion that secured the country against Axis influence. Also, any peace that existed between Hindus and Muslims in the future India, Pakistan and Afghanistan was primarily due to the discipline imposed by the British Empire, at least to the extent that they could impose it. The trouble certainly didn’t start in 1947. Finally, you can lay blame without actually using the word blame, as I think you have done.

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  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Okay Larry, you are partially correct. Iran was officially neutral at the beginning of WW2 because they were in a similar situation to Afghanistan in that they wanted to keep the Soviets and British at bay, and because Iran feared Britain trying to take full control of their oil. The idea that they were allies of Germany was a sort of “if you ain’t with me you’re agin me” bit of propaganda from the British side.

    Muslims were in India since before the turn of the 15th century and while there were wars of conquest between various moguls or Rajahs the idea that it was the British that kept it all in check is preposterous. The British are known for their divide and conquer tactics in which they purposely goaded various groups into conflict in order to weaken all opponents. There is always conflict in human relationships big and small, that doesn’t mean that people who have sometimes been in conflict can work together toward peace. That is the lesson of Mandela, which is an interesting tangent to Gandhi who was a lawyer in South Africa and a model for Mandela.

    Finally, the word “blame” has different meanings and connotations. I reject the connotation you are trying to force on me, of accusation or condemnation, therefore I reject your use of the word. If you want to use the word in a neutral connotation, as in assigning responsibility, then fine.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Of course we are out in the weeds here when the point of this post is about secrecy and the relative merits of leaks of secrecy for various reasons.

    My point about some of the history is to point out how secrecy so often is not the solution but the problem itself. The secret overthrow of Mossadegh turned into decades of conflict with Iran and some recent information indicates our involvement may have radicalized the young Khomeini who may have been working for us. In South Africa we supported the apartheid regime. In Afghanistan we supported many various thugs and terrorist! and on and on and on. There are many who want us to support various rebel factions in Syria through secret deals. We are perhaps supporting Baluch rebels in western Pakistan. This sort of secret interaction has been bad for us, besides the “blow back” effect.

    If we extrapolate the results of that sort of secrecy to the sort of secrecy Snowden had brought to light we should be very wary of the results.

    We are supposed to be the country of laws, the country that stands for freedom and democracy. Often that isn’t the case and when we don’t abide by our purported values bad things happen.

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  6. Brian Mann says:

    Here’s what John McCain had to say about Gates’ book:

    “I think, frankly, I might’ve if I had given him advice, I would’ve waited. But as far as waiting until it’s over in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t have done that,” the Arizona Republican said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But maybe [in] retrospect, a little longer than now.

    So…clearly some discussion of whether this was premature. But no discussion – publicly at least – of whether it was a disclosure that compromised American interests.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  7. myown says:

    And this is why Snowden’s efforts are so much more important than Gate’s personal views.

    500 Years of History Shows that Mass Spying Is Always Aimed at Crushing Dissent

    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2014/01/surveillence-of-citizens-is-always-aimed-at-crushing-dissent/

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  8. oa says:

    McCain for President!

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