Inside the Capitol

Monday, May 25, 2009

5-19 Caldera's Big Mistake Was Secrecy

 SANTA FE - Louis Caldera's OK of a low-level flyover of New York City by a 747 on a photo shoot may have gotten him in trouble even if he had gone through proper White House channels but at least it would have kept him from having to accept the final responsibility.
 Someone along the White House chain of command surely would have seen it as a dumb move in the middle of an economic crisis to spend $329,000 to get a new picture of a plane sometimes used as Air Force One flying near the Statue of Liberty.
 Caldera did inform the proper local authorities of the misguided mission. But his big mistake was in ordering those officials to keep it secret. Had the people of New York City known it was just a propaganda stunt, they wouldn't have gone running into the streets fearing another 9/11 terrorist attack.
 Why in the world did Gen. Caldera think it necessary for New York authorities to not to tell their citizens that a large aircraft would be circling the city for an hour at 1,000 feet with two military fighter jets accompanying it? Were they afraid terrorists would shoot it down? Did they think no one would notice?
 It is difficult to come up with an explanation. The best I can figure is that as a former Army chief of staff and University of New Mexico president, Caldera was accustomed to not having to get permission from anyone higher. And as a former military official, Caldera was accustomed to all of his moves being secret, whether there was any good reason for it or not.
 It was the secrecy that got him in big trouble. It is secrecy that always seems to be getting our government in trouble. In case you hadn't noticed America's Wild West culture always has been open and independent. Those aren't good traits for keeping secrets. 
America is not good at keeping secrets. When we try to keep secrets from our own people, we always suppose the worst. The New York City flyover is a good example. When we try to keep secrets from our friends and enemies, they find out anyway because we're not a culture of keeping secrets or stealing secrets.
Most of our major, and no telling how many of our minor, military secrets have been stolen. Stalin knew we had a nuclear bomb before Harry Truman did. The Soviet dictator was reported as not a bit surprised when President Franklin Roosevelt told him about our bomb, but Truman was blown over when he found out about it after becoming president.
Russian spies infiltrated Los Alamos before the American people knew the place existed. And while we were still saying, "Gee whiz," when the military showed us movies of the Trinity Site explosion, Soviet scientists already were building their bomb from blueprints smuggled out of Los Alamos.
The Chinese seem to be at the far end of the cultural spectrum from us, with an ancient tradition based on patience and a long-range approach to problem solving. They are willing to wait decades for their moles to work their way into positions from which they can be of the most help. They also are content to gather small nuggets of information from numerous sources.
Americans aren't good at doing this or at understanding others who operate in such a fashion. Imagine a spy thriller that takes 20 years to unfold. We want the action over in two hours.
Our nation needs a strong defense and a strong nuclear deterrent. World peace is not likely to break out any time in the next millennium. But if our national security system has the primary effect of keeping the American people in the dark, while remaining porous to foreign spies, we lose more than we gain.
Government secrecy in the name of national security creates public distrust and bureaucratic inefficiency. It would be nice if we could learn from the Caldera incident.

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