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A Cloak of Security -- or a Shield Against Debate?

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc.org.

Does the Bush administration lie?

It’s hard to say. If you ask an honest man whether he lies, he’s going to say no. But if you ask a liar, he’ll say no too. So how’s an ordinary citizen supposed to decide whether to believe the administration’s adamant denials that it’s covering up a secret program responsible for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal?

Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld personally approved a highly classified program, code-named Copper Green, which “encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence.” Rumsfeld and others in his department insist that what happened at Abu Ghraib was solely the work of a few bad apples, that there was no secret operation and that there is no bigger scandal. Rumsfeld aide Larry Di Rita went so far as to call Hersh’s piece “the most hysterical piece of journalist malpractice I have ever observed.”

But Rumsfeld and company are focusing on a small point to protect a bigger lie. In fact, the entire war on terrorism is built on a foundation of government deceit that comes awfully close to deliberate fibbing.

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Over the last several decades, Congress has passed laws to ensure that the executive branch can’t run secret operations without oversight. But under this administration, secrecy has become the default mode of operation. Whether that means that officials are actually lying to Congress or merely withholding information is impossible to know for certain.

We do know that the CIA and the Defense Department have legitimate reasons to run operations that aren’t made public. CIA paramilitaries and “black” military organizations like the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the so-called Gray Fox spies operate without making all their actions public, in part to protect individuals, operations and methods.

So when does the need for “operational security” cease to be about security and instead become a shield against public inquiry and debate?

The Abu Ghraib scandal and the Copper Green claim focus centrally on the role of black operations in the war on terrorism. These super-secret operations involve carrying out targeted killings and conducting severe interrogations, even working with foreign intelligence and security services and commando forces to carry out dirty work that U.S. law prohibits. In our current complicated world, most people think such operations are justified, hence the secrecy. But the label “super-secret” is often promiscuously applied, used to avoid scrutiny as much as to protect operations.

The current system of congressional review grew out of a response to a history of executive lying about matters of national security and covert operations. Today’s laws are aimed at ensuring that at least a few of those who appropriate the funds and oversee the government are privy to even the most sensitive activities and operations. When it comes to the military, several different levels of notification are mandated, depending on the type of operation. Less-sensitive operations require that more members of Congress are briefed. The most sensitive programs allow as few as eight members of Congress to be “read into” the information loop.

Congressional aides who deal with the issue are convinced that the laws aren’t being completely ignored and that Congress has been notified of existing secret Pentagon programs. Yet staffers on both sides of the political aisle also say there is a widespread sense that this administration is not just reluctant to share information with Congress but that the Pentagon under Rumsfeld is “intentionally unresponsive.”

These same staffers speculate that the military may have found a means other than “brute-force secrecy” not to inform Congress about things that it wants to keep secret. One suspected method is “umbrella” secret operations, in which the Pentagon notifies Congress of an overall program but chooses to keep quiet about specific operations conducted under the umbrella of the larger program. With hundreds of special access programs and thousands of secret operations, there is plenty of wiggle room.

When a program is thus revealed in the media and Congress learns that it has not been formally notified beforehand, heads roll. This is such a sensitive question of executive-legislative relations that an otherwise somber and cautious staffer says that if lawmakers ever caught the Pentagon intentionally not informing Congress, “we’d kill somebody.”

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In the case of Copper Green, the Senate Armed Services Committee officially inquired about the program after the New Yorker article. It was told that there was no such program.

Whether or not the Pentagon is deliberately deceiving Congress here, one thing seems clear: Many of the Defense Department operations central to the war on terrorism are receiving significantly less oversight than covert operations run by the CIA. At least there, the president must sign an “intelligence finding,” which is then shared with the congressional leadership.

The United States has been fighting the war on terrorism for more than 2 1/2 years. During that time, numerous “lessons learned” studies have come to the conclusion that Al Qaeda terrorists got away at the end of the Afghanistan campaign because the rules of engagement were too inflexible, because there was too much control over targeted killings, because the chain of approval for operations was too slow, because command structures were too fragmented and because persistent on-the-ground intelligence was lacking.

Rumsfeld’s solution to all of this has been to endeavor to eliminate the roadblocks to instant action and give more and more authority to “special” -- meaning clandestine -- military organizations. And as the United States has gone on the offensive, some in the Pentagon have come to see oversight, even internal military oversight, as annoying and old-fashioned.

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Weighed down by secrecy, we will probably never get to the bottom of why Abu Ghraib really happened, and the accused soldiers and officers will never really get a fair hearing. We are unlikely to ever understand the totality of what is going on in the shadows in Iraq without delving into a host of “special access” and other secret programs.

Secrecy is shielding the strategy and tactics in the war on terror from public and expert scrutiny, and that means we do not have enough information to determine if the war is being fought successfully or not. I, for one, doubt whether the aggressive and increasingly secret campaign undertaken since the middle of last year has improved the security situation in Iraq, or the United States, one iota.


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