Leaked Pentagon documents have revealed extensive American spying on American allies. They also include several important revelations about the war in Ukraine, ranging from the presence of a small American force on the ground to Ukrainian President Zelensky’s intention to use long-range missiles to strike targets within Russia.
Authorities have already arrested a suspect—21 year old National Guard Airman Jack Teixeira. At present, his motives for leaking the documents are unclear. The Discord group where he allegedly originally posted the documents was for gun enthusiasts. This and some other claims floating around in initial reports may suggest that Teixeira holds right-wing beliefs. On the other hand, the New York Times reports that, whatever his motives, “outrage about wrongdoing or government policies does not appear to have been a factor.”
Personally, I don’t care what his motives were or whether his ideological convictions bear any resemblance to my own. If he’s “guilty” of leaking these documents, Airman Teixeira was performing a public service.
Citizens in a democracy should be able to make informed decisions about their country’s foreign policy—and that principle is more important than ever in the context of a potentially catastrophic conflict between the United States and Russia.
The Washington Post responded to the rise of Donald Trump by adopting the noble slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The slogan appears at the top of their website and their online shop sells “Democracies Dies in Darkness” shirts in various shapes and sizes. You might assume, then, that the Post would be thrilled to see vital information about matters of war and peace see the light of day so they can become the subject of democratic discussion and debate. Instead, their Editorial Board is frettting about the “damaging” nature of the leak and the possibility of the information “falling into the wrong hands.”
The implication may be that the lives of intelligence sources will be put in danger by the leaks. That’s a standard claim trotted out by the Pentagon and national security officials after previous major leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. I don’t know how to rule out the possibility that this could happen at some point in the future. But common sense should tell us that if and when there’s a real case of even one death anywhere in the world provably linked to information in leaks, we’ll hear about it.
The Post doesn’t specify whether the American public’s hands are among those the information should fall into, but the implied answer is ‘no’. “Keeping secrets is essential to a functioning government,” the Editorial Board writes, and “[b]reaking the laws for a psychic joyride is a despicable betrayal of trust and oaths.”
“t’s also important information from the perspective of Americans who should get a say in how deeply our own country should be involved in that war.”
The Editorial Board’s claim that Teixeira’s only motive was to go on a “psychic joyride” may be premature. It’s also completely irrelevant. The question is whether it’s a bad thing for the rest of of us to know what we now know.
For example, we now know that Zelensky wants to use the longer-range missiles he’s long requested to strike targets within Russia itself. That’s understandable from his perspective. He’s fighting against an invading army and he wants to strike at the aggressor in whatever way will be most damaging.
But it’s also important information from the perspective of Americans who should get a say in how deeply our own country should be involved in that war. Biden has several times in the past drawn lines in the sand about which kinds of military aid would be too escalatory—and then crossed those lines as continuing pressure was applied by hawks.
There’s been very little pressure in the direction of greater caution and restraint. And calls for de-escalation and peace negotiations, while quite popular globally, have been consigned to the outermost fringes of American political discourse. Anyone who worries about the spiral of escalation and thinks even a messy and unsatisfying negotiated solution would be preferable to interminable war has been smeared as a “Putin apologist”. Little wonder, in such a climate, that US involvement keeps escalating past previously sacrosanct lines.
At least now, if Biden starts to waver on longer-range missiles, the American public will be aware that they would be used to strike inside Russia. Not only would this obviously escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow, it might bring Beijing into the war. So far China has held back from arming its ally (Russia) the way the US has armed Ukraine, but that could change—and Chinese leadership has indicated that strikes within Russian territory are one of their red lines.
Perhaps you believe that the risks are worth it for the sake of defeating a dangerous and belligerent Russia. Fine. But it would be awfully nice if we could at least have a public debate about it with all the facts on the table. Similarly, you might not think it’s a big deal that “special operations personnel” from the United States and several other NATO countries are already operating on the ground in Ukraine. The number of NATO boots—and especially the number of American boots—on the ground is tiny. And American soldiers shooting or being shot by Russian soldiers wouldn’t necessarily trigger a direct conflict between the two nuclear power. So maybe it’s worth rolling the dice.
But whether it’s worth it or not, if the United States is a democracy, shouldn’t American citizens have a say in the matter? In a New York Times op-ed last May, President Biden promised the public that, “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.”
It would be one thing if he’d publicly announced that he’d changed his mind, asked for authorization from Congress, and led a soul-searching public debate about whether the cause of doing everything possible to ensure the victory of an American ally in Ukraine was worth the considerably increased risk of a regional conflict becoming a world war between two or more nuclear-armed powers. But he didn’t do any of that. He just sent the special forces personnel and hoped that the public wouldn’t find out that he’d broken his word.
Judging by their eagerness to pursue every lead about the identity of the leaker—and their marked lack of interest in the content of the leaks—it’s clear that the Washington Post and much of the rest of the mainstream media thinks that any high-minded principles they might otherwise subscribe to about democracy and darkness end at the water’s edge. But decisions about war and peace are among the most consequential that any government can make—even when the wars don’t involve potential conflicts between nuclear powers. If democratic principles matter anywhere, they matter here.
In Russia, decisions about foreign policy are made by Vladimir Putin and other highly-placed officials and everyone else falls in line. In the United States, things are supposed to be different.
If you believe in democracy, the question you should be demanding an answer to is not, “How did a 21-year-old National Guardsman have access to this information?” It’s, “Why the hell was it kept from the rest of us?”