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June 14, 2010

Michael Yon: The Decider

Back in 2006 I criticized NY Times editor Bill Keller for using suspected lawbreaking and his distrust of George Bush to justify his own deliberate law breaking.

In that post I tried to point out the problems with Keller's argument. First of all, justifying your own wrongdoing by saying, "But he did it first!" is a non-starter. Two wrongs do not make a right. But more importantly, Keller tried to justify leaking sensitive information on the grounds of exigency. Mere suspicion of wrongdoing justified the illegal disclosure of sensitive national security information. Never mind that the law provides a legal mechanism for handling such allegations. That didn't matter.

Keller's entire argument amounted to, "It's OK for me to break the law because I don't trust the Bush administration and I think they might be breaking the law.". What a great argument! Keller didn't need to actually prove wrongdoing before breaking the law himself. All he had to do was throw out an unsupported accusation. The real beauty of Keller's reasoning is that if you apply it across the board, any citizen who distrusts legitimately elected officials of wrongdoing is entirely justified in breaking the law himself.

What could possibly go wrong?

Let's see if we can follow Keller's reasoning. It's dangerous to allow elected officials who receive daily national security briefings to decide which information is too sensitive to be released to the general public (and by extension, to our enemies). That's far too much power to place in the hands of one man. But it is not dangerous at all to allow unelected newspaper editors with no access to national security briefings to decide which information should be kept from the general public (and by extension, from our enemies) because their motives are pure and we can trust their judgment!

Keller could easily have raised his concerns with the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. He could have made it clear, either explicitly or as an implied threat, that he would go public unless they took prompt action. But he didn't even try that, did he? Instead, he released sensitive information that - once publicized - could never be taken back. His justification for doing so essentially boils down to "the end justifies the means". Or more simply, "Though I have no legitimate authority and less information than the President, you'll just have to trust that I know what I'm doing."

Got it.

During the Bush years journalists repeatedly mocked "The Decider". According to them, though the Constitution deliberately vests supreme executive authority in the hands of one person, it is dangerous to allow the President to exercise that authority.

There are legitimate grounds upon which the extent and validity of unitary executive authority can be challenged, and such debates are both healthy and desirable in a free society. What escaped me at the time (and eludes me to this day) is under what rational or coherent theory an unelected newspaper editor challenges the authority of the elected head of the executive branch while exercising the same ostensibly dangerous authority himself? If it's dangerous for an elected and well informed public official to exercise certain powers, it's even more dangerous for unelected and poorly informed citizens to exercise them. Which may be why we have laws that specifically prohibit ordinary citizens from doing that sort of thing.

It is no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I am something of a hardliner on OPSEC. My reasons for this stance are twofold:

1. Though an individual disclosure may not - in and of itself - compromise the security of operations or military personnel, using the Internet it is easier than it has ever been before for our enemies to gather and connect isolated bits of intel. Since none of us can possibly know what information is already out there (let alone how it may be combined with our own disclosures) WE CANNOT ADEQUATELY JUDGE WHAT INFORMATION IS HARMFUL TO THE TROOPS OR THE MISSION.

2. Since none of us receives daily briefings on the troops and all aspects of their missions, WE CANNOT ADEQUATELY JUDGE WHAT INFORMATION MIGHT COMPROMISE THEIR MISSION.

This is hardly brain surgery. Every day I see uninformed commenters opining about what does or does not constitute an OPSEC violation. Here's a clue for you: YOU DON'T KNOW. And if you do not - and cannot - know what might endanger the mission or our troops, doesn't it make sense to err on the side of caution?

For reasons I will never understand, Michael Yon has once again taken it upon himself to publish sensitive information about the security of an American base in Afghanistan on Facebook, of all places. I am not going to excerpt his post here because I'm still hoping he'll come to his senses and take it down. But it includes extremely specific information about security measures and response times. Like Bill Keller, Michael Yon would have you believe that - although he is NOT privy to daily briefings on the installation, our overall war strategy, or the individual mission of this command, he and he alone is qualified to decide what violates OPSEC.

Like Bill Keller, Yon would have you believe that although he's not even in Afghanistan, he is better qualified to "protect" our troops than ISAF or the local commander. And in fact, since Yon continually tells us that the command is incompetent and untrustworthy, the situation demands that he violate OPSEC. And so it is somehow OK for him to publish unverified emails from a "soldier" who knows he is violating OPSEC. This is the kind of source Yon finds credible and trustworthy - a soldier who knows he's revealing information he's not supposed to reveal. He admits this (not that anyone needed him to say it - it's an obvious violation) openly:

"Well Michael I know we probably messed with the bee's nest ... and crossed the line on OPSEC but guess what. Great news this FOB its running like a real one now security improved 100% since you published the issue..

But as with Bill Keller, for Yon the end always justifies the means. Rules are for peons. Never mind the obvious observation that neither Yon nor this "soldier" has enough information to know whether the benefits of disclosure outweigh the risk or not. Never mind that there was a less risky and less damaging means of accomplishing his stated goal. In this case, we are told, "Yon got results". This isn't the first time Yon has arbitrarily decided that the rules don't apply to him. FOUO documents are not classified, but they are specifically named under existing OPSEC guidelines:

(FOUO) [is] the standard marking for all unclassified products that meet one or more of the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and which if released to the public, could cause harm to Army operations or personnel.

