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Secrets Result in Abuse of Power: New Era of Transparency

The importance of Chelsea Manning’s actions to increase transparency in US foreign policy was underscored by the timing of her extreme 35-year sentence. In the same week, the CIA admitted after 60 years that it engineered a coup d’état against the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953. This secret US and British action changed the course of history, planting the seeds for many of the problems the region and world face today.

The Mossadegh coup became the model for secret government action by the United States, often carried out by the CIA. Author and historian William Blum lists dozens of instances of the United States attempting or succeeding in overthrowing foreign, often democratic, governments. He says “The United States has overthrown more democratically-elected governments than any country in world history.”

If the United States were committed to a transparent foreign policy, would it have the audacity to abuse its power in this way? It is time to restart the debate that President Woodrow Wilson raised in his 1918 speech “Fourteen Points,” which put forward a plan for a just and lasting peace. The foundation of Wilson’s peace plan was open peace agreements and open diplomacy conducted in public view. The first of Wilson’s 14 points reads:

“Open covenants of peace must be arrived at, after which there will surely be no private international action or rulings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

Wilson learned a lesson from World War I because secret treaties and hidden diplomacy were a major factor leading to a world war.

The Wikileaks documents leaked by Chelsea Manning show the need for foreign policy conducted “frankly and in the public view.” US foreign policy has become secretive, dominated by militarism, spying and never-ending wars; Americans often are misled and lied to and unable to participate in stopping – or even  influencing – a foreign policy that is seriously off-track.

The knee-jerk reaction of the Obama administration and foreign policy establishment to the new Wikileaks world has been to clamp down, add layers to protect secrecy and aggressively prosecute those who expose the truth. But history shows secrecy results in mistaken policy and death; transparency is likely to prevent abuse, preserve life and promote democracy.

The Mossadegh Coup and Its Aftermath

The story of Mohammed Mossadegh and the Iranian coup is not widely told in the US, although it is an essential story to understand. The impact of the coup reverberated throughout the world, not only because it provided important lessons in tampering with foreign governments, which dared to threaten imperial hegemony, but also because the coup’s repercussions on the Middle East are still felt today.

Mohammed Mossadegh was born into a ruling family. His father was minister of finance. In his early 20s, Mossadegh participated in Iran’s constitutionalist movement which sought to end the absolute power of the monarch. He studied in Tehran, Paris and Neuchatel, Switzerland, becoming the first Iranian to receive a doctorate of law.

Throughout his career, Mossadegh pushed for democratic rule and the end of British control over Iran. He held a variety of positions: deputy secretary to the minister of finance, governor of the Fars province, minister of justice and minister of foreign affairs. He was elected to the Iranian Majiles (akin to a parliament) multiple times. More than once, he quit a post to protest actions by Britain and to consistently challenge the Pahlavi dynasty, installed by Britain as the Iranian monarchy.

Beginning in the 1940s, Mossadegh began to work for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, which was controlled by Britain. Mossadegh believed in an independent, free and democratic Iran but knew that such independence needed to be rooted in economic independence. He saw the “moral aspect of oil nationalization” as being more important than its economic aspect. He tried to negotiate with British oil (the predecessor to BP), but it refused to negotiate. Subsequent mass demonstrations and a political movement made oil nationalization a reality in 1951.

The responses from Britain were economic sanctions, the threat of military action and the use of spy networks to create subversion and division in Iran. The British government even took its case to the UN. Mossadegh traveled there to defend Iran’s right to control its oil resources, making the point that British oil profits from Iran in 1950 were more than it had paid in royalties to the country for a half a century. On the trip, he also had a high-profile meeting with President Harry Truman.

When he returned to the Middle East, he was met by a cheering crowd in Egypt that recognized that Mossadegh was leading the way to ending western imperialism in the region. Although he was chosen Time’s Man of the Year in 1952, the article was critical of Mossadegh and was used to lay the groundwork for the upcoming coup. Time recognized he was presenting a “fundamental moral challenge” to the west as British imperialism was waning, and the United States’ influence was rising in the Middle East. Mossadegh went on to defend the nationalization of oil in the court in The Hague, where Britain brought its case. He won there; and the UN Security Council refused to intervene on behalf of Britain.

