A few days after a Juneau Empire editorial blasted President Barack Obama’s administration for seizing phone records of Associated Press reporters, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Justice had gone even further in a leak investigation involving Fox News correspondent James Rosen. Meanwhile, a federal appeals court ruled that the administration wouldn’t have to release photographs al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that were taken after he was killed by U.S. Navy seals. While each of these cases is about national security secrets, it’s the basis for keeping the bin Laden photos classified that most undermines the President’s credibility that he’s trying to protect American lives and freedoms.
The controversy surrounding the AP and Fox News stories created common ground between many liberal and conservative factions. Both the New York Times and Fox News claimed they’ll have a “chilling” effect on freedom of the press. And even further left than the NY Times is former constitutional lawyer and Guardian columnist Glen Greenwald. He called the Rosen story “the most disturbing episode yet” and argues that “it establishes a standard where the only information the public can learn is what the U.S. government wants it to know, which is another way of saying that a classic propaganda model has been created.”
Of course, the government’s position is that leaking classified information could be detrimental to U.S. intelligence and military operations and thus interferes with its duty to protect the American people and homeland. But while that’s its argument being made in the AP and Fox News cases, it has nothing to do with why the bin Laden photographs remain classified. Obama’s position in court remained just as he stated only days after bin Laden was killed. They’re “very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head” he said, and they shouldn’t be “floating around as an incitement to additional violence… as a propaganda tool.”
There’s the word propaganda again. The problem with Obama’s reference is that our military operations under he and President Bush have killed tens to hundreds of thousands of innocent people since we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago. There’s also been thousands killed by unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan and possibly hundreds more in Yemen. What the survivors of those attacks have seen firsthand results in a greater likelihood that they’ll be successfully recruited by terrorists as compared to photographs taken of al Qaeda’s leader after he was killed.
I’m not advocating that the government release the bin Laden photographs to the public. In my opinion they’re trivial compared to the destructive nature of our “war on terror” policies. The main point is that national security argument used by both Bush and Obama are completely contradictory to many of the military and intelligence actions under their commands.
For instance, consider the July 2007 U.S. Army helicopter attacks in Baghdad that claimed the lives of several unarmed civilians and two war correspondents for Reuters. The army’s investigation of that incident was classified. It included video footage taken from the helicopter that became public after WikiLeaks posted it on the Internet almost two years later. The damage to America’s mission and reputation in Iraq was the incident itself, not the army’s cover-up and eventual leak. Those only hurt President Bush at home by giving the antiwar movement a minor equivalent to the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
The truth at My Lai was also covered up by the U.S. Military. Not long after the full story reached the public news waves, the army formed the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group which eventually substantiated the occurrence of more than 300 cases of war crimes committed by American troops. Those investigations were classified too until 1994. Who and what mission was the government pretending to protect for the two decades after that war ended?
The lesson here is that more than any other enterprise, war feeds the government’s need to keep information classified, which in turn spawns cover-ups, mistrust, leaks and paranoia. It’s why we’re witnessing the “war on terror” destroying the freedom of the press and more. For just as our founding father James Madison said, “the means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.