February 25, 2006

Erasing History: "An Official Lie"

Many of you probably know all about this story, but the Guardian has a nice write-up of a blogger's successful efforts to unearth some illuminating documents. They don't tell us anything we didn't already know, but they still make for interesting reading:
Hours after a commercial plane struck the Pentagon on September 11 2001 the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was issuing rapid orders to his aides to look for evidence of Iraqi involvement, according to notes taken by one of them.

"Hard to get good case. Need to move swiftly," the notes say. "Near term target needs - go massive - sweep it all up, things related and not."

The handwritten notes, with some parts blanked out, were declassified this month in response to a request by a law student and blogger, Thad Anderson, under the US Freedom of Information Act. Anderson has posted them on his blog at outragedmoderates.org.

The Pentagon confirmed the notes had been taken by Stephen Cambone, now undersecretary of defence for intelligence and then a senior policy official.


"The secretary said his instinct was to hit Saddam Hussein at the same time, not only Bin Laden. Secretary Rumsfeld later explained that at the time he had been considering either one of them, or perhaps someone else, as the responsible party."

The actual notes suggest a focus on Saddam. "Best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit SH at same time - not only UBL [Pentagon shorthand for Usama/Osama bin Laden]," the notes say. "Tasks. Jim Haynes [Pentagon lawyer] to talk with PW [probably Paul Wolfowitz, then Mr Rumsfeld's deputy] for additional support ... connection with UBL."
I'm actually quite surprised that Anderson was able to get hold of these documents at all -- even with "some parts blanked out." But efforts have been underway for some time to make certain such "embarrassments" don't occur again:
Those who control the past control the future, Orwell famously wrote in 1984. In the realm of national-security policy, the battle for this control is heating up.

The latest skirmish started last December, when an independent scholar named Matthew Aid went to the National Archives to re-examine some declassified documents that he'd copied several months earlier and learned that they'd been removed from the public shelves and reclassified.

Looking into the matter further, he discovered that, over the last five years, in a program that itself has been a secret, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have reclassified 9,500 documents, constituting more than 55,000 pages, some of them dating back to World War II. And that's just so far. The program under which they've been doing this—which has never been authorized or funded by Congress—is scheduled to continue until at least March 2007.


Quite a few of the papers seem to have been reclassified only because they're embarrassing. For instance, one document reveals that, in the fall of 1950, the CIA predicted the Chinese would not intervene in the Korean War; 12 days later, they did. (Classifying, much less reclassifying documents for this purpose, if that was in fact the reason, is not just stupid but illegal. Federal law states: "No information … shall be classified in order to … prevent embarrassment of a person, organization, or agency.")


In 1998, around the time this campaign got under way, the CIA refused to declassify documents about covert programs dating back to the 1960s. The State Department's advisory committee complained, in a letter to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that without these documents, the official record of U.S. foreign policy was in danger of becoming "an official lie." The reclassification of documents is an escalation of this broader campaign not merely to halt but to roll back freedom of information—to regain control of the past and all that goes with it
Fred Kaplan's article has many more details.

If these efforts to increase government secrecy continue, large parts of history may cease to exist altogether in any meaningful way. Well, I suppose that only makes sense. If the Bush administration leads us directly into Armageddon, as it shows every sign of doing, there won't be all that many people around to study it.

There, now I may have put you in a thoroughly rotten mood for a Saturday night. Sorry. Unfortunately for all of us, the news is what it is. Damn that, anyway. Fantasy is becoming more and more attractive...