Obama’s Aggressive Secrecy and Unknown Unknowns in Syria

Obama chair

In the aftermath of public revelations that the Obama Justice Department snooped on scores of AP journalists and accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of criminal acts for seeking out statements from a State Department official, there is a lot of much-needed talk about the so-called “chilling effect,” especially in the context of the unprecedented number of whistleblowers prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act under the Obama administration.

The President’s aggressive tactics in keeping government activity in air-tight secrecy, “creates a serious climate of fear in which investigative journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to do their job — informing citizens about the secret actions of political leaders — because everyone involved in that process is petrified of government persecution,” writes Glenn Greenwald at The New York Times. “As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it in a New Republic article detailing the harm done to journalism: ‘It’s a huge impediment to reporting, and so chilling isn’t quite strong enough, it’s more like freezing the whole process into a standstill.'”

One aspect of this that hasn’t been widely articulated is this Rumsfeldian notion that, in this climate of fear where informative leaks and off-the-record statements are increasingly rare, the American people don’t even know what we don’t know. That is, there could be plenty of national security policies that have a significant or even mostly covert nature to them, but we can’t even determine with much confidence which policies those are.

But if I were to speculate, one of the most likely of these cases is the U.S. approach to Syria.

Enter Harvard professor of international relations Stephen Walt and his latest post at ForeignPolicy.com. He writes that he “wonder[s] whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn’t more substantial than I have previously thought,” and speculates on what the U.S. is “REALLY doing in Syria.”

Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama’s administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn’t very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no “no-fly zones,” and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.

Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don’t cost too much and don’t attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don’t know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved “blowback” from the Syrian conflict, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)

In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks’ demands for airstrikes, “no-fly zones,” or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.

Indeed, as I wrote in these spaces almost a year ago:

…my own view is that the Obama administration probably has an expansive covert policy on Syria in place. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that “Covert ops [are] ongoing.” This is one of the most secretive administrations in recent memory and the situation in Syria is extraordinarily sensitive and precarious. The notion that Obama is holding off in the clandestine realm of policy is not really credible. Again, [the Syrian conflict] has all the reasons for not intervening attached to it, but if it’s done in secret, the administration can avoid taking responsibility for its actions.

Publicly, Obama has opposed no-fly zones, opposed directly arming the rebels, opposed boots on the ground, etc. Covertly, (although it has been reported in the press, I would guess as a deliberate and authorized leak) the CIA has been facilitating the delivery of arms to rebels through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

But what else don’t we know? It’s difficult to write about because we just don’t know what we don’t know thanks to the chilling effect Obama’s unprecedented secrecy has had on the press.

There is a tangled proxy war going on in Syria with enormous stakes. In other areas of foreign policy that are even less consequential than the fight in Syria, the record of the Obama administration has been to make it all secret and insulate themselves from any accountability for costs and failures. It’s hardly far-fetched to suspect a similar scenario with respect to Syria.

“I don’t know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is,” Walt writes. “But that’s what troubles me: I don’t like not knowing what my government is doing…”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Obama likes it.

17 thoughts on “Obama’s Aggressive Secrecy and Unknown Unknowns in Syria”

  1. So, Team Obama would be the 'blind man' stumbling bumbling around in a darkened room oblivious to it's own blunders and all the while, reminding Amerika "there's nothing to see here."
    The part that troubles me is, the sociopathic lunatic is insulated from accountability. But so was the Bushco and Donny 'death' Rumsfeld is now a veritable fountainhead of Rummyisms that lay on Team Obama like a cheap skin suit.

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  2. Every president needs to have a war under his name.., this one and his war failed to be successful because people of Syria are wide awake, they see where this war will take them.., they know that the result is slavery by the Saudis and others alike tyrants regime.., they know that they are going to lose their freedom as Libyan people have.., they know that whatever it is that USA or the English and in general the EU government presenting will turn to become lies as they have in Libya. Look: we said that before.., the first phase in Neo fascism started in 1990s.., we have entered the second phase of the same in 2008.

