Often small things provide the most disturbing evidence for world-changing events, as when naturalists observe the quiet disappearance of some little known species. The CIA's firing of senior officer Mary O. McCarthy is a political event of just this nature.
Ordinarily, the firing of some middling CIA officer is not an event to interest many other than John Le Carre fans and those who linger over cappuccino at the CIA's Langely cafeteria. Not just conservative throwbacks recognize the need for secrecy in many intelligence matters.
Ordinarily, the fact that some CIA agent has broken his or her oath of secrecy would not cause much disturbance outside the unhinged James Angleton types who make up some portion of any intelligence community. Surely, out of tens of thousands of employees, this is something that happens with regularity.
But Ms. McCarthy's case is different, and it is of interest to the world. She is responsible, reportedly by her own admission during a furious round of polygraph tests, for information supplied to The Washington Post concerning the CIA's vast secret prison system.
This CIA-run gulag, and there is no name more fitting, does not resemble the case of a new secret weapon or of a mole planted somewhere abroad. The existence of a secret gulag goes to the heart of democratic values.
Is the population of any democratic country not entitled to be informed of so vast and creepy an enterprise? To exercise their franchise based on facts? At some point, any secret operation, if it becomes large enough and affects the lives of tens of thousands, risks undermining the very legitimacy of the government running it.
The reputation of the United States abroad has suffered perhaps irreparable damage from the excesses and stupidities of Bush's War on Terror. So much so that Americans are now advised by their own State Department to guard their behavior and even identity when traveling abroad. Are Americans not entitled to be informed of what has caused this? Of what has been done in their name?
If you can keep tens of thousands secretly locked away and subject to torture, what prevents this number from becoming millions? Where are the limits without public information? The inherent integrity of American government officials, you say? Three-quarters of the world's people today would laugh caustically at the suggestion.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. Copyright © 2006 by John Chuckman.
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