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A secret dispatch from the war on stupidity

Message Larry Beinhart
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The Senate is about to pass an intelligence bill that calls for spending $45,000,000,000,000 (forty-five billion dollars) a year – not just once, year after year – on intelligence.

Bush is threatening to veto it because it has provisions that might let congress know what they’re getting for $45,000,000,000,000 a year. He feels that only he should know.

It’s time to seriously rethink this whole ‘intelligence’ thing. Especially secrecy.

9/11 did not happen because we didn’t know enough secrets. We knew quite enough to prevent it. It happened because our culture of secrecy is so excessive that we didn’t tell ourselves what we knew.
The War in Iraq would never have taken place except for the culture of secrecy.
Any reasonably literate person knew that Saddam Hussein, a secular dictator, and al Qaeda, a fundamentalist religious group, were mortal enemies.
Yet the Bush Administration was able to claim they were linked, based on ‘secret’ intelligence. Which could not be challenged , because it was secret.
The public record was clear. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Or the capability of producing them. The old weapons inspectors said so. The new weapons inspectors said so. Both Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice were on record as having said so.
Yet the Bush Administration was able to make that claim. And make it seem credible because it was based on ‘secret’ intelligence.
Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower, wrote, “the attacks [on 9/11] seemed pointless, a showy act of mass murder with no conceivable effect on American policy except to provoke a massive response.
But that, as it turned out, was exactly the point. … The usual object of terror is to draw one’s opponent into repressive blunders ….”
As Wright also points out, bin Laden thought it would be Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” that would do the trick. It hasn’t quite, at least not yet. But the Bush administration gave bin Laden exactly what he wanted by invading Iraq; credibility for Al Qaeda, exposure of the limits of American power, the transformation of his nutty crusade into a genuine ‘war for civilization,’ and a new war in which to breed jihadists and develop tactics.
Did the ‘intelligence’ community understand that?
Did the ‘intelligence’ community tell our commander-in-chief that he was doing exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted?
If the ‘intelligence’ community knew that, wouldn’t we all have been better off if they had gone public with their knowledge?
The idea of using terrorism “to draw one’s opponent into repressive blunders,” is not secret ‘intelligence stuff.’ It’s in hundreds of books and histories. It’s right out of the manual. It’s the standard tactic of how civilians without a real army fight a war against the power of a state.
That never became part of our public debate.
The reason is that we rely on our ‘intelligence’ services to tell us what’s going on. In our culture of secrecy, secret stuff is supposed to be much better than obvious, public, sensible stuff. After all, we pay $45,000,000,000 a year for it.
Therefore, unless the CIA comes out and says, “the point of this is drive America berserk and have us launch some crazy holy war,” that idea simply doesn’t exist. Not for our Senators, not for our Representatives, not for our media.
So our leaders were free to go berserk, launch a crazy holy war, tell us it was a good thing, and have the majority of the American people – and all of the American media – believe them.
With all that money, and the ability to work in secret, how come our ‘intelligence’ services haven’t found Osama bin Laden?
With all that money, how come our ‘intelligence’ services haven’t been able to tell us who we’re fighting in Iraq? Except for the vague, generic titles like ‘insurgents.’ What are they insurging for? How many of them are there? What do they want? Why do people support them?
A problem stated in a way that has no meaning, can only produce a meaningless response.
Thus we respond to insurgents with a surge.
Missing the 9/11 plot. Falling into bin Laden’s trap. Failing to get him. Why we went to war in Iraq. How the commander-in-chief, the ‘intelligence’ services, and the Pentagon botched that war so badly. Where all the money went.

It would be really good to know how all this stupidity came about.

The people who screwed it up will fight tooth and nail to prevent us from learning the truth. They will claim that such knowledge will compromise national security. That it all has to remain secret.

It’s no secret that they blew it.

But exactly who and how, and why is secret. It shouldn’t be. It should be know so we can teach it in ‘How to Avoid the Same Blunders Over and Over Again 101.’

It seems obvious that we need ‘secrets.’
Intuitively, it seems as absolutely true as it once was that the earth was the center of the universe.
But we now live in a world in which so much knowledge is available so easily and transmitted so quickly, that it’s usually more than we can do to digest what we have.
Secret knowledge is more expensive, slower to transmit, harder to verify and more difficult to assimilate than public knowledge.
Secret knowledge is likely to be more partial than public knowledge.
Secret knowledge is vastly more open to manipulation and falsification at every step in the process.

Agents will make up things to gain rewards. Enemies use double agents to send false information. Middle managers upgrade and downgrade reports based on their own career goals and what they think upper management wants. They keep secrets from other bureaucracies. Upper management can be even worse, telling our leaders what they want to hear. The leaders can then sell their programs based on falsehoods and deceptions that are based on unverifiable secrets.

Secret knowledge trumps public knowledge every time. Even when public knowledge is better.

Secret knowledge can’t be challenged when it’s wrong.

Secrecy is used to hide errors, stupidity and incompetence.

Secrecy is used to hide accurate private assessments from the public. Most notoriously, every president involved in the Vietnam war – Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon – knew it was unwinnable, but didn’t want their party to have ‘lost’ what was already lost, before the next election cycle. So we went on killing and dying for ten years, while the leaders kept the Pentagon Papers ‘secret.’

If we knew today’s secrets, we would ‘know’ that all the intelligence and Pentagon assessments are that the war in Iraq is already lost. And that the war in Afghanistan is being lost, too. But it’s important for the administration to force that ‘loss’ off on someone else, the Democratic congress or the incoming administration. So those secrets are being kept.

The idea of secret knowledge is an invitation to abuse. An invitation so seductive that it is irresistible.

This is a secret dispatch from the secret headquarters of the War on Stupidity
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LARRY BEINHART is the author of SALVATION BOULEVARD,  a major motion picture with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marissa Tomei, Ed Harris, and Jim Gaffigan, WAG THE DOG, The LibrarianFog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin  and HOW TO WRITE A (more...)

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