The Secrecy Bug

May 13, 2014–Today is a day for Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is great and should compel our attention. Snowden himself and Laura Poitras had their day a couple of weeks ago when they were given the Ron Ridenhour Award for truthtelling. I don’t want to do anything to take away from them. But the deeper realization hits you when you ask, what kind of system is it when the public has to depend upon outraged/disaffected/guilt-ridden employees of the state to find out the truth behind the innocuous rhetoric.

Equally to the point, you can be certain the spy agencies are bending every effort to put even more secrecy measures in place, so (supposedly) preventing “another” Snowden, or Manning, or Thomas Drake, or what have you. Agency employees will have to jump through more hoops than ever in order to reach the public. That was the point of a couple of recent posts here, ones that dealt with Fearful Leader Clapper’s secrecy directives–lightning bolts from Olympus designed to put every minion on notice against saying anything to anyone. In The Family Jewels I devoted a full chapter (“Plugging the Dike,” ch. 8) to showing how the CIA had built what I called a “fortress of secrecy” to muzzle its own people, snaring them in an endless miasma of “reviews” in order to clear the words they would like to say.

The CIA jumps up to insist that, no, all its interventions are strictly for the purpose of protecting classified information, real secrets of national security importance. (How that squares with forcing an author to delete “urinal” where it appeared in his book–one of the examples in that chapter–mystifies me.) Greenwald and Snowden have produced more examples, of course, but here I want to draw attention to my colleague Malcolm Byrne at the National Security Archive. At the Archive Malcolm has gotten declassified the paperwork surrounding one specific CIA memoir and assembled the documents to show the fortress of secrecy in practice.

Iran is the subject, specifically the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the legal government of Iran in 1953 and led to so much heartache for so many decades of the Iranian revolution. CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt was a principal organizer of the 1953 operation, and his book Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran is the focus here.

Malcolm Byrne shows the agency’s Publications Review Board (PRB) worked Roosevelt relentlessly, while attempting to enforce absurd boundaries for secrecy. A CIA deputy director said he’d not permit anything to be published which showed that the CIA worked abroad. Even the Review Board–and the agency’s top lawyers–figured they couldn’t get away with that much. They tried to sidetrack the project by raising questions regarding whether the Shah of Iran approved. “Kim” Roosevelt–who had that area of the world hot-wired–not only had the Shah’s approval but the book had been suggested to him by one of the potentate’s associates. Roosevelt had also talked it over with George Herbert Walker Bush, at that time the director of the CIA, so he thought he had the bases covered. Instead the PRB came down on him hard. Roosevelt made major changes. The CIA’s general counsel felt the deputy director’s ukase unenforceable, whereupon the PRB came back with 156 specific objections, and claimed the number could be higher. Roosevelt made more changes, maybe not so many as CIA wanted but enough for one official to brag to another that they’d succeeded in converting Kim Roosevelt’s coup memoir into a work of fiction.

The end result had the CIA requiring the author to assert that the coup was suggested by British Petroleum (then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) rather than the British Secret Service. Langley no doubt thought that was a security interest worth protecting. When BP found out they threatened to sue. The publisher pulled the entire print run of the book to pulp it and reprinted with references to–wait for it–British intelligence. The CIA, happily prosecuting Phil Agee and Frank Snepp, did nothing.

Bottom line? Secrecy is a disease. Not infectious, it’s spread by a bug. Those smitten succumb to the delusion that any kind of action can be hidden so long as the secrecy is preserved. Is that not exactly what happened to NSA with Prism? Officials who have the disease stop paying attention to what is the “right” thing, and focus on the attainable or the desirable, no matter the cost. Damage to national security results from the decisions they make and the projects they pursue–like the Iranian coup, like the NSA dragnet. The damage is not from the compromise of secrecy. The drone of that bug’s wings is really a swan song for the secrecy mavens.

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