Washington's Real Secret


Washington's Real Secret

Jun 18th, 2012 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Tom Dyer was toast.

Face unshaven, eyes bloodshot, hair shaggy, Dyer had worked and slept in the same uniform for days. As he finally blundered into the daylight, a fellow Navy officer blurted, "Now there goes a bird who should be sent to sea to get straightened out."

What the officer didn't know, recalled naval cryptologist W.J. Holmes, was that Dyer was part of a super-classified team -- Station HYPO -- that had just decoded the Japanese navy's secret battle plans. That critical intelligence from HYPO helped win the Battle of Midway, arguably the most decisive naval action of World War II.

Recently, members of the armed forces assembled at the Naval Memorial in downtown Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. But it hasn't been 70 years since Americans learned about Station HYPO's critical role in this naval triumph. In fact, the success of U.S. cryptologists in breaking the secret codes of the Axis powers remained suppressed for decades.

ULTRA, the designation for most classified decryption efforts in World War II, stayed an official state secret until 1974 -- 29 years after the war's end. When it was finally revealed that the Allies could read some of the Japanese and Germans' most top-secret codes, historians had to go back and rewrite many of the narratives of the war's greatest battles.

That was then. The days when Washington could keep national security secrets for decades seem long gone. Now hush-hush stuff stays hushed for days, at most. And sometimes a stopwatch might be useful.

From the Bin Laden raid, to drone war decision-making, to who is cyber-attacking whom, the revelations just keep coming. Bradley Manning must feel badly used, indeed. Why is he imprisoned for leaking classified information when others are allowed to forward equally damaging stuff to the New York Times with impunity?

Manning probably should have more company after this latest round of tattletaling from Washington. But, presidents can pretty much declassify and release whatever they want. This White House seems to making liberal use of that authority.

The administration has been widely accused of leaking these inside scoops for crassly political reasons -- to make the president look more presidential. But the leaks suggest a far deeper and more disturbing problem: an administration that holds our foes in such contempt, so confident that our enemies are powerless, that it feels it can reveal our secrets without consequence.

ULTRA was held secret for decades because the Pentagon didn't want to take even the slightest risk that the Soviets would learn anything about the state of America's code-breaking capabilities. This White House has no such respect for our enemies.

In "Risk Intelligence," Dylan Evans reminds us that, in ancient times, rival bands would perform ritual displays before battle to size each other up -- sometimes scaring the other side off. Now, war is fought at long distance. Our appreciation for the enemy is more abstract. "In such conditions," Evans writes, "the natural tendency to overconfidence can flourish unchecked."

No one fights wars more distant than this president. Armed with briefing books and drones, he wages combat from the Oval Office in accordance with fixed timelines and campaign deadlines.

Supreme self-assurance, the belief that he could direct battles a thousand miles away with certain result, no regard for the enemy's capabilities--these were all the hallmarks of the Japanese commander at Midway. The thought that an American president might share these attributes is disturbing.

An administration that spills America's secrets freely leaves no confidence it understands how to prevent freely spilling American blood.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.

This article first appeared on WashingtonExaminer.com.