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How Many Lives Will WikiLeaks Save?

As long as there's been war, American officials have fought against transparency. Could organizations like WikiLeaks finally turn the tables?

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“Like so many others, I put personal loyalty to the president above all else – above loyalty to the Constitution and above obligation to the law, to truth, to Americans, and to humankind. I was wrong.”

And so was I wrong in not asking Sam for a copy of that cable from Gen. Abrams. Sam, too, eventually had strong too-late regrets. He doggedly pursued the matter, but within CIA, until he learned that Dan Ellsberg was on trial in 1973 for releasing the Pentagon Papers and was being accused of endangering national security by revealing figures on enemy strength.

Which figures? The same old faked numbers from 1967! "Imagine," said Adams, "hanging a man for leaking faked numbers," as he hustled off to testify on Dan's behalf. (The case against Ellsberg was ultimately thrown out of court because of abuses by the Nixon administration.)

After the war drew down, Adams was tormented by the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled by the system, the entire left half of the Vietnam Memorial wall would not be there. There would have been no new names to chisel into such a wall.

Sam Adams died prematurely at age 55 with nagging remorse that he had not done enough.

In a letter appearing in the (then independent-minded) New York Times on Oct. 18, 1975, John T. Moore, a CIA analyst who worked in Saigon and the Pentagon from 1965 to 1970, confirmed Adams's story after Sam told it in detail in the May 1975 issue of Harper's magazine. Moore wrote:

"My only regret is that I did not have Sam's courage. … The record is clear. It speaks of misfeasance, nonfeasance and malfeasance, of outright dishonesty and professional cowardice. “It reflects an intelligence community captured by an aging bureaucracy, which too often placed institutional self-interest or personal advancement before the national interest. It is a page of shame in the history of American intelligence."

Tanks But No Thanks, Abrams

What about Gen. Creighton Abrams? Not every general gets the Army’s main battle tank named after him. The honor, though, came not from his service in Vietnam, but rather from his courage in the early days of his military career, leading his tanks through German lines to relieve Bastogne during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Gen. George Patton praised Abrams as the only tank commander he considered his equal.

Sadly, as things turned out, 23 years later Abrams became a poster child for old soldiers who, as Gen. Douglas McArthur suggested, should “just fade away,” rather than hang on too long after their genuinely distinguished accomplishments. In May 1967, Abrams was picked to be Westmoreland’s deputy in Vietnam and succeeded him a year later. But Abrams could not succeed in the war, no matter how effective “an image of success” his subordinates projected for the media.

The “erroneous and gloomy conclusions of the press” that Abrams had tried so hard to head off proved all too accurate.

Ironically, when reality hit home, it fell to Abrams to cut back U.S. forces in Vietnam from a peak of 543,000 in early 1969 to 49,000 in June 1972 — almost five years after Abrams’s progress-defending cable from Saigon. By 1972, some 58,000 U.S. troops, not to mention two to three million Vietnamese, had been killed.

Both Westmoreland and Abrams had reasonably good reputations when they started out—but, when they finished, not so much.

And Petraeus?

Comparisons can be invidious, but Gen. David Petraeus is another Army commander who has wowed Congress with his ribbons, medals and merit badges. A pity he was not born early enough to have served in Vietnam where he might have learned some real-life hard lessons about the limitations of counterinsurgency theories.