‘Classified’ America

For a journalist — especially one covering government and politics — the most suspicious, least trustworthy word in the language ought to be: “classified.”

As the drama continues to swirl around Russiagate, or whatever the central controversy of the Trump administration winds up being known as, that word keeps popping up, teasingly, seductively: “It appeared that there was a great deal more (former acting Attorney General Sally) Yates wished she could share,” the Washington Post informed us the other day, for instance, “but most of the information surrounding everything that happened remains classified.”

And the drama continues! And I have yet to hear a mainstream journo challenge or question that word or ask what could be at stake that requires protective secrecy even as the U.S. government seemingly threatens to collapse around Michael Flynn, America’s national security advisor for three weeks, and his relationship to Russia. Is there really any there there?

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t, or that it’s all fake news. Trump and pals are undoubtedly entwined financially with Russian oligarchs, which of course is deeply problematic. And maybe there’s more. And maybe some of that “more” is arguably classified for a valid reason, but I want, at the very least, to know why it’s classified. What I read and hear feels, instead, like collusion: journalists unquestioningly honoring bureaucratic keep-out signs as objective, even sacred, stopping points. Public knowledge must go no further because . . . you know, national security. But the drama continues!

And this is troubling to me because, for starters, nations built on secrecy are far more unstable than those that aren’t. Job #1 of a free, independent media is the full-on, continuous challenge to government secrecy. Such a media understands that it answers to the public, or rather, that it’s a manifestation of the public will. Stability and freedom are not the result of private tinkering. And peace is something created openly. The best of who we are is contained in the public soul, not bequeathed to us by unfathomably wise leaders.

So I cringe every time I hear the news stop at the word “classified.” Indeed, in the Trump era, it seems like a plot device: a way to maintain the drama. “. . . there was a great deal more Yates wished she could share, but most of the information surrounding everything that happened remains classified.”

Stay tuned, and keep your imaginations turned to high! This is Russia we’re talking about. They messed with our election. They “attacked” us in cyberspace. We’d tell you more about how bad things are, but . . . you know, national security.

If nothing else, this endless retreat behind the word “classified” is a waste of the Trump presidency. This administration’s recklessness is opening all sorts of random doors on national secrets that need airing. It’s not as though the country was sailing along smoothly and keeping the world safe and peaceful till Donald Trump showed up.

Trump could well be making a bad situation worse, but, as William Hartung pointed out: “After all, he inherited no less than seven conflicts from Barack Obama: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.”

The United States is engaged in endless war, at unbelievable and never-discussed cost, to no end except destruction in all directions. Those who have launched and perpetuated the wars remain the determiners of what’s classified and what isn’t. And Russia lurks silently in the background as a new Cold War gestates. And the media participate not in reporting the news but promoting the drama.

Occasionally this not been the case. Remember the Pentagon Papers? Daniel Ellsberg photocopied a multi-thousand-page secret history of the Vietnam War in 1971 and handed it over to the New York Times. It was classified! But papers printed it. And Sen. Mike Gravel later read portions of the text aloud at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

“These portions,” notes history.com, “revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had all misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, from Truman’s decision to give military aid to France during its struggle against the communist-led Viet Minh to Johnson’s development of plans to escalate the war in Vietnam as early as 1964, even as he claimed the opposite during that year’s presidential election.”

Our own government, in short, is as untrustworthy as the governments of our allies and our enemies. Government officials left to operate free of public scrutiny — bereft of public input — have proven themselves over and over to be shockingly short-sighted and cold-blooded in their decision-making, and indifferent to the impact they have on the future.

“It is nearly a truism,” writes Jeffrey Sachs, “that U.S. wars of regime change have rarely served America’s security needs. Even when the wars succeed in overthrowing a government, as in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Moammar Khadafy in Libya, the result is rarely a stable government, and is more often a civil war. A ‘successful’ regime change often lights a long fuse leading to a future explosion, such as the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government and installation of the autocratic Shah of Iran, which was followed by the Iranian Revolution of 1979.”

All of this, and so much more, preceded Trump. He’s only the tail end of our troubles.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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