Will: Histories that shouldn't be secret
WASHINGTON – When President Obama departs for Saudi Arabia, an incubator of the 9/11 attacks, he will leave behind a dispute about government secrecy. The suppression of 28 pages, first from a public congressional inquiry and then from the 2004 report by the national 9/11 Commission, has spared the Saudis embarrassment, which would be mild punishment for complicity in 2,977 murders. When Obama returns, he should keep his promise to release the pages. Then he should further curtail senseless secrecy by countermanding the CIA's refusal to release its official history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle.
The nature of the 28 pages pertaining to 9/11 can be inferred from this carefully worded sentence in the commission's report: "We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded (al- Qaeda)" (emphases added). Together, those five italicized words constitute a loophole large enough to fly a hijacked airliner through.
CBS' "60 Minutes" recently reported that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and co-chaired the bipartisan joint congressional inquiry into 9/11 intelligence failures, says the pages suggest the existence of a network that supported the hijackers when they were in America. Former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer, who was a member of the joint inquiry and then of the commission, and who has studied the 28 pages, says they contain (as "60 Minutes" expressed his judgment) "provocative evidence — some verified, and some not" of possible "official Saudi assistance for two of the hijackers who settled in Southern California." "60 Minutes" said the two Saudi nationals had "extremely limited language skills and no experience with Western culture." Yet "they managed to get everything they needed, from housing to flight lessons," after being seen in the company of a diplomat from Saudi Arabia's Los Angeles consulate.
Before John Lehman was a member of the 9/11 Commission — which unanimously supported release of its report uncensored — he was a member of Henry Kissinger's National Security Council staff during the Nixon administration and was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. Lehman understands the serious and the spurious arguments connecting secrecy to security. He says the 28 pages contain no "smoking gun," but he believes that senior Saudi officials knew that Saudis were assisting al-Qaeda. And he believes that because Saudi Arabia spends enormous sums worldwide funding schools that teach the virulent variant of Islam called Wahhabism, it is unsurprising that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
Now, about the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 17, 1961, a feckless use of American power that radiated disasters: President Kennedy promptly deepened U.S. involvement in Vietnam; Nikita Khrushchev, unimpressed, built the Berlin Wall and installed missiles in Cuba. Why should the CIA history remain secret 55 years after the invasion?
A federal appeals court has ruled, 2-1, against a Freedom of Information Act request for the release of the history. Citing a FOIA exemption that protects secrecy deemed essential to preserving government agencies' deliberative processes, the court held that even after more than half a century the history is "still a draft" — never mind that its author retired in 1984 and died in 1997 — and hence is "still predecisional and deliberative." So, documents can be kept forever secret by government agencies declaring them "drafts" or otherwise "deliberative."
Nations need secrecy to protect deliberative processes and to conceal from adversaries the sources, methods and fruits of intelligence gathering. However, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in his book on the subject, secrecy is government regulation, but unlike most regulations, which restrict what people can do, secrecy restricts what they can know. Secrets are property, and covetous, acquisitive government bureaucracies hoard them from rival bureaucracies, thereby making government even more foolish than it naturally tends to be because it has no competitors. For example, the U.S. military kept from President Harry Truman its proof, derived from what are known as the Venona intercepts of Soviet communications, that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were spies.
On "Fox News Sunday" April 10, Obama was asked if he could say that Hillary Clinton's handling of classified information on her private email server "did not jeopardize America's secrets." After waffling — saying Clinton would never "intentionally" jeopardize America — he intimated that many documents that are classified are not all that important to national security. He should apply this insight to documents pertaining to the disaster a decade and a half ago and to the debacle 40 years before it.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.