The Year of the “Leaker“

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2013 1231-4(Photo: Mike Herbst / Flickr)Critics of “leakers” Manning and Snowden claim that unauthorized disclosures risk lives, but a stronger case can be made that many more lives have been lost due to government deceptions on issues of war or peace, lies that secrecy made possible, writes Robert Parry.

People who condemn the leaks of classified documents by Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden typically cite the supposed harm done to U.S. diplomacy and say lives have been put at risk. Manning/Snowden defenders counter by noting how government secrecy has been used to conceal government excesses and to stifle meaningful debate.

But there is another factor in this discussion: Secrecy often has empowered U.S. government propagandists to manipulate the people and to trick them into policies that, in turn, have cost lives, inflicted damage to national security and created hatred toward America that its enemies can then exploit. In other words, secrecy is the enabler of deception which has undercut precisely those interests that the Manning/Snowden critics say they want to protect (diplomacy and innocent life).

While one could take note of the secrecy and lies that cleared the paths into the disastrous wars in Vietnam and Iraq, let’s look at a less known case that I faced in 1988 as a correspondent at Newsweek: At the time, the Reagan administration – having suffered political damage from the Iran-Contra scandal – was trying to get its proxy war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government back on track.

President Ronald Reagan’s skilled propagandists seized on what they claimed was Sandinista repression of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church and its Cardinal Obando y Bravo. All right-thinking Americans, especially Catholics, were incited to outrage over affronts to religious freedom. Because of this Sandinista behavior, the White House put political pressure on Congress to send more money and weapons to the Contra rebels who were killing thousands of Nicaraguans in towns near Honduras and Costa Rica.

But there was another side of the story that was hidden behind a veil of U.S. government secrecy. For years, the CIA and the White House had been funneling money through the Catholic Church into Nicaragua to destabilize the government. In effect, the Reagan administration had an inside-outside game going, Cardinal Obando and a group of right-wing Catholic priests were spreading around money to subvert Nicaragua from the inside while the Contra rebels were inflicting bloody havoc from the outside.

Whenever the Sandinista government would take steps against the U.S.-financed subversion, Reagan’s team would cite those actions as more justification to fund the Contra war. However, to make the propaganda work on the American people and Congress, the propaganda campaign required hiding the fact that the Reagan administration was using Cardinal Obando and his church infrastructure as a financial conduit.

In my reporting on the Contra war and Reagan’s obsession about Nicaragua, I had uncovered this secret. Ultimately I had more than a dozen sources inside the Contra movement or close to U.S. intelligence confirming these operations, which I was told carried an annual budget of about $10 million. I also discovered that the CIA’s support for Obando and his Catholic hierarchy went through a maze of cut-outs in Europe, apparently to give Obando deniability.

But one well-placed Nicaraguan exile said he had spoken with Obando about the money and the Cardinal had expressed fear that his past receipt of CIA funding would come out. The CIA funding for Nicaragua’s Catholic Church had originally been unearthed in 1985 by the congressional intelligence oversight committees, which insisted that the money be cut off to avoid compromising Obando.

However, White House aide Oliver North simply had his off-the-books Contra-support operation pick up where the CIA had left off. In fall 1985, North earmarked $100,000 of his privately raised money to go to Obando for his anti-Sandinista activities.

But what to do with this information? On one hand, I worried that exposure of this clandestine operation could put Obando and those right-wing priests in greater danger. On the other hand, my job – as I saw it – was to arm the American people with relevant facts so they could make knowledgeable judgments and avoid being manipulated by government propaganda, especially on a matter as important as war or peace.

Balance Tipped

For me, the balance of this question was tipped when the Reagan administration began disseminating propaganda citing the Sandinistas’ supposedly unprovoked clampdown on Obando’s operation as a reason for reauthorizing Contra funding. If I didn’t put forward this reporting, I would, in effect, be collaborating in a deception of the American people and contributing to a violation of international law, support for what any objective observer would call Contra terrorism.

So, I presented the information to my bureau chief, Evan Thomas. To my surprise, Thomas was eager to go forward. Newsweek editors then contacted the Central America correspondent Joseph Contreras, who outlined our questions to Obando’s aides and prepared a list of questions to present to the Cardinal personally. When Contreras went to Obando’s home in a posh suburb of Managua, the Cardinal literally evaded the issue.

As Contreras later recounted in a cable back to the United States, he was approaching the front gate when it suddenly swung open and the Cardinal, sitting in the front seat of his burgundy Toyota Land Cruiser, blew past. As Contreras made eye contact and waved the letter, Obando’s driver gunned the engine. Contreras jumped into his car and hastily followed. Contreras guessed correctly that Obando had turned left at one intersection and headed north toward Managua.

