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Michael C's Quick Hits on Petraeus

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Thought 1: Top Secret America Ensnares Its Own

The FBI ended up confiscating some 20,000-30,000 documents related to the whole Petraeus investigation. Simply staggering. But why did they have to collect so many?

Because the FBI hoped to catch General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell in the most over-prosecuted crimes in Top Secret America: storing classified information on unclassified computer systems. The horror!

Our national security system grossly over-classifies any and every document it produces. And it produces too many of those documents in the first place. As a result, completely innocuous documents end up on unclassified systems. Most of the time, the military only prosecutes whistleblowers who anger the current administration; not spies, terrorists or respected generals.

Worse, the media (and prosecutors) fail to distinguish between Top Secret and Secret documents, when really only the former are “secret”. Everyone in the military has a security clearance. I firmly believe that any “Foreign Intelligence Service” worth its salt (China, Russia and Israel) has hacked into our “secret” SIPR computer network.

Thought 2: Hagiography...the Most Popular Word of the Year

I feel like the media went tripping over itself to immediately label Paula Broadwell’s book, All In, a “hagiography”--which I’m guessing most people can’t actually define. Hagiography is the technical term for a biography of a saint (Wikipedia tells me).

The earliest use of “hagiography” after the Petraeus scandal came on the 9th of November, as far as I can tell, in Slate. It was then repeated on the 10th, 11th, 13th, and 16th in places from Foreign Policy to The Guardian to Commentary to Business Insider. This is far from an exhaustive list.
Why weren’t more critics this critical when it was first published? To his credit, Spencer Ackerman actually labeled the biography a hagiography when it was first released due to a critical AP review. (Kind of incredible considering this later article.) Still most commentators waited for a sex scandal to dismiss the book.

Thought 3: The Petraeus Scandal and the Patriot Act

Fortunately for America, this sex scandal will have a good side effect: we might start dismantling America’s crazy post-9/11 laws.

As this Slate post makes clear, this scandal has raised some disturbing questions: Why did the FBI investigate Petraeus? Did they obtain warrants? If no crimes were committed, how did the scandal break?

The FBI has so much power, and so little terrorism to catch, they investigate regular citizens, not just scary looking foreigners. As Glenn Greenwald notes, “...it appears that the FBI not only devoted substantial resources, but also engaged in highly invasive surveillance, for no reason other than to do a personal favor for a friend of one of its agents, to find out who was very mildly harassing her by email.” As Joan Walsh writes, “Once people get over the latest pageant of human frailty on display in the Petraeus story, maybe they’ll realize how much privacy we’ve all given up in the last decade, under both political parties.”

Which will (hopefully) lead to real world consequences. As On the Media explains, the revelation that the FBI can investigate anyone on little to no suspicioun may prompt politicians to act, since they might see themselves in Petraeus’ place.
Thought 4: The Military Will Learn The Wrong Lesson From the Media

Tom Rick’s blog has a great prediction about the lessons the military will learn:

“Talking to reporters always will cost you down the road. So hold the media at arm's length. Or more. Don't engage unless ordered to do so.”

four comments

Re: Thought #1: I really don’t understand how you can just blow off the fact that someone had classified material outside of the chain of custody and/or on a personal computern at their home. Stating that foreign governments probably have already hacked into secrets held by the USG and the fact, yes granted fact, that we classify far too much, is immaterial to the fact that a reserve LtCol had classified material at her home. I’m not convinced that this wasn’t the case; I suspect that the USG just dropped the classified materials charges because they didn’t want to deal with it or PB agreed to some lesser charge. Bottom line is regardless of too much classifying or over-classifying, having material out of the custody and material security loops is an offense. period.

I read an interesting remark somewhere from a former prosecutor who said that basically, everything is a federal offense nowadays. More precisely, everyone has broken the law, so it is really just a matter of “who do we prosecute?” When it comes to classified material, virtually every LTC in the military has broken this law. So if it is so rampantly broken and so rampantly ignored by prosecutors, why? What does that say about the law and our LTCs?

Then, if one of those LTCs decides to blast his bosses for fraud, waste and abuse, he then gets his computer/home searched and convicted for a crime virtually every LTC is committing.

Now you have the law as tool to ensure every soldier plays the good soldier. Or to crush dissent.

I’m not saying that classified material shouldn’t be brought into unclassified areas, but we shouldn’t prosecute soldiers who aren’t willfully bringing the information out with intent to distribute it to foreigners. Otherwise, we’re using the law to hide waste fraud and abuse.

(BTW, look up “lying to a federal investigator”. It is also a federal offense, and the most commonly charged crime against “terrorists” since it shouldn’t be illegal in the first place.)

My favorite (everybody has one) was the local weather being secret.

The other point is that you are making everybody involved cynical about the system. The effect that has in the long run isn’t quantifiable but I believe it can’t be good.

The media are sheeplike in many ways, even in their use of the written word. They should be ashamed about that considering writing is their business and writers are supposed to strive for a bit of originality or at least not be complacently trite.

Their use of “hagiography” is an example of that. ‘Iconic’ is in high fashion right now as ‘…of choice’ used to be. (My inner dog bares its teeth and growls every time it hears ‘iconic’.