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In Wake of WikiLeaks Cable Release JFK's Remarks on Secrecy

In Wake of WikiLeaks Cable Release, JFK, Ellsberg's Remarks on 'Secrecy,' 'Covert Ops' Worth Noting

by Brad Friedman

11/28/2010 1:39pm

JFK '61: 'Word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society'

Ellsberg '08: 'Most covert ops deserve to be disclosed by free press'

Some 250,000 classified cables and embassy dispatches from the State Department are being released today via WikiLeaks latest, and reportedly largest, document dump ever. Within the last hour, news reports based on those documents have begun to be published by various world media outlets that are said to have been given advanced access.

[Update: Browse all of the documents now via WikiLeaks' "CableGate" database.]

Among the very first revelations to emerge, as quickly highlighted on Twitter via search hashtags #WikiLeaks and #CableGate this morning, are details on the U.S. having pleaded with Germany in 2007 to not prosecute CIA operatives who kidnapped and tortured a terror suspect, Yemeni officials covering up U.S. drone strikes in their country, Saudi officials encouraging U.S. to take attack Iran, the U.S. spying on UN diplomats, as well as various, potentially embarrassing State Department assessments of allied world leaders. There will be much more to come.

You can review more of the coverage yourself at the UK Guardian, the New York Times, German's Der Spiegel, and Israel's Haaretz among many others to emerge over the next several hours and, indeed, days. The Nation's Greg Mitchell is live blogging the release, and rounding up many of the key links.

As this information becomes public, and as the U.S. Government continues to scramble to mitigate what the White House is calling today a "reckless and dangerous" leak, condemning it "in the strongest terms" as an alleged threat to national security, it's worth keeping in mind, for valuable perspective, what the 1970s legendary "Pentagon Papers" whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg wrote in an op/ed for The BRAD BLOG in early 2008...

Many, if not most, covert operations deserve to be disclosed by a free press. They are often covert not only because they are illegal but because they are wildly ill-conceived and reckless. "Sensitive" and "covert" are often synonyms for "half-assed," "idiotic," and "dangerous to national security," as well as "criminal."

As well, John F. Kennedy's April 1961 speech on what he described as this nation's abhorrence of secrecy, and the necessity of a free press --- as delivered to the American Newspaper Publishers Association at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York a year or so before his death --- is rather astonishing, and more than a bit ironic, in light of today's leaks and, as directly, the actions of the Executive Branch and its enablers in this country --- in Congress, in the mainstream media and in the public --- over the past dark decade. JFK's remarks include these thoughts among others that must be heard or read...

The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.
...
And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.
...
And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
...
No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary.

Here is a five minute or so excerpt from that speech (the full 19-minute version, and complete text transcript are both posted here)...

Please read on for both a transcript of the above video excerpt, and one or two more quick, but noteworthy, thoughts on it thereafter...

Ladies and Gentlemen...The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
...
For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence--on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.

Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed. [Ed Note: See comment below for the now-rather ironic sentence that JFK noted here, but which was edited out of the video excerpt above by the person who compiled it and posted it to YouTube.]
...
No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support an Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.

I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers--I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: "An error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed--and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment --- the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution --- not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply "give the public what it wants" --- but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

This means greater coverage and analysis of international news --- for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels, must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security...
...
And so it is to the printing press--to the recorder of man's deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news --- that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.

As noted, JFK's entire speech and transcript is available here. And, to be fair, among the passages removed from the above excerpt (not by us, but by the person who created the above video), includes a plea to the newspaper publishers for self-restraint when dealing with issues that could endanger national security. For example:

But I do ask every publisher, every editor, and every newsman in the nation to reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country's peril. In time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort based largely on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy. In time of "clear and present danger," the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public's need for national security.

One last note on the edited version of the speech above. Unfortunately, it leaves out one rather ironic remark following the comments in which JFK describes the U.S. being "opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence" as a "system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations." He says the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy['s] ... preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed," before concluding his description of what could as well be the U.S. from 2001 through the present day, by noting, ironically enough, "It conducts the Cold War, in short, with a war-time discipline no democracy would ever hope or wish to match."

It would seem this "democracy," at least, has, in fact, "matched" exactly that conspiracy described as abhorrent by JFK. And we have all, collectively, allowed it to happen --- whether we had ever hoped or wished to.

ENDS

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