The president in Afghanistan: Where would YOU draw the line on security?

Following our discussion on WikiLeaks, I thought I’d pose this…

Note that President Obama just slipped unannounced into Afghanistan. This, to me, is appropriate and laudable.

But I ask you: Do you think you and I as citizens had a “right” to know in advance that he was going there? And would a Julian Assange, to your thinking, have had the “right” to tell you about it in advance?

And if you think not, then WHERE would you draw the line? I draw it here: It is up to duly constituted authorities to make such decisions about the security of official information, and not up to self-appointed individuals or organizations such as Assange or WikiLeaks. When they presume to take such decisions upon themselves, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of national and international law.

Would you draw it somewhere else? And if you would, in what way is that consistent with our being a nation of laws and not of men?

13 thoughts on “The president in Afghanistan: Where would YOU draw the line on security?

  1. Doug Ross

    There were reporters with the President on the trip, right? And they had advance notice, right? So I’m sure plenty of people knew about the trip ahead of time… many of them un-elected representatives of the media. If they can know about it, it’s probably not a big deal.

    “Reporters learned late in the flight that the in-person meeting was canceled. Even Gibbs seemed surprised to learn of it. He was interrupted with the news on the weather problem after he had started a briefing with reporters traveling with Obama toward the end of the flight.”

  2. Brad

    Yeah, Doug, exactly: The media people knew about it, and did not report it.

    My question is, should they have? I say “of course not.” But I’m speculating that some people would say that in the absence of the press doing its duty and blowing the cover of secrecy, Assange would have the right to take it upon himself to do so.

    But perhaps I exaggerate the position those who make excuses for Assange. I raise this question so that others might enlighten me on that point.

    And finally, my point is, who gets to decide: The duly constituted authorities, or independent actors? The MSM decided (as it always does in such circumstances, thank goodness) to honor the decision by duly constituted authority that this should be kept under wraps in advance. So would I.

  3. bud

    Brad, you have this 100% backwards. It’s not what the public is entitled to know that’s the issue, it’s what few things the public should not know. Take for example the article on the front of the USA Today which states in part:

    “U.S. diplomatic cables revealed on Friday portray Afghanistan as rife with graft to the highest levels of government, with tens of millions of dollars flowing out of the country and a cash transfer network that facilitates bribes for corrupt Afghan officials, drug traffickers and insurgents.”

    That is the type of information that absolutely should be made available to the public. If the public is not properly informed on issues regarding our involvement in these hopelessly useless wars how can they make informed decisions at the ballot box? Besides, if we weren’t involved in Afghanistan in the first place knowing about the president’s visit wouldn’t be an issue. Was it a secret when Obama went to India recently? No. In fact the GOP made this ridiculous stink about spending so much money.

    In a free country our leaders are going to be exposed to some level of risk. Those risks can and should be minimized whenever possible. Those reasonable security issues don’t relate to having an informed public. Most of the Wikileaks stuff is something the public is entitled to know.

  4. Juan Caruso

    Would you draw it somewhere else?

    Perhaps not:

    Duly constituted authorities only, but, “consistent with our being a nation of laws and not of men”, never, ever an unappointed individual without authorization of the president and/or related congressional intelligence/security standing committee(s).

    Unilateral leaks of classified information from congressional members only when full attribution of source(s) is given subject to the full penalties of law.

    Otherwise, “nation of laws and not of men” tends to denote nation of highly placed lawyers, as in the Lawyer- Political Complex.

  5. Nick Nielsen

    In the case of the President’s visit to Afghanistan, no, I don’t think we needed to know about it in advance.

    Unfortunately (and all too often), those wielding the classification wand see no difference between information that can compromise or threaten national security and information that merely shines a much-needed light into places nobody in government wants the people to see.

  6. Doug Ross

    How many of us are naive enough to believe that if a terrorist organization wanted to know that Obama was going to Afghanistan, they would have no way of knowing how to get that information?

  7. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Of course no one should leak the President’s whereabouts in a war zone–although relying on the absence of leakage would be foolhardy security.

    Why exactly does he need to be in such harm’s way, in the day and age of the Internets and all?

    Wikileaks isn’t about that kind of leaking–it’s about leaking corruption coverups and disinformation campaigns and the like.

    I did enjoy the Onion headline “Assange Fired from IT Job at Pentagon”—it captures so well the Keystone Kops approach to information security in this country!

  8. Brad

    In a Tom Clancy novel, a terrorist organization would have the way of knowing. In real life, not so much.

