Truman National Security Project

President Obama’s Terrorism and National Security Strategy Part II

1280px-National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland

This week marks the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The battle took place 4 – 7 June in 1942 and proved to be the turning point in the war against Japan, just 6 months following the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Winston Churchill summed it up best:

“This memorable American victory was of cardinal importance, not only to the United States but to the whole Allied cause…At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed.”

How did the U.S. accomplish what many feared was mission impossible? As stated on a Department of Defense web site:

“The easy answer is superior intelligence. American communications intelligence deduced Japan’s plan well before battle began and allowed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, to establish an ambush with Navy carriers ready and waiting for the Japanese.”

What is truly significant for me is the incredible job done by the Pacific fleet intelligence officers. According to a NSA publication:

“Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, only 10% to 15% of the code was being read. By June of 1942, however, Rochefort’s staff was able to make educated guesses regarding the Japanese Navy’s crucial next move.”

Can you imagine what would have happened if the intelligence community had guessed wrong and the U.S. had lost the battle and then the press had gotten wind that the intelligence staff could only read a small portion of the Japanese naval traffic? Critics would be screaming you risked the few remaining naval assets we had based on only being able to read a small portion of the traffic?

This brings me to what I’d like to blog about. As mentioned in my last blog, I wanted to focus on portions of the president’s speech on May 23 that has not received much attention in the media. Concerning protection of classified information, President Obama stated:

“The Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society. As Commander-in Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

“Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”

While serving in the military, I avoided a Washington, D.C. assignment preferring to stay as close as possible to the war fighters. Friends always told me the only good thing about a Pentagon assignment was that it was an environment were at least your friends stabbed you in the chest. I say this to mention that when you are assigned a security clearance you agree to not disclose any information to unauthorized individuals. If you do they tell you you’ll be prosecuted and could face jail time. I don’t understand how some Washington, D.C. officials apparently think its okay to “leak” information to the press. Do they think the rules don’t apply to them?

I support freedom of the press, but I question if many in the media are qualified to make a judgment call on if they publish an article whether it will or will not damage national security in an environment where only one percent of the population has served in the current wars. Some say the Defense Department is exaggerating concerns. I suspect the reason it took so long to find and capture bin Laden was because so much information had been put out by the media about how the intelligence community operates.

Some say the military classifies information to hide things and cover up misdeeds. That has not been my experience. Most of the time something is classified to protect the source and/or not give away plans and intentions. There is a tremendous amount of information put out by the military and the intelligence community at the unclassified level about how and why they operate.

The media can and has been a tremendous force for good; the coverage of civil rights violations in the South during the civil rights movement comes to mind. My concern is that the demand for 24/7 news coverage has caused some of the media to take a tabloid news and sound bite concept of reporting. My fear is some would not hesitate to do an article today equivalent to the breaking of the Japanese naval code during World War II. I truly hope I’m wrong.

President Obama’s take on foreign aid:

“So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia…

“Success on these fronts requires sustained engagement, but it will also require resources. I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures – even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.”

According to the United Nations, 870 million people around the world are chronically hungry today. U.S. food aid has saved hundreds of millions of people from malnutrition and starvation, and it costs less than one percent of the federal budget each year. These efforts have helped to improve America’s standing in the world. Unfortunately, red tape limits the effectiveness of these programs and cause as much as 50 cents of every food aid dollar used to purchase basic food grains to be spent on overhead and shipping costs instead of saving lives. My understanding is that the president and Congress are looking at reforms to solve this problem.

The “so what” factor to me is that if we don’t solve these problems, some regions of the world will continue to be a breeding ground for terrorism and other bad things. Who could have predicted poverty and starvation in Somalia would lead to a major piracy problem? Think I‘ll end here. As always, my views are my own.

Gail Harris is a Senior Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy Blogs.