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Why We Ignored the Biggest Story of 2011

With all our talk last week of the Arab Spring, and all our talk six months ago about Greg Mortenson, we ignored the single biggest news story in the blurry world of national security/foreign affairs: the Osama bin Laden raid. In levels of volume, it was one of the most covered story of 2011; in terms of global importance, it was probably tied with the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, we don’t really care about tactics, secret helicopters, or “special” operations, so it didn’t qualify as our most thought provoking event of the year.

The most interesting aspect, in our opinions, was that we heard about the raid at all.

Huh?

Yes, we heard all about the raid, from secret helicopters, to computer simulations of the raid, and a detailed article in the New Yorker describing the CIA techniques used to build the case. All four networks, every newspaper and most blogs, reacted to the killing--we did here and here--but most news networks quickly wanted to answer the question, “How did this go down?” As a result, the American public heard all about the bin Laden raid, including dozens of secrets and top secrets. Apparently those leaks weren’t vital to national security.

Double huh?

Last year, I argued that the problem with secrecy isn’t that secrets get out. The problem is that secrets that make an Administration/Department/Agency/Government/Corporation look bad don’t get out. This isn’t part of some “vast government conspiracy”; it is just how organizations act. Chris Matthews on Meet The Press back in November said this about Herman Cain, “I have a basic rule about politics. If it's better than it looks, they'll tell you. And if it's worse than it looks, they won't.” Organizations, like people, publicize their successes and ignore/hide their failures.

Unfortunately, that’s not why we have classification. The government classifies information because the release of said information would cause “grave harm to the national security interests” of the country. Therefore, corruption, poor performance, or in general “bad news” doesn’t warrant classification unless its release would damage our national security. Anything classified secret must remain secret or top secret until it is clearly vetted through the declassification process. Even good news.

Yet, within hours of the Osama bin Laden raid, apparently anyone who knew anything was telling any reporter who would listen. Despite years of stone walling for the slightest insight into how JSOC conducts kill-capture raids in Iraq and Afghanistan--especially by FRONTLINE and the Afghanistan Analyst’s Network about civilian casualties--within days the media started publishing in-depth articles singing the praises of JSOC, the CIA and the administration’s bold action.

To riff on a quote behaving well, all classified documents are secret, but some are more secret than others. In this case, the extreme good news events--like the killings of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al Allaki or any “number three” in Al Qaeda--get press releases; same with in depth pieces that make the CIA or Pentagon look good, like this one. Misfires don’t. Trying to find out about bad news primarily means running into a brick wall of FOIA requests and blacked out text.

Which brings us back to what we said about Wikileaks last year. This is about hypocrisy. The leaks after the Osama bin Laden raid even got under the skin of Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen. Yet, though investigations could have easily revealed who talked to reporters, no officials went to prison. It’s unclear if anyone launched a single investigation concerning those leaks.

To be clear, I am not condoning what Private First Class Bradley Manning allegedly did. If the facts support the government’s assertions--that he downloaded classified materials to non-classified systems and delivered those knowingly to people without clearance--then he should go to jail for the amount of time specified by federal law. That is the agreement you accept when you get a security clearance, and it is the law.

On the other, darker side, if an administration official told a reporter what happened in the raid--in other words, delivered classified materials knowingly to people without clearances--then that official broke the same law as Pfc. Bradley Manning allegedly did. Secrets--be they one secret or thousands--are still protected by the same standard. Either the government prosecutes people who willfully release government secrets--as they did to Bradley Manning and the Bush administration did before the war in Iraq--or it shouldn’t prosecute anyone.

Anything else is hypocrisy.