Too often “the law” is nothing more than prejudice embedded in jargon.
So the Obama administration, in its attempt to hammer another national security leaker, is directly challenging the right of journalists to protect confidential sources. Administration lawyers, arguing this week before the Supreme Court — which rejected New York Times reporter James Risen’s appeal of a Circuit Court decision that could require him to testify in the case against a former CIA officer — asserted, according to the Times, that “reporters have no privilege to refuse to provide direct evidence of criminal wrongdoing by confidential sources.”
Wrongdoing is one thing but, wow, “criminal wrongdoing” is quite another. The phrase bristles with righteous fury, summoning a sense of no-nonsense seriousness that sends a tremor to the very foundations of our society. The former CIA guy the administration wants to nail, Jeffrey Sterling, may have passed classified information — this is the government’s contention — along to reporter Risen, and therefore endangered the nation’s security. Criminal wrongdoing! Same as murder, rape and shoplifting. Freedom of the press doesn’t give journalists the privilege to protect people like this.
One problem here is that the discussion of this issue is safely confined to abstract concepts. When we unravel the facts of this matter and put them in a real context of national — indeed, global — security, the legal trumpet-blasting reduces to a kind of weak toot. This is all about nuclear weapons, geopolitics . . . and public relations, specifically, the government’s right to orchestrate what the public knows.
Sterling may have been the source that helped Risen drag a bizarre CIA project called Operation Merlin out of hiding behind the label “classified,” which often enough means, “uh oh, we don’t want anyone to know about this.”
Risen described Operation Merlin in a chapter of his 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. In 2000, during the Clinton administration, according to Risen’s account, the CIA conceived of a plan meant to sabotage Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Enlisting the services of a Russian scientist who had defected to the U.S. some years earlier and was on the CIA payroll, the agency decided to give the Iranians a flawed blueprint that addressed a crucial aspect of constructing a nuclear weapon.
Yes, the blueprint was intentionally flawed, so it was supposed to set back Iran’s nuclear program by several years, but, according to Risen, Operation Merlin was slipshod and clumsily handled, possibly causing the effort to backfire.
Risen wrote: “The former officials also said these kind of programs must be closely monitored by senior CIA managers in order to control the flow of information to the adversary. If mishandled, they could easily help an enemy accelerate its weapons development. That may be what happened with Merlin.”
He added that the program “may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA, one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W Bush has called the ‘axis of evil.’”
So now let us return to the Obama administration’s legal assault on Sterling and, in order to get him, Risen, and the concept of “criminal wrongdoing.” According to the operating consensus, the American public has no right to know what the CIA is up to, even when what it’s up to is extremely questionable in terms of dealing with our officially proclaimed enemies; and liberating such data from the crypt called classification is criminal behavior. The CIA actions may seem like wrongdoing but they aren’t criminal because . . . well, the law is the law, and its purpose is to protect entrenched institutions from embarrassment and censure resulting from the unsanctioned actions of individuals. Get it?
Looking at this from a larger perspective still, it’s clear that what the public has no right to is any window at all on the reality of the game called geopolitics. The players in this game must not be subjected to public scrutiny, even after the fact, when they make decisions about matters of enormous global import, such as nuclear weapons proliferation. This is where, for me, things get really scary.
War is a game. The arms race is a game. Those who play it need both skill and license, with the role of the public to be nothing more than acquiescent spectators — or rather, “spectators,” allowed access only to the sanitized, PR version of the game. No matter that it’s our lives and our future that are ultimately at stake. The premise here is that the designated experts will take care of everything, and that their shenanigans will bring peace.
But peace is not a game. It can only be created slowly, deliberately and openly, in an atmosphere of honesty and integrity. “I have no secret plan for peace,” said George McGovern when he was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. “I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.”
But this is not the sort of leadership we’ve bequeathed ourselves. We’re stuck in a geopolitics of lethal one-upmanship, played out in secrecy, often with reckless lack of concern for long-term consequences. Occasionally a participant quits the game in disgust and leaks some of its reality to the media. This is called criminal wrongdoing.