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The United States of Concealment

g and compass

L.A. Times

The United States of Concealment

November 16, 2001

John Balzar

Secrecy and America. The words do not belong in the same sentence.

Surely not now, not when the United States leads a vast coalition in a campaign to make this a better world.

George W. Bush won a lot of hearts in this country, including mine, when he said that no matter how long and difficult the struggle against terrorism, the U.S. could not fudge on its principles. To do so, he said, would mean victory for terrorists. So today, the Taliban is on the run. Our newfound friends, the Northern Alliance, and perhaps Pushtun fighters in the south, can open routes for relief shipments and prevent starvation across Afghanistan.

The moment belongs to the Pentagon war planners. Most Americans cheer them on. I cheer them on.

So why is there this awful feeling that terrorists are not losing as much as they deserve to lose?

Because Bush and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and the rest of them are surrendering what they said America would not: our ideals.

Democracy is nothing if not openness. Freedom is nothing without justice.

Now this administration has chosen to shelve both as it faces an enemy that knows neither. By doing so, the U.S. sets a disconcerting example for a world that is torn by two visions--one authoritarian and the other libertarian.

Instead of confronting fanatic Islam with our own unshakable pluralism, transparency and justice, this administration has chosen to battle on Al Qaeda's terms--in a cloak of righteous secrecy.

Secret military trials have no place in contemporary American culture. And while secret military actions surely do have a place, there is no plausible justification for such a powerful nation to wage an entire war against so weak a foe in the shadow of an information blackout.

Bush's insistence on keeping the military out of the public's sight and his absurdly timed announcement that the U.S. may resort to Star Chamber trials for terror suspects inflame every Darth Vader stereotype that suspicious Islamic and developing nations have about this country.

By now we all know that the U.S. is in a fight not just against Osama bin Laden but for world opinion. Support among nations and peoples who are not currently disposed to think kindly of America is not some paternal abstraction but pure self-defense: These are the countries and these are the people who provide terrorism its warriors, its havens and financial backing.

Rather than reduce the threat of terrorism, clandestine actions and the backlash that follows may ensure that we have more of it to fight in the years ahead.

As Abe Lincoln once remarked, "I shall adopt new views as fast as they appear to be true views."

No Madison Avenue "brand" advertising campaign will sell the world on the trueness of America's ideals when they are so quickly and conveniently suspended.

We are cautioned that military tribunals may be necessary to provide security and protect intelligence sources.

Probably so. But to take the added leap of telling the world that we reserve the right to turn our backs on our heritage and administer justice in secrecy jeopardizes any hope of convincing doubters that the U.S. is somehow a different and better place. Veiled military trials are for tyrants and dictators and the weak--not for proud nations out to win respect.

And ditto for wars fought behind a blackout screen. Americans streak across the battlefield as mere glints in the sky or as distant camouflaged figures on a hillside.

At home, Bush can count on the support of the public and, for the moment anyway, a docile press corps to say OK. In fact, half of the country is hot under the collar about the messenger giving away too much as it is, according to a Times poll. But the rest of the world? Bush doesn't have 86% approval ratings internationally. Who can blame those abroad for asking: Why hide?

Imagine, the world knows more about the actions of the ragtag bands of alliance fighters than it does about America's own troops. In the end, this opens the U.S. military to being smeared by association with all the gore and transgressions of these Afghan proxies who are renowned for the blood grudges they carry.

By insisting on secrecy, by showing the world how easily we will forgo two of America's most precious rights--the right to know and the right to believe in the justness of justice--the administration could hand Al Qaeda what it cannot win on its own and does not deserve: a victory.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the president. Barely 24 hours after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Bush said, "We will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life." Almost two months later, he reported to the nation that our resolve had not wavered and that the U.S. remained focused "on the things that matter most in life," among them, "our principles."

The word "secrecy" does not belong in such lofty sentences as these either.

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