The Etiquette of War and Surveillance
Letters to Colonel Manners (Ret.)By Tom Engelhardt
[Editor’s Note: In the sequester and government-shutdown era, the classic military newspaper Stars and Stripes is facing some of the problems of its civilian brethren and so downsizing its print edition. Among the features to go: Dear Abby. As it happens, TomDispatch is ready to step into the breach. We’ve called on an old and knowledgeable friend, Colonel Manners (ret.), whose experience in military and surveillance matters is evident from his impressive CV (unfortunately, a classified document). His assignment: to answer letters from Americans puzzled by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a first sampling from a column that, in syndication, could go global.]
Dear Col. Manners,
I’m an embattled newspaper editor. Recently, I read a New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta that included this disturbing passage about the New York Times: "In early August, the Times was working on a story about an intercepted terror threat when James R. Clapper, the administration’s director of intelligence, asked the paper’s Washington bureau to withhold certain details. Clapper warned that, if the full version were made public, the Times 'would have blood on our hands.'" The Times withheld those details. However, with so many classified documents pouring out of Washington and the possibility that some might come into the possession of my paper, I worry about finding blood on my hands, too. On a personal note, I’m extremely squeamish. In college, I had to leave my biology class when the professor showed a film on Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system. While watching Grey’s Anatomy, I have to close my eyes whenever surgery comes on screen. I grow faint if I get a paper cut. Any suggestions?
Stressed and Bloody Anxious in Chicago
Dear Stressed and Bloody Anxious,
I see your problem. Fortunately, I can assure you that it’s all in your head. To understand why, you need to grasp a distinction that’s clear in Washington, but might be less so in Chicago. When a government official suggests that an outsider might have “blood” on his or her hands -- as happened repeatedly, for instance, during the Bradley Manning imbroglio -- they are talking about prospective blood, future blood. Negative reactions to blood, according to scientific studies, are due, in part, to its alarming red color. Future blood, being metaphorical, is not red. If it gets on your hands, you will not actually “see” it.
In Washington, this is similarly true of past blood. Take National Intelligence Director Clapper. From 2001-2006, he was the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence, before being nominated in the Obama years to head the office of national intelligence. In other words, he has served in Washington throughout the Iraq and Afghan Wars, as well as the Global War on Terror. Like many Washington officials, military and civilian, who supported the American global mission in those years, he might be said to have some responsibility for any number of deaths and so to have “blood on his hands.” Think of the almost 4,500 Americans who died in Iraq or the nearly 2,300 who have, thus far, died in Afghanistan, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who died in those years.
Now, here’s the point: Washington is not disturbed by such blood. The reason is simple. It, too, can’t be seen. I’ve met Clapper and I can assure you that, when he shakes your hand, there is not the slightest trace of a reddish tint anywhere on it. (He’s got an impressively firm grip, by the way!) This, I hope, will lighten your unnecessarily grim mood. Like so many other stalwarts in our national security universe, Clapper is a model. He is unfazed, and his “blood” is far more real than the highly speculative and metaphorical blood that might someday be on your hands for a killing related to the release of a classified document. Note that, despite the appearance of startling numbers of such documents in recent years, there is no record of prospective blood actually being spilled.
Col. Manners (ret.)