Mossadegh’s next battle was with the young shah of Iran. The shah still controlled the military, and Mossadegh fought to have the military controlled by elected civilian authorities. When the shah refused, Mossadegh resigned as prime minister. The shah selected a replacement, but popular support for Mossadegh resulted in the shah reversing course, granting Mossadegh control over the military and returning him as prime minister. Mossadegh was leading the way to a truly independent and democratic Middle East and was hailed throughout the region.

In Iran, Mossadegh put in place many reforms, among them “laws for ‘clean government’ and independent court systems, freedom of religion and political affiliations, and promotion of free elections. He implemented many social reforms and fought for the rights of women, workers and peasants. A fund was created to pay for rural development projects and to give assistance to farmers.”

That is when the UK decided that Mossadegh must go. It reached out to the United States – which joined the effort to end the democratic rule of Mohammed Mossadegh. The CIA initiated a plot approved by President Eisenhower and carried out by Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt, called “Operation AJAX” to remove Mossadegh. The plan involved propaganda in the Iranian and US media, pro-monarchist protests and bribery of key officials and the military.

Robert Scheer reports that the US media was compliant, as coup plotters “manipulated Western media into denigrating Mossadegh as intemperate, unstable and an otherwise unreliable ally in the Cold War” – all false. The coup plotters tried once, but failed, with the shah fleeing the country. They tried again and succeeded, with Mossadegh fleeing his home, which was reduced to rubble. Mossadegh was arrested, given a show trial, imprisoned in solitary confinement in a military prison for three years and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life until his death, at age 85 in 1967.

The path that Iran was on when the United States removed Mossadegh was one of independence from western imperialism, constitutional democracy rather than monarchy and equitable sharing of resources among the population. Iran’s Mossadegh was a guiding light, cheered in the region, who was setting a new direction that would have led to a very different environment than exists today. There never would have been the brutal dictatorship of the shah of Iran, which led to the anti-American revolution of 1979. Other countries may have followed the success of Iran to become independent and develop their own forms of self-rule.

After the coup, Scheer reports, “Secretary of State John Foster Dulles …wanted to duplicate it in the Congo, Guatemala, Indonesia and Egypt.” Roosevelt resisted these efforts and resigned from the CIA. But the Iranian coup became a model used in many countries, among them Vietnam, Guatemala, Cuba, Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

In 1954, the CIA led a coup in Guatemala to depose President Jacobo Árbenz Guzman. The coup was a response to agrarian land reform that involved distribution of unused, prime farmlands to peasants. The land was owned by big business interests, including the United Fruit Company, based in the United States. United Fruit owned 42 percent of arable land in Guatemala, land that had been bought or given to the company by prior military dictatorships.

The actions of Guatemala, like those of Mossadegh, were a threat to the status quo of US interests in Central America, where similar conditions existed throughout the region. Once again, the Dulles brothers and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower conducted a coup against the elected president. Once again, the US media played its role of misinformation to the US public, falsely describing Árbenz as a Communist and Guatemala as a beachhead for the Soviet Union. The CIA provided “rebels” with funds and materials to form an army, trained and armed by the CIA. The coup also involved economic, propaganda and political campaigns to undermine the Árbenz government. They even created a radio station – based in suburban Florida pretending to emanate from Guatemala – the Voice of Liberation Radio.

The successful coup, applauded by the US media, ended the liberal and political experimentation of the Ten Years of Spring, which had begun with the October Revolution of 1944 that established representative democracy in Guatemala. The US replaced it with military rule that led to a civil war, which lasted until 1996 and featured brutal massacres of peasants and others.

Guatemala is one example among many of the United States working on behalf of corporate interests and global empire and preventing democracy from growing. Relations between the United States and Latin America would be better off today if we had allowed countries to develop without secretive interference by the US security state and military empire. Transparency in foreign policy would have prevented such abuses of power.

Private Manning’s Wikileaks Snapshot of US Foreign Policy

US foreign policy continues to be dominated by secrecy. The Wikileaks documents show US secrecy often hides crimes, abuses and unethical behavior; it also hides actions of a government that operates not for the public interest but for the profits oftransnational corporations; and its secrecy is often unnecessary. We saw all of this in the documents leaked by Manning to Wikileaks. How widespread is US secrecy?

“… The US is producing some 560 million pages of classified information a year. By way of comparison, the Library of Congress and other big document depositories such as Harvard’s library system each add about 60 million pages a year to their holdings. And those 560 million pages of new secrets represent the work of only 12 months. Peter Galison, a Harvard professor of the history of science and physics, has calculated that since the late 1970s the US may have produced a trillion pages of classified info. That’s an amount of paper equal to the entire holdings of the Library of Congress, times 220.” 

Evidence that this is over-classification comes from the lack of harm caused by the publication of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents by Wikileaks and allied media outlets. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the impact of the leaks as “fairly modest.” The government conducted multiple investigations but could not find even one death that occurred as a result of the release. It could come up with only vague possible harms to reputations and relationships. This was the same thing found with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. As Sanford Unger writes:

” … The government was never able to prove the slightest harm to national security as a result of the Pentagon Papers’ disclosure. On the contrary, it is clear that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was immensely valuable as a contribution to the public dialogue about the Vietnam War. It did not end the conflict overnight, as Ellsberg might have hoped, but it certainly made opposition to it more acceptable and understandable.” 

The Pentagon Papers essentially told the real reasons for the Vietnam War, not the propaganda rationale provided by the compliant US media. How many of the tens of thousands of American soldiers and the millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians who died would have been saved if there had been a public debate based on the facts?

When Manning volunteered to join the military, she did so because she believed in the United States’ mission. She was moved, in part, by patriotism to act to help defend the nation. But as she says in her statement in support of a pardon, when she began “reading secret military reports on a daily basis … I started to question the morality of what we were doing.” Is that what the US government fears most, that if the people knew what it was doing in their name, there would be opposition? If that is the case, rather than hidden from public view, these policies should be made public and debated. Isn’t that what a real democracy would do?

We are seeing the same mistake being made in the negotiation of trade treaties as well. The largest trade agreement since the passage of the World Trade Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has gone through four years of negotiation with barely a word in the corporate media and with the White House and US trade representative refusing to make the text of the agreement public. Trade agreements not only change laws directly related to trade but also change domestic laws. For example, the repeal of Glass-Steagall was ordained by the WTO.

Obama has allowed 600 corporate advisers to have direct access to the text and to participate in the negotiations, but Congress, the media and the public have been shut out. Shouldn’t the American people and Congress debate an agreement that will affect banking regulation, food safety, greening of the economy, Internet privacy, health care, the environment and workers? All of this and more will be adversely affected by the TPP.

Sections that have been leaked have created a broad consensus of opposition to the TPP. Hundreds of communities and organizations have come out against the agreement. People from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Jim Hightower have expressed their opposition. Occupy Wall Street has made the TPP and global trade a central focus of its September 17 annual protest.

There is a growing consensus across political perspectives opposing the TPP. This is not surprising, because former US Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the mediathat the reason they are being so secretive is that if the pubic knew what was in the TPP it would be so unpopular it could not pass. To make matters worse, President Obama is trying to keep Congress from debating the agreement by pushing for “fast track,” which would allow him to sign the agreement without oversight by Congress. Isn’t this secrecy, the end-run around Congress and passage of an agreement that would fail if people knew what was in it, the opposite of democracy?

On militarism, national security, spying, diplomacy and trade, US foreign policy is terribly off course. A foundational problem for this misdirection is secrecy. A more open diplomacy would help get US policy on the correct course.

Open Diplomacy Should Become the Core Philosophy of US Foreign Policy

Manning described her release of documents as an experiment in open diplomacy in her online chats with Adrian Lamo. She wrote, ” ‘Open diplomacy’ does not mean that every word said in preparing a treaty should be shouted to the whole world and submitted to all the misconstructions that malevolence, folly and evil ingenuity could put upon it. Open diplomacy is the opposite of secret diplomacy, which consisted in the underhand negotiation of treaties whose very existence was kept from the world.”

Open government is consistent with a democracy in which the people are supposed to rule. This is something many presidents have at least rhetorically recognized. President Obama even took initial steps in this direction before reversing course and becoming one of the most secretive presidents ever. Within 36 hours of becoming president, Obama ordered that “every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.” He put forward a presumption in favor of disclosure. When he issued the order he said, “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

President Obama’s point is self-evident. How can citizens of a democracy participate in government or pass judgment on the actions of their elected representatives if we do not know what the government is doing? Knowledge about what is really occurring is a necessary precedent to debating whether a policy is good or not.

