Secrets and leaks

Thursday, October 9th, 2003

If the Bush team doesn’t watch it with the cheap lies and little revenge shivs in the gut, their venal sins might start gaining cachet in popular culture — like Richard Nixon’s profanity — and then they’ll be in trouble.

The outing of Valerie Plame, CIA operative and wife of prominent administration critic Joseph Wilson, pushes them close to that tantalizing point of media no return called “scandal,” when pile-on is permissible and balance and pseudo-objectivity are no longer required or expected.

Revenge, after all, is something the Joe Six-pack in us can understand, perhaps even more intimately than we understand adultery.

For now, though, this is just one more irony emanating from the Oval Office. George Bush presides over arguably the most secret-hoarding administration in U.S. history. We have not yet, for instance, learned the names of the industry heavies who participated in Vice President Cheney’s energy task force in 2001, much less the identities of foreign nationals rounded up under the USA Patriot Act or Afghanis held at Camp X-ray — but suddenly we’re privy to the details of a top-secret WMD intelligence-gathering operation.

Say what?

The outed secret serves no public purpose whatsoever, but endangers any number of lives, including Plame’s. And it’s a federal crime, to boot.

But because the story is not yet Code Red — scandal — the media is still respectfully assisting the administration with damage control, allowing the president to stave off public incredulity by declaring his “strong disapproval” of the occurrence and reflecting, sadly, that “There’s too much leaking in Washington.”

What bothers me the most is that all this is giving leaking a bad name.
Indeed, to call this nasty, deliberate attempt to discredit Wilson a “leak” is absurd, as though a low-level government official with access to hot information snuck around his bosses and risked his career, a la Daniel Ellsberg, to expose corruption in the making of public policy.

We the people and our fragile democracy depend on leakers to out the secrets that politicians think they need to keep. Savvy citizens hold themselves in a wary, adversarial relationship to the stewards of government, whose agenda always includes staying in power and, too often, helping their friends. Leaking may be the bane of the party in power, but it’s essential to the rest of us and keeps democracy viable.

A real leak out of Fortress Bush might have stopped the invasion of Iraq. Last March, Ellsberg himself, who in 1971 helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam war by making 7,000 pages of sordid historical documents — the Pentagon Papers — public, appealed to current government employees to do no less, whatever the personal risk.

“Don’t wait until the bombs start falling,” he said in a press conference on March 11. “If you know the public is being lied to and you have documents to prove it, go to Congress and the press.”

Alas, alas. Those in the know sat on their consciences and held their tongues. We went forward with our cowboy invasion, pushed a broken country into the abyss and now we’re mortgaging our children’s futures to exert damage control over the humanitarian disaster we’ve created.

A government that functions without leaks functions too well. There’s nothing efficient about the ability to pursue a disastrous policy efficiently. Remember checks and balances? They were designed to sever the tendons of power, to make government a clunky, slow-moving, inefficient machine.

The media also once saw themselves as serving that purpose, and called themselves the Fourth Estate: an indispensable facet of the public trust. But today’s media, at least in their collective manifestation, respect power a little too much. They preen with attitude, affect disdain, but can be stopped dead with a press release.

The public, meanwhile, waits for truth and has to settle for scandal.

Can you wage war without a side order of rape?

Looks like you can’t even prepare for war without setting loose the most barbaric implications of the three little words that until six months ago greeted recruits as they crossed the hallowed threshold of the Air Force Academy: “Bring me men.”

The two-foot-tall letters adorning the campus’s main building were suddenly dripping with figurative egg, after 60 female cadets and former cadets came forward in March to charge not only that they had been sexually assaulted at the academy but humiliated with a vengeance worthy of the Catholic Church for reporting it to the, ahem, exclusively male officers.

Words carved in stone. Male dominance forever. If they were benign, why did the brass pull them down and cart them off in a Jeep (to an unknown location for “safekeeping”)?

Bring me stalkers. Bring me jerks. Bring me sexist pigs who don’t think women belong in this testosterone preserve of warrior he-men.

And then it got worse, when the macho, anti-weakling, “I own you, maggot” culture of the academy came under public scrutiny; when more women started coming forward with horror stories; when the tally of likely assault victims reached 19 percent of the female population — and when only one in five said she dared file a report for fear she’d be the one punished or ostracized.

One former cadet said she was driven from the academy by an upperclassman-stalker who assaulted her five times. Yet she was the one threatened with disciplinary action. She still fears retribution and now lives, as though in witness protection, in an undisclosed location.

Another cadet said she was sexually assaulted when she was a high school student, at the Air Force Academy prep school. When she got to the academy, she was raped by two of the attacker’s friends in retaliation for reporting the first assault.

This is the kind of thing that was tolerated to the point where you might say it was expected, if not, God forbid, encouraged. On Sept. 22, a congressional committee headed by Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Republican, released the report of its investigation, which strafed the Air Force for its pathetic internal study last spring exonerating itself and concluded that a “chasm of leadership” had signed off on a culture of rape at the elite school.

Bring me wimps.

Yeah, they’re making changes at the academy. To read about it, you’d think the new leadership is positively New Age, stressing sensitivity, cooperation and empowerment over bullying, humiliation and absolute obedience.

I’m skeptical that it’s anything more than barbarism with a smiley face. The devastated population of female cadets are nothing less than victims of war rape.

Maybe they deserve reparations.

The crimes against them are on a continuum with crimes against women committed by soldiers down through the ages — so systematically, predictably and invisibly you’re tempted to think, glory schmory. We’re doing it for the spoils. And women have always been among the spoils of war.

Here’s how human rights attorney Karen Parker put it when she testified before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1995:

“In our view, not only most countries but the entire international arena, including the United Nations itself, is effectively controlled by men and indeed made in men’s image. This accounts for the failure until now to even address the situation of war rape, in spite of the fact that in all wars since the beginning to time, rape and violence against women have been a fundamental feature.”

Oh, and this just in: Prostitution is flourishing in Baghdad these days, where it had been virtually nonexistent, London’s The Independent reported recently. A 21-year-old woman who worked near the army barracks on Abu Nawaz Street acknowledged that most of her clients were U.S. soldiers — at $50 a night.

No word on whether there’s a new sign over the sleazy hotel she works out of, with two-foot letters, that says: Bring me men.