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Bridge News
July 28, 2000

National Defense's Most Potent Weapon: More Truth

By Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute

ARLINGTON, Va.--President Harry Truman probably spoke for most Americans when he said "secrecy and a free, democratic government don't mix." But even Truman made an exception for the military.

When a congressional committee he headed stumbled across the secret program to build an atomic bomb during World War II, then-Sen. Truman decided it was too sensitive to investigate.

That's pretty much the way it's been with the military throughout American history. The importance of concealing war plans, troop movements and intelligence sources has been recognized across the political spectrum.

As a result, many citizens know more about the president's "private life" than about key features of how the government defends them. According to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, the government took over 7 million separate actions in 1998 to classify (conceal) documents.

In some cases the secret item was a single page, in others an entire volume. Virtually all of the documents were related to national security. The culture of secrecy has existed for so long that few senior military officers or intelligence managers can imagine operating any other way.

For example, the government won't even admit it spends $30 billion every year collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence, even though every expert in the field believes it is so.

So many federal workers need clearances that there is a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications. But there is good reason to believe this hidden kingdom has begun to harm the defense of the nation as much as it helps it.

Consider some recent news stories. The European Parliament has accused the United States and Britain of using a secret eavesdropping system called Echelon to steal commercial secrets from foreign companies.

The claim is quite improbable, but the intelligence community can't prove it because the system is highly classified. As a result, Britain is being pressured to "pick between Europe and America"--in other words, to show its support for European unity by ending participation in Echelon.

Another example: The Joint Chiefs of Staff say they need many more nuclear-powered attack submarines than planned in order to carry out global commitments.

That's highly likely, because 70 percent of submarine missions are for intelligence gathering, and the number of attack subs has been cut nearly in half since the end of the Cold War, while the number of intelligence missions has nearly doubled.

But the Navy can't say anything about why subs are uniquely well-suited to intelligence missions, so they may never get the boats they need.

Then there's the Clinton administration's effort to build defenses against nuclear missile attack. It could be the Pentagon's most important program. But an MIT scientist claims the tests are rigged, the government has lied and the program can't work. Everyone associated with the program knows these charges are untrue, but they can't prove it in public forums. Why? Because the details are classified.

Even director Oliver Stone would have trouble taking seriously some of the charges of fraud and conspiracy routinely leveled at the military. But the charges get reported in the media because the government can't respond effectively due to its own secrecy rules. And every time the charges appear, a little more of the military's credibility slips away.

During the 50 years between the start of World War II and the end of the Cold War, Americans had good reason to trust the military most of the time.

Threats to national security--indeed, to national survival--were readily apparent, and huge numbers of citizens had served in the armed forces. If the Pentagon said something was too touchy to discuss, many people accepted that at face value.

Times have changed. The dangers to national security are less obvious, and the military is less familiar to most citizens. Since the introduction of the all-volunteer force, the tradition of military service has largely disappeared among members of the middle class. The military seems increasingly remote from the mainstream of society. So the popular inclination to trust the military has diminished.

The pervasive secrecy surrounding much of what the military does exacerbates the erosion of trust. After all, if the government won't tell you that it's spending $30 billion each year on intelligence gathering, what else is it trying to hide? The bottom line is the military needs to rethink its approach to secrecy.

While concealment and even active deception are still essential to some facets of military effectiveness, there's just too much citizens need to know about national defense that they can't find out. To continue hiding even the most general information about key activities risks undercutting military requests for increased funding in the next administration.

The services have a good story to tell about why increases are needed, but if a Cold War mindset makes it impossible to present the story convincingly, they shouldn't be surprised if the public is skeptical about their goals or motives.

LOREN B. THOMPSON is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, based in Arlington, Va. His views are not necessarily those of BridgeNews, whose ventures include the Internet site www.bridge.com.

Copyright 2000 Bridge News

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