Last week, a trove of previously secret Pentagon documents were exposed to the world, after having been previously posted on a series of Discord servers frequented by a community of gamers. Most discussion of the leaks has profoundly mistaken their significance, charitably ignoring the actors who need most to be held to account. By mistaking a tree for the forest, these reports continue to reinforce an illegitimate bipartisan consensus favoring militarism at the cost of democracy, transparency, and human rights.
[A] collective failure of oversight, more than any of the discreet secrets that have been exposed, should be the overarching take away from this saga.
Most public reports examining the leaks have focused on various military and foreign policy secrets that were exposed. For instance, one document revealed America’s duplicity towards its allies including South Korea. Another suggested that the Israeli Mossad mobilized supporters to challenge Netanyahu’s most recent attempts to formalize authoritarianism by sacking the Israeli judiciary. A third confirmed that Ukrainian munitions are running dangerously low, especially anti-aircraft missiles on which the country's ground forces have relied.
Many voices, seemingly unaware of the history of its continuing corruption, uncritically focused on the supposed costs to the U.S. national security establishment. That history, however, reveals that the actual costs are limited, while the constitutional benefits are both massive and widely overlooked.
The intelligence agencies responsible for crafting public lies have been shamed and embarrassed by the exposure of their duplicity in any number of arenas. But the damage to their reputations in no way undermines the national security of We the People of the United States. In fact, it advances the incomparable value of “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” which President Eisenhower described as critical to “compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Other writers documented the senseless expansion of a document classification system through which the national security establishment supposedly limits access to information while ultimately losing track of its own secrets. Previous administrators of the classification system have for years described it as “bloated” and “dysfunctional.” When I ran for Congress, reforming it was among the central planks of my platform, which the press generally ignored despite its alignment with their own ethical interests and obligations to the public.
Another red herring included the Washington Post’s publication this week of a long form exposé based on interviews with teen gamers who grew acquainted with the alleged leaker through a Discord server he reportedly administered. A fascinating picture emerges of a right-wing government intelligence operative with a vague critique of “government overreach,” an apparently limited grasp of operational security, and a cadre of young admirers who he wanted to impress.
Earlier today, the FBI arrested Jack Texeira, a member of the intelligence department of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, at his home in North Dighton, Massachusetts. If past is prologue, he will face an array of efforts to discredit him, from attacks on his character (of the sort that Edward Snowden faced) or his sanity, lucidity, and credibility (of the sort that, a generation earlier, drove President Nixon to order a break-in at a psychiatrist’s office in the Watergate Hotel in order to discredit military whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg).
While the teen who came to know Texeira distinguishes him from whistleblowers like Snowden & Ellsberg based on their respective motivations, the constitutional functions they have each played (informing the public despite the machinations of bureaucrats) is remarkably similar. In any case, focusing on the leaker—rather than what he revealed—is a classic tactic of intelligence agencies responding to embarrassing leaks.
What journalists have ignored
Lost in seemingly every public report on the leaks is the dire, long-standing, and continuing failure by Congress to assert its oversight powers. Every single one of the secrets revealed in the Pentagon leaks represents a failure of congressional overseers to mind the proverbial store.
In addition to exposing the failures of Congress, the leaks also expose the abject failure of journalists to provide even a modicum of transparency into the continuing military industrial corruption of which America was warned 60 years ago by the last president elected to the White House as a war hero. The uncritical amplification of Pentagon lies by mass media sources has enabled each and every one of our nation’s many wars waged since the Second World War. The pattern appears to repeat itself today.
This is no mere failure to cross a T or dot an I. The Pentagon has never passed an independent audit, and in 2018 was caught after losing track of $21 trillion in missing funds. The failure of Congress to monitor how America’s tax dollars have been spent, and the failures of journalists to inform the public about the scope or scale of the Pentagon’s ongoing fraud, waste, and abuse has allowed the military—and corporate contractors with their own private interests—to pursue any number of fraudulent, deadly adventures.
The Pentagon’s scandal du jour in the 80s and 90s involved selling weapons to Iran in order to run crack cocaine into U.S. cities, ultimately enslaving 2.5 million (mostly dark-skinned) Americans through a thoroughly legal process. In the time since then, the CIA has pioneered new human rights abuses in the form of remote robotic assassinations, after playing a central role in abducting hundreds of people seemingly at random, torturing them (in some cases to death), and detaining them without charge or trial, before hacking the U.S. Senate to hide and steal evidence of its internationally criminal trail.
Three generations ago, a U.S. president called for the CIA to be disbanded. He died in a violent assassination that remains a mystery to this day, largely because official policy continues to protect the secrecy over many of the documents related to JFK’s assassination. Why are so many government secrets so widely accepted when so many lies have lurked beneath the surface every time anyone has managed to look?