  3. "…
    These events have caused a great deal of suffering to our homeland and consumed a great deal of its material and non-material resources. In my first speech under the roof of this Assembly, and when the crisis was in its first weeks, I talked about the outside factor without emphasizing it since the greatest responsibility of any failure in any house is that of the owners of the house and those who live in it before it is the responsibility of foreigners. But at that time, some people went as far as denying the existence of the foreign factor altogether and considered this argument an escape from internal obligations. They argued that the gist of the problem a disagreement between Syrian parties and that what is happening on the ground is a purely peaceful movement and that the source of any violence is the state. Some people made this argument in malice and bad faith and others made it with naivety, lack of knowledge, and as a result of media forgeries. Now, and after more than a year from the beginning of these events, things are clearer and masks have been lifted. The international role in what is happening is already well-known not only for decades, but for centuries past. And I don’t think it’s going to change in the foreseeable future. Colonialism is still colonialism. It only changed in terms of methods and ways of attack. The regional role has exposed itself when it moved from one failure to another in the plans of its perpetrators. It had to declare the truth of its positions and intentions through its own officials. As for local figures and forces, who have appointed themselves agents of the people, they saw the people expressing themselves on the streets without any need for guardians or agents taking the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of an ephemeral wave and seeking to build glories for themselves at the expense of the people’s blood. The people have despised and categorically rejected all those who have planted their bodies in the country while their hearts and brains lay outside. On the other hand, there were those who proposed ideas in order to reach solutions from the beginning of the crisis. Some based their views on an emotional reaction to a crisis which has been planned by pure reason. Others based their arguments on available information without deeper examination of a crisis built on a solid foundation of forgery. We highly appreciate good intentions, but what is happening is more complicated and dangerous than allowing to be dealt with in a simplistic analysis or emotional reactions or utopian ideas. After all these starkly clear facts and after all the innocent blood which has been spilled and the innocent souls which have been lost, we are in need of a tremendous amount of reason. We need to learn from the people to which we belong and which was able to decipher the conspiracy from its early beginnings and expose the highly complicated forgeries based on people’s instinct which is never mistaken and a national memory feeding on a heritage rich in experience and a moral accumulation which has fortified our society against deviation and protected our traditions and our identity from annihilation. What we have learned from the people is a simple, old and deep principle. If we want to solve a problem, all we have to do is face this problem and not run away from it. Most of the proposed solutions have expressed an unconscious case of escaping forward. Facing the problem might be painful in most cases, but in the end it will provide the cure, while running away from the problem is similar to the case of an addict who feels a false ecstasy while in real fact is moving towards death.

    –President Bashar al-Assad (June 4th, 2012)


    1. OMG !!!

      And this is the guy who's supposed to be the monster, but turns out to be saner and make clearer speeches than our own politicians.

      Can you imagine them making a speech as informed and objective as that?

      Returning to Obama, he is the most secretive and dissembling politician for a longtime, with the possible exception of the British Tony Blair.

      Clearly Prof. Walt knows what he is talking about.

  4. "While running away from the problem is similar to the case of an addict who feels a false ecstasy while in real fact is moving toward death…"

    USA is a militarism regime, based on vulture capitalism idea, an addicted system to wars, NATO is a similar entity of the same culture produced by a militarism regime to support the vulture capitalism addiction.

    Now gather around intelligent people of the west.., and think for a moment.., after reading the president Bashir Al-Assad.., questions the fact if Syria is a system of a dictatorial, brutal, inhuman regime that USA and EU governments preaching about..? which USA and EU militarism fighting to replace it with a falsified democracy as their own.., replacing it with the intelligent of a barbarians whom are fighting the Oil companies and the tyrants wars.., or is it the Oil companies as BP paid by the Saudis hiring the USA militarism regime to do the job for the Oil companies and the tyrant regimes.

  5. Obama is a cowardish president who hates to take responsibility for his actions – and even more so for his numerous crimes.

    Yeah, I really mean it when I write that Obama is a coward – because each and every action or inaction of this mediocre president over the past five years – and the next three years to come, too – can be explained COMPLETELY and TOTALLY when taking into account Obama's deeply ingrained cowardice.

    Psychologically speaking, Obama is a passively-aggressive coward – and he has to be seen as such to be fully understood.

  6. Hello all,

    Mr. Walt writes. “But that’s what troubles me: I don’t like not knowing what my government is doing…”

    When I read Mr. Walt's essay, chock-a-block with the junk insights of a shallow sage, all I can do is slowly shake my head and force myself to read it through to the end.

    In Mr. Walt's world, the skies grow gray when he doesn't know what "his" government is doing in Syria.

    Mr. Walt just doesn't get it.

    The American government isn't " Ours." It's Theirs, And Theirs alone. And it's been that way for a long, long time.

    Mr. Glaser then finishes with: "Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Obama likes it."

    Whether or not Obama "likes it" — and I suspect that he, Dirty Barry, likes it just fine — is irrelevant.
    Why? Because the Presidency, itself, is irrelevant. But the implications of such an acknowledgement are so odious by the penny, and so ominous by the pound, that Messrs Walt and Glaser choose to distance themselves from reality.

    And "choose" is the operative word here.

    Ignorance is always self-imposed.

    Those of us who are genuinely interested in what motivates the American Elite are better served by the thoughts of Arthur Silber,, Chris Hedges, Gerald Celente, and Paul Craig Roberts, writers who harbor no illusions as to the dark, deep corruptions that infest the American government; writers who bylines are, unfortunately, seldom displayed on Antiwar.com.

    John Q. Parvenu

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  8. The President’s aggressive tactics in keeping government activity in air-tight secrecy really challenge all the journalist to be wiser and smarter on the information they well have.

  9. USA may be a hawkishness regime, supported vulture capitalist economy plan, AN alcoholic system to wars, global organization may be a similar entity of constant culture created by a hawkishness regime to support the vulture capitalist economy addiction.

  10. The limited aid the US has sent to the Syrian rebels, while totally unacceptable in my opinion, is primarily a pittance for public consumption so that Obama gets to display his disapproval for the Assad regime’s violence.

  11. The limited aid the US has sent to the Syrian rebels, while totally unacceptable in my opinion, is primarily a pittance for public consumption so that Obama gets to display his disapproval for the Assad regimea??s violence.

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