Monday, February 6, 2012

The People Who Know

In "Disappointed by Obama?", I wrote: "in the case of foreign policy, I think Obama was profoundly shaken when made fully aware of threats we know little about (his reversal on issues like Gitmo and drones certainly weren't done to garner political capital - conservative hawks may have been quietly pleased, but they ain't ever voting for the guy)."

To that point, here's a revelatory story from Daniel Ellsberg's early years as an establishment analyst, before he turned radically anti-war. Henry Kissinger had just entered government for the first time - as Nixon's National Security Advisor - and Ellsberg was offering him some advice (this is an excerpt, but you ought to read the whole thing, which is pretty short):
"Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn't know about and didn't know they had, and you'll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

"You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools."


Lex said...

It's ironic that it's Ellsberg making those comments. During the Vietnam war multiple administrations, both Democrat and Republican, justified their policies by saying that the President had access to special information and if the critics only knew what *he* knew then they'd realize they were wrong.

Then the Pentagon Papers were released, courtesy of Daniel Ellsberg. It turned out that the government policy makers, in spite of their information, were just guessing at what to do. Worse still, they sat around the table indulging in wishful thinking. There were very few critical voices in those rooms where policy was decided.

Move forward 40 years and we have the Bush administration planning the Iraq war based on highly dubious "facts" and ignoring anything that didn't serve their purpose.

Sure, there may be times when secret intelligence can sway opinions but most of the time it's overrated. Common sense is a better guide to major decisions.

Jim Leff said...


Agreed that just because you're someone who Knows doesn't mean you're smart (people who know more than us can still make terrible decisions).

And agreed that the knowledge gap is used to justify bad (or even corrupt) decisions in all sorts of ways (shoot, parents do it all the time - pulling rank as experienced adults as they make decisions actually based on expedience, laziness, or ignorance).

But that doesn't mean there's not an enormous knowledge gap between them and us, or that we're not stabbing in the dark when we try to second-guess decisions with insufficient information.

I've met some People Who Know (though not at the level of Kissinger/Ellsberg), and all have assured me that if the American people understood what was really going on, opinions would be quite different. And that it'd be disastrous if we did know (sorry, WikiLeaks), cuz lots of secrets are secret for good reason.

As a natural questioner of authority, this makes me uncomfortable, as it does you (I KNOW they Know, but I'm also pretty sure they're stupid and corrupt!). But, getting back to my original point, it explains why Obama very quietly dropped his promise to close Guantanamo and stop the drones - decisions he never explained and which can't be accounted for via politics. It also explains why the people in charge tend to have faces etched with Brazilian Bus Driver Syndrome ( )

vhliv said...

Jim, I think there is another reason why Obama dropped the plan to close Guantanamo -- congressional politics. Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the establishment of a prison for the detainees in the continental US. Congressional Dems probably rightly guessed that they would be lambasted by Republicans if they supported the bill. They now what happened to Max Cleland after all. Perhaps the intelligence has played a role in Obama's actions -- I'm inclined to hope/believe for example that he and Hillary's recent hawkishness towards Iran are likely intended more at Israel and the desire to prevent them from a unilateral attack than they really are at Iran

vhliv said...

Oops. Forgot to finish my thought. --- I'm inclined ... but I think that kind of intelligence regarding state to state relations is the real strong point of that top secret info, not info on this or that particular threat.

Jim Leff said...

Idunno, vhliv. Dems have always been politically vulnerable on nat'l security, it's true. But Obama took out Bin Laden. Don't undervalue that, politically. Plus a lot of the leadership of Al Quada. And more.

My sense, which is just my sense (since, per this very topic, we're all shooting in the dark on this) is that there's "stuff" there. And with the drones. The drones! Obama's surprised leftists and doves with his hawkishness, but I think his understanding of street psychology allows him to understand the harm they're doing to our image, and the new terrorists they're creating among aggrieved family members, collateral damage, etc. I think he keeps them up for a reason we don't know. Again, just my intuition. Per Ellsberg/Kissinger, it's pointless to debate when you're only guessing. And per "Lex", that's not healthy for democracy.

Agreed that the state-to-state secrets may be more "surprising" than the security secrets, though. But I suspect there's plenty of both.

vhliv said...

Jim, agreed Obama has been more hawkish than people expected, although he was to my mind pretty open about that during the 2008 campaign, and I'm not going to venture into why. On Guantanamo, however, the evidence is pretty clear he wanted to close it, and Congress made that impossible.

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