Rather than suppress the leaks entirely, the press is instead watering them down by reporting on them while reducing their significance to isolated data points, ignoring the pattern they indicate or how it continues to unfold under our noses
In the years since the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X, the propensity for secrecy in the military establishment has grown only more expansive and pernicious. President Eisenhower warned the public of this tendency, yet every civilian administration since has grown complicit in precisely the pattern that he predicted.
So has Congress, as well as most major news publications.
On the take
Too many Members of Congress profit from the military industrial complex. That’s one reason that Eisenhower’s first draft of his famous speech coining the term referred to a “military industrial congressional complex.”
Allowing insider trading oligarchs to directly profit from militarism by investing in weapons companies is only the tip of an iceberg. Employees of weapons contractors are prohibited from directly contributing to federal political campaigns, but nothing stops them from bundling campaign contributions or asserting influence through other channels.
Whether indirectly (through bundled political campaign contributions) or directly (through their own shared ownership), too many policymakers share the interests of corporate weapons manufacturers. Their deference to military industrial corruption is not only an abdication of their constitutional responsibilities and oath of office, but also a straightforward defense of their own bank accounts.
Few examples of corruption could rival this pattern. It has driven U.S. foreign policy for the last 75 years, yet few voices in the press have ever publicly recognized it.
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Asleep at the switch
The pattern of the Pentagon’s lies and obfuscation is disturbingly well-entrenched, revealing that both Congress and the press have repeatedly fallen asleep at the switch.
Every whistleblower or leaker represents a failure of congressional oversight. The reason government employees blow whistles and come forward with information to inform the press is because they encounter information in the course of their jobs that contradicts what their bosses previously claimed in public, usually in congressional hearings before our elected representatives.
Many voices reporting on the latest leaks have noted how classified Pentagon documents were hosted on a nominally public server for several months before anyone noticed. Most of those voices focus their critique on the Pentagon and its failure to guard its own secrets.
But the journalists who repeated the propaganda exposed by the leaks share equal—if not more—blame. Guarding secrets is ancillary to the military’s core function, but exposing them is the very purpose of the press.
Yet American journalists routinely defer to their managers in the national security establishment, assisting the executive branch in duping Congress and the voting public again and again. For instance, the New York Times suppressed coverage before the 2004 election of the mass surveillance regime eventually exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. That editorial decision likely swung a presidential election.
And it was not an isolated incident. Spanning more than half a century, the wars on Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were all enabled by media sources parroting recurring Pentagon lies.
Even today, the pattern continues in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has thoroughly documented Washington’s recent covert attack on the Nordstream pipeline through which Germany used to secure Russian natural gas. Even though the attack represented a prolific act of both international terrorism and ecocide, and Hersh has a long record of exposing Pentagon crimes that Washington attempted to cover up, most major news publications have refused to cover his most recent findings.
Even as it is being exposed for some of its secrets, the Pentagon continues to somehow hide many of its others in plain sight. Among them is a classified analysis of the CIA’s torture program that reportedly documented abuses including the rape and murder of detainees. The recent revelations of Pentagon secrets reflect just a few among God-only-knows how many.
One journalist who demonstrated the temerity to expose the U.S. military’s 2007 assassination of Reuters journalists in Iraq, Julian Assange, is himself the target of a bipartisan prosecution. Another, James Risen, wrote in 2018 about facing government demands in court seeking sources on whom he had relied for his reporting at the New York Times:
The Obama administration was demanding that I reveal the confidential sources I had relied on for a chapter about a botched CIA operation in my 2006 book, “State of War.” I had also written about the CIA operation for the New York Times, but the paper’s editors had suppressed the story at the government’s request. It wasn’t the only time they had done so.
My case was part of a broader crackdown on reporters and whistleblowers that had begun during the presidency of George W. Bush and continued far more aggressively under the Obama administration, which had already prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined. Obama officials seemed determined to use criminal leak investigations to limit reporting on national security. But the crackdown on leaks only applied to low-level dissenters; top officials caught up in leak investigations, like former CIA Director David Petraeus, were still treated with kid gloves.
As I took the stand, I thought about how I had ended up here, how much press freedom had been lost, and how drastically the job of national security reporting had changed in the post-9/11 era.
Retaliation against the public is predictable
As with every supposed threat to U.S. national security, the leaks announced last week will inevitably be used as a pretext to expand mass surveillance. Despite having long monitored social media sites, government “intelligence” agencies somehow overlooked that their secrets were being circulated online for weeks. Resulting calls to expand government monitoring of social media sites are as predictable as the pattern that has repeated itself ever since the authors of the PATRIOT Act opportunistically took advantage of the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
Beyond a continuing unaccountable groupthink among bureaucrats is a congressional oversight apparatus that is effectively broken, a press corps that is absent or co-opted, and a voting public that is left ignorant as a result.
Ignorance might be bliss for Americans, but our ignorance of Washington’s role in the world continues to drive human beings into early graves by the thousands.