Contreras caught up to the Cardinal’s vehicle at the first stop-light. The driver apparently spotted the reporter and, when the light changed, sped away, veering from lane to lane. The Land Cruiser again disappeared from view, but at the next intersection, Contreras turned right and spotted the car pulled over, with its occupants presumably hoping that Contreras had turned left. Quickly, the Cardinal’s vehicle pulled onto the road and sped back toward Obando’s house. Contreras gave up the chase, fearing that any further pursuit might appear to be harassment.

Several days later, having regained his composure, the Cardinal finally met with Contreras and denied receiving any CIA money. But Contreras told me that Obando’s denial was unconvincing. Newsweek then drafted a version of the story, making it appear as if we weren’t sure of the facts about Obando and the money. When I saw a readback of the article, I went into Thomas’s office and said that if Newsweek didn’t trust my reporting, we shouldn’t run the story at all. He said that wasn’t the case; it was just that the senior editors felt more comfortable with a vaguely worded story.

We ended up in hot water with the Reagan administration and right-wing media attack groups anyway. Accuracy in Media lambasted me, in particular, for going with such a sensitive story without being sure of the facts (which, of course, I was). Thomas was summoned to the State Department where Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams heaped more criticism on me though not denying the facts of our story.

I was later told that the Reagan administration was shocked that an American reporter would disclose such a sensitive operation. In other words, Reagan’s propagandists assumed they could simply get away with manipulating the American people without the background facts coming out. The attacks also worsened my relations with senior Newsweek executives.

But the disclosure of the Obando operation had none of the feared repercussions inside Nicaragua. The Sandinistas did nothing to punish Obando, who gradually evolved more into a figure of reconciliation than confrontation. Indeed, the Newsweek story may have helped facilitate an eventual political settlement in Nicaragua.

Lessons Learned

In general, the lessons that I have learned from several decades of dealing with these kinds of stories is that you should be careful to minimize risks to specific individuals whenever possible. But the real-life dangers cut both ways. Secrecy can be the handmaiden of deception – and that can get lots of innocent people killed.

To this day, former senior Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg berates himself for not leaking the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War earlier, when the revelations of government lying might have saved the lives of countless Americans and Vietnamese.

Journalists also bear a profound responsibility to the people who — in the United States – represent the sovereign power of a democratic Republic. The United States is not a monarchy or a dictatorship where government secrets are the possession of a king or the dictator.

The information rightly belongs to “We the People” and government officials should take seriously their stewardship of these facts. They should restrict access only when absolutely necessary, not when just convenient for their careers or expedient for manufacturing consent behind some desired policy.

In the real world, however, government officials can be expected to tilt the secrecy-disclosure balance in ways that make their lives easier. There is always some rationalization to wield the secrecy stamp, always some possibly negative consequence that can be dreamt up if the truth comes out.

Yes, there is a chance that al-Qaeda terrorists will take greater care in their communications if they hear about U.S. intercept capabilities, but the evidence is that they were already doing that, as the long hunt for Osama bin Laden showed. It’s also true that the deceptions that led the U.S. military into the Iraq invasion have helped al-Qaeda expand its influence across the Middle East by enflaming animosity toward the United States.

There can be little doubt, too, that the NSA’s collection of “metadata” and other information vacuumed up about hundreds of millions of innocent people has gotten seriously out of whack – a judgment shared by President Barack Obama’s special advisory panel on surveillance policies and by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of that paragon of the imperial presidency George W. Bush.

NSA leaker Snowden is clearly correct when he says this system of pervasive spying represents “turnkey tyranny,” ready to be abused by some future imperial president to silence his political opponents through blackmail and other means.

So, when the government’s internal checks and balances fail – for reasons of political expedience or bureaucratic inertia – the pressure builds within the government for some idealistic citizen with access to the secrets to challenge national security overreach by releasing some of the information, often in a messy and chaotic way.

Then, of course, the government and its apologists will decry the damage done to national security and to foreign policy. But that is a complaint that would carry more weight if government officials were not so eager to clutch so many “secrets” close to their chests and deem other Americans unfit to know the facts.

At a time when many senior officials have used secrecy to cover up their crimes – for example, torture carried out by President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and scores of their subordinates – and when these government criminals have escaped all manner of accountability, is it any wonder that a few people of conscience would step forward and risk their careers and even their liberty to let the American public in on the secrets?

It becomes an existential question for this democratic Republic: why should patriots like Pvt. Manning face a 35-year prison term – and why should Edward Snowden have to seek asylum in Russia to avoid harsh prosecution at home – when U.S. government officials are free to flout the nation’s laws and then flaunt their authority over the nation’s secrets?