Justice Brandeis’ famous quotation “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman” is even more true today. In this age of mass communication and the Internet, people can be kept informed instantaneously, share information and debate in open forums on the web. These are the tools to prevent abuse of power by government.

Brady Kiesling, who served 20 years as a diplomat in Tel Aviv, Casablanca, Romania, Armenia and Athens before resigning in protest of the Iraq war, told Courthouse News a more open system of access is “not hopelessly naïve,” but requires a change of attitude and philosophy. He believes it might help quell anti-US paranoia, “Openness in U.S. diplomacy is a good thing, because even the most embarrassing truth about us is considerably less embarrassing or less harmful than what people believe they know about us without knowing the truth.”

Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist, describes open diplomacy as “like pacifism: Just as we cannot embrace complete disarmament while others stand ready to use their weapons, so Woodrow Wilson’s world of open diplomacy is a noble ideal that cannot be fully realized in the world in which we live.”

Retired Col. Ann Wright, who also resigned her diplomatic post when the Iraq War began, believes we can move to a much more open approach to diplomacy. Currently, sensitive government records must be declassified automatically after 10 years, although classification can be extended to 25 years in exceptional cases. Wright proposes speeding up the declassification process dramatically. “After six months, one year [and], if they’re really unclassified, should the public have access to them even the next day? It would be fascinating to have real-time access to what our diplomats are considering important.”

Jonathan Spalter, a former associate director of the US Information Agency who served on the National Security Council staff, sees an opportunity to embrace transparency, writing, “the WikiLeaks episode offers the United States a timely opportunity to reassess its approach to diplomacy to ensure it can remain relevant in the new global information ecosystem.”

We live in a new information age where people rapidly share and discuss information in a variety of formats. There is a great desire for real democracy, moving from managed representative democracy to people participating in the decision-making process. For governments to negotiate massive trade agreements like the TPP without any information shared with the public is out of step with the 21st century, when interactive networks allow engaged citizens to participate. Spalter suggests that “open source” principles be adapted to diplomacy writing:

“This new diplomacy will leverage many of the attributes and instincts of the open-source technology movement itself – and will look vastly different from diplomacy as we know it. The practice of traditional cable writing from ambassadors at post to their superiors at Foggy Bottom – more often than not ghost written by staff officers and requiring elaborate clearance processes – will give way to platforms of reporting that are not always confidential, and will be accessible to wider internal and external audiences and open to their commentary and critique.” 

At a news conference after the sentencing of Manning, her attorney David Coombs asked, “Is the government striking an appropriate balance between secrecy and oversight?” He noted that Americans do not know a lot about the national security apparatus of the United States and that we need a vibrant press and whistleblowers to close the gap of knowledge.

Perhaps part of the solution is for the relationship between whistleblowers and the media (defined to include the new citizens’ media) to become more formal with legal protections. For example, a board of media representatives could be developed as a place where whistleblowers can safely go to report crimes, unethical behavior and government or business abuses. This will allow a non-government agency, the media – a group that is supposed to be a government watchdog – to review documents.

Wikileaks also has created part of the solution, a system where anonymity protects the whistleblower. This very likely would have worked in the Manning case if it had not been for an informant, Adrian Lamo, who lied to Manning, telling him his conversation was confidential (Lamo was both a reporter and a minister). But the anonymous leak ability of Wikileaks should be embraced, rather than fought, by government. The goal of government should be better governance – not seizing power or doing favors for political donors.

When Benjamin Franklin was serving as a foreign minister for the colonies in France, he was under constant surveillance by spies. In 1777, he wrote a friend about his philosophy of diplomacy:

“It is simply this: to be concerned in no affairs that I should blush to have made public; and to do nothing but what spies may see and welcome. When a man’s actions are just and honorable, the more they are known, the more his reputation is increased and established.” 

Secrecy is not serving the United States well. The country has blundered repeatedly, building on the mistake of the Iranian coup in 1953 to a war with Iraq where there were no weapons of mass destruction. Add another: Wikileaks documents show a desperately off-track foreign policy that tortures civilians, imprisons without charges, kills civilians then tries to hide all of its misdeeds. This is an opportune time to stop making the mistake of secrecy and embrace transparency – and then to begin to behave in ways that are just and honorable so that our reputation is enhanced and improved. If we take that more moral path, transparency will keep us on it.

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