Better 20 years late than never
Another event from last week offers an interesting juxtaposition that has been widely overlooked. On Wednesday, the Senate approved a measure to repudiate the 2002 authorization for the use of military force, at the same time that it finally repealed the authorization for the Persian gulf war in 1991.
Each of these votes comes a generation (if not two) after the fact, cementing the abdication by Congress of its warmaking powers to the executive branch.
This, also, is not just a cosmetic failure. At the time when our Republic was founded, the allocation of war making authority was a crucial bone of contention in the drafting of the Constitution. Our founders understood that chief executives share a political incentive to initiate war, and aimed explicitly to prevent it from dragging the country into unnecessary conflict. Writing The Federalist Number 69 in 1788, Alexander Hamilton discussed at some length the limited power of the chief executive in the proposed constitutional design, specifically noting that it reserved the power to declare war to the legislature.
That was 150 years before America’s emergence as a global hegemon in the wake of the Second World War.
In the time since then, Congress has abandoned its authority to limit the Pentagon, and constrain it from a murderous foreign policy entirely disconnected from the security of We the people of the United States. In doing so, it has effectively invited resource coups around the world, from dozens in Latin America engineered to literally steal fruit to the notorious oil wars of the 2000s.
Will future wars over lithium and increasingly scarce fresh water replace them?
If Congress has anything to say about it, the answer will be an ignorant and enthusiastic “yes.” And the political consensus supporting that militarism will be enabled by public lies, covered up by the press and supported by the peoples’ elected representatives in Washington from both major political parties.
Here we go again
Washington’s fraudulent proxy conflict in Ukraine, its foolish and unnecessary escalation in the South China Sea, and recent act of international ecocide and terrorism in the North Atlantic all indicate the continuing unaccountability of a military industrial establishment more dedicated to selling weapons than guarding human rights or keeping people alive.
Voters generally think that their elected voices have priorities more closely aligned with theirs. But their collective failure of oversight, more than any of the discrete secrets that have been exposed, should be the overarching take away from this saga.
Unfortunately, the press is once again doing its best to cover up the crimes of the military industrial establishment. Rather than suppress the leaks entirely, the press is instead watering them down by reporting on them while reducing their significance to isolated data points, ignoring the pattern they indicate or how it continues to unfold under our noses—even now, when increasingly in plain sight.
Some journalists have noted how the leaks expose the bizarre expansiveness of access to top-secret information within the military establishment. This is not news, however. The overclassification of military secrets has itself been an open secret for years. I ran for Congress on a platform including proposed reforms to the classification regime in order to force government officials to justify claims of secrecy, and to shift the presumptions under the Freedom of Information Act to better enable the public, press, and policymakers to access information.
Few journalists among the many who covered our campaign understood the profundity of that position or bothered to mention it in their reporting, which tended instead to favor racist disinformation peddled by Democrats across the ideological spectrum loyal to either Pelosi or their own careers. One exception was Jeremy Scahill, an editor at the Intercept who hosted me for an interview three weeks before the character assassination that began on my birthday and ended my career in law and politics. As I explained then:
I’m gravely disappointed in seeing the Democratic Party line up to promote the militarism that Dr. King warned us to repudiate….[E]very time we’ve seen voices in the Democratic Party gain widespread traction, it’s [when] they oppose militarism. Barack Obama won the White House as the peace candidate and Bernie got a lot of the traction that he got around the country in the last two presidential cycles precisely because he opposes the militarism that unites the corporate wing of the Party.
Transparency is a critical enabler of democracy, without which we cannot claim in any way to respect the consent of the governed. Military secrets, especially in a country with the largest military budget on Earth and global military operations spanning bases in over 170 countries, are simply incompatible with civilian governance.
They reveal the fascist nature of the United States in 2023, and confirm the historical success of a constitutional coup over the course of the past three generations, as secret agencies have eclipsed Congress as the ultimate decision making authority over how our resources are used across the world.
In this context, the recent leaks are more than simply an embarrassment for the Pentagon. They should be a clarion call for Congress to finally start showing up for work again by doubling down on its oversight responsibilities, tightening purse strings at agencies where corruption appears to have run amok, and insisting on accurate information from government officials from whom members of Congress too often accept self-serving lies.
Ultimately, the most crucial things for Congress to do now include exposing the rest of the Pentagon’s historical secrets, ending the continuing escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, and seeking a diplomatic detente with China. Conflict in neither Europe nor Asia serves American interests, yet the military industrial establishment continues to pound war drums from one side of the planet to the other.
Informed by how often it has been told lies in the past, Congress might, one hopes, develop a spine to restore its own institutional authority, if not the human rights of people around the world abused by the military industrial establishment it has completely failed to check and balance.
Paid subscribers can access a report I co-authored in 2007 exploring the role of U.S. support for a coup in my native country, Pakistan. Based on dozens of interviews with lawyers, judges, and journalists across the country, it paints a disturbing picture of Washington’s complicity in undermining democracy around the world while ironically claiming to support it.
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