    Anything can leak, and it’s theoretically possible for a sophisticate, savvy organization to get its hands on such information. But not likely. And minimizing the risk by keeping the plan closely held, then acting quickly and having the president on his way home before the fact that he’s there is widely reported, lowers risk to an acceptable level.

    It’s a basic truth of warfare, whether conventional or not, from ancient times to the information age: If you have surprise and initiative on your side, you’re usually going to be OK unless the enemy is very lucky. So if you minimize the opportunities for a leak until it’s too late for your adversary to act effectively, you’re usually going to be OK.

    The proof of what I just said is that we’ve seen presidents go in and out of war zones in recent years multiple times, and (thank God) haven’t lost one yet.

    And to echo Doug’s question, How many of us are naive enough to believe that al Qaeda wouldn’t love to kill Obama, if it could manage it?

    That they haven’t managed it argues that this management of advance information has been part of an overall approach that works. Some might say that it’s just all those guys with guns travelling with the president. But every minute of warning enabling an assassin time to mount an operation increases the chances of getting through such defenses.

  9. Brad

    I don’t want to take us on any more of a digression from the topic, but…

    The discussion of terrorist capabilities inevitably makes me marvel, once again, that there hasn’t been another 9/11 in this country (again, thank God). And I don’t think any of us are naive enough to believe that al Qaeda wouldn’t love to hit us like that again. So we are led to wonder about bin Laden’s capabilities, or lack thereof.

    9/11 was an effective plan, effectively executed (it didn’t achieve all its objectives, but neither did the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese had a lot more to work with). Of course, they can’t do exactly that again — it’s not reasonable to assume that the passengers will ever again allow a few men to take over a plane with box-cutters. That was a tactic that quit working on 9/11 itself (I refer to Flight 93).

    But that simply argues for a change of tactics — and we’ve seen attempts at that, but nothing effective so far.

    It would be nice to think that its our crack TSA teams, or the fact that we’ve kept the organization off-balance by keeping it tied up with conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But even if that’s it, who expected such measures to work for so long?

  10. Doug Ross

    It hasn’t happened because it hasn’t happened.

    My son and I got on the topic last week when the whole TSA rubdown issue came up. In a matter of minutes, we both proposed a number of theoretical ways to circumvent the systems in place.

    al Qaeda got more than it could ever have hoped for with all the resources we now waste on Homeland Security. Every time a three year old is patted down, Osama probably has a giggling fit. Same with every time a traveler is forced to throw out a 4 ounce tube of toothpaste.

  11. Brad

    Oh, no question — bin Laden achieved a number of strategic objectives already.

    But, trying to think like the enemy, I wonder: If one 9/11 accomplished so much (and in asymmetrical warfare, one of the greatest things the conventionally weaker party can accomplish is to get the enemy to tie up his vast resources), how much more might he accomplish with another, very different (so we can’t anticipate it) 9/11 every year?

    But something chilling just occurred to me as I was typing that… I remember the arc of what happened after 9/11… for a time we were very unified, like after Pearl Harbor. But that dissipated over time, as we collapsed back into our customary (these days) division and bickering, INCLUDING particularly bitter division over the conduct of our response to al Qaeda itself.

    If he were to attack us every year (and I’m talking mega attacks, not some idiot setting his underwear on fire), he could push us into a constant state of unity. That would make our responses to him more effective, but beyond that might strengthen our hand in many other enterprises. Who knows? A unified nation might actually devise a rational energy policy…

    And he wouldn’t want that.

    Do you think he’s that clever? Do you think he understands us that well? Is his apparent lack of effectiveness as a terrorist the last nine years actually a ruse de guerre?

    Does he (or whoever calls the shots in whatever terrorist group you care to name) see that we are weaker, that we decline, the longer we try to maintain an effective response to 9/11 even as the unifying memory of the attacks diminish?

  12. James Cross

    As an archivist who writes a news column on federal records news for a professional newsletter, I would suggest looking at the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) reports on classification and declassification at the National Archives site (

    You might also be interested in 2004 comments to Congress by a former director of ISOO, J. William Leonard available at As he notes, overclassification is a continuing problem that costs us money, undermines our security, and undercuts the legitimacy of the classification system itself. Which, in *my* opinion, leads to sites like Wikileaks and the actions that you so decry, Brad.

  13. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Thank you for your learned input, James Cross.

    My husband has a colleague who was an East German computer science professor, and a Stasi surveillance target. He got his file after Reunification, and was amazed at the sheer volume of triviality, literally, was recorded. Reportedly, the Stasi was unable to actually review much of its surveillance data….too many subjects, not enough watchers.

    Signal overload is a huge problem, too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *