Thursday, December 2, 2010

Head Fake

Well, we do learn something from WikiLeaks after all: namely, that the Americans believed that the French deliberately played up Bashar al-Assad's (nonexistent) role in the release of Clotilde Reiss in order to validate Sarkozy's earlier "opening" to Assad, of which the Americans disapproved.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I surmised that Sarkozy was pushing the opening to Assad in order to give himself, and France, a more central role in the Mideast diplomatic game. I even thought that the US might be cooperating in a double game, rejecting talks with Syria for itself but encouraging France as an intermediary. Apparently I was wrong. Or at least wrong at the low level of secrecy penetrated by WikiLeaks. As Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a thing or two about official secrets, recently said, the leaked database was easily penetrated because it was considered to contain such unimportant material (viz., Sarko chasing Louis's rabbit) that it wasn't held very closely; it was the kind of material he wouldn't have bothered to look at back in his time as a RAND intelligence analyst. So there may still be another part of the story.

But while we're on the subject of WikiLeaks, it seems that I may be endangering my future security clearances by even talking about it. See James Fallows' astonished report. I don't know if Fallows has ever worked for an intelligence service, but he might be less astonished if he had. Of the Obama administration's executive order he asks, "Why not just stamp 'Secret' across the front page of The New York Times?" When I was in the US Army, that's essentially what we did: "intelligence" would be gleaned from newspaper reports, typed up on official letterhead, and stamped "Secret." So, in theory, one could have been sent to jail for disclosing what one read in The New York Times. But of course you have to be on the inside to know that a secret is a secret. To the average Joe, it looks like common knowledge. You'd be amazed at how the transformation of common knowledge into secret knowledge inflates one's sense of self-importance. This is one of Ellsberg's fundamental points in a book I recommend, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.


Mr Punch said...

You couldn't actually be sent to jail for publishing what was in the NYT or otherwise publicly known (unless you were in the military); a court decision to this effect (Heine?) was in fact part of the planned defense in Ellsberg's case.

James Conran said...

Any chance of a link to Ellsberg's comments on Wikileaks Arthur? Would be interested to hear more.

Unknown said...

This is what I read: "As veteran whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg pointed out on “Democracy Now”, the material comes from a database which has been given a security classification so low in the hierarchy of US intelligence briefings that he wouldn't even have bothered to look at it when he worked as a mid-level intelligence analyst, given the priority accorded to truly secretive and sensitive documents."

Anonymous said...

"head fake" itself is secret American jargon for something of which the non-basketball playing public in France knows nothing.

sort of reminds me when I explain to French friends the tongue-in-cheek titles given to articles in the Economist.