These are guidelines that, as an embed, Yon agreed to honor. Which no doubt explains why he publishes them anyway. Even though he has repeatedly agreed to respect OPSEC and then violated it, we can trust his word.

In the past, I have publicly disagreed with (and even criticized) fellow milbloggers when I thought they were wrong about something. Almost to a man, they have taken such criticisms in stride as part and parcel of the workings of a healthy democracy. Yon, on the other hand, responded to my last two postings with weeks of bizarre rants about "milkookery". This is a variation on what Thomas Sowell calls arguments without arguments. Rather than explain why an argument is wrong, it simply asserts "Don't listen to that milkook - he/she is crazy".

I've chosen to ignore Yon's insults because they are not an argument as to why I'm wrong. Nor does Mr. Yon ever provide any such argument. Instead, he resorts to name calling, unspecific (and unsupported) allegations, and utterly unsubstantiated personal attacks. Of course providing specifics is dangerous because when you do so, the possibility exists that your facts or sources may be challenged. I view this as a net good for anyone who cares about the truth. And that's what we're trying to get to here, isn't it? Blogging shouldn't be a pissing contest where winning is more important than anything else. It's a search for the truth.

Without resorting to name calling or personal attacks, I am saying that it is wrong for Michael Yon to violate OPSEC. It is wrong for him to justify such violations with statements like "I know this violated OPSEC but it was worth it". If he learns of potential vulnerabilities in US or allied installations, there is already a mechanism in place for getting these concerns addressed - he can send them to the command.

Did Mr. Yon do that? Or did he simply publish the information without either verifying it or alerting the command? Let me say this plainly: publishing sensitive information from unverified sources is the wrong answer. A person who claims to be neither a blogger nor a journalist - who refuses to be held to any kind of standard, isn't even in country, and isn't privy to the latest intel - isn't even remotely qualified to make those kinds of decisions.

And responding to legitimate questions about your tactics with name calling isn't much of a defense. In fact, it isn't any defense at all.

Update: Karma is a bitch.

Update II (Jeez, I feel like what's his face over at Salon.com): Chuck Z has a post and a list of other milkooks who posted on the same topic.

Posted by Cassandra at June 14, 2010 07:04 AM

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Michael Yon has gone over to the dark side. He is so yesterday as to be irrelevant to his cause and a danger to the security of those he used to support.

It was with a heavy heart I removed him from my favorites list. He needs help.

Posted by: vet66 at June 14, 2010 12:59 PM

I had really hoped not to mention the subject again. I didn't feel comfortable ignoring it though.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 14, 2010 01:22 PM

Seems MY's been running on emotion and getting lazy/sloppy (for how long?). He's apparently putting "trust" in unverifiable sources. What up with that?

Posted by: ziobuck at June 14, 2010 01:27 PM

Holy crap! I just read the Blackfive thing. Yon's rep is sunk. It's a shame. He can do some good reporting when he can keep his personal grudges out of the way. He did some good work on the violence in Bangkok a few weeks ago. But after that, I de-friended him in FB because I got tired of his constantly belaboring his beef with McChrystal. Enough already. If you've got a point, say it once and move on.

I've noticed that Instapundit doesn't link to him anymore.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at June 14, 2010 03:08 PM

I also had decided never to write on this specific topic again, and I will not be doing my own column on this latest development. However, I will add my weight to yours...lol...and say it is NEVER okay to break OPSEC rules. I don't care WHO you are.

That is - and always will be - the bottom line for me. Period.

Posted by: brat at June 14, 2010 04:51 PM

I don't like disagreements online because no matter how hard you try to be civil, some people have a tendency to get bent out of shape.

People have said some pretty awful things about me over the years after I've disagreed with something they wrote but most of the time they are civil and reasonable.

It usually takes a lot to get me riled up, but some things are more important than others. I don't really care whether another blogger views Sarah Palin the same way I do - I can't get exercised over that.

Something like this, though, does bother me. I thought it over for a few days and didn't feel right about letting it go.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 14, 2010 05:03 PM

Does go back to our earlier discussion here, doesn't it Cass? The one about rumors that get folks killed, etc. I don't consider countering that sort of stuff as a "blogwar" - it's something very different than that.

Posted by: Greyhawk at June 14, 2010 05:32 PM

Yon has frequently been favorably compared to Ernie Pyle, of lasting (and just) fame for his writings that were compiled into "Brave Men", and later "More Brave Men".

Ernie would spend days up on the line with troops, talking, taking notes, getting stories.

Then he would usually retire to the rear, collect his thoughts and bang out some of his stories into columns to be published in "Stars and Stripes" or back home in the papers. He said that he really couldn't write well up front because he had to turn off a portion of his sensitivity just to function in or near a combat zone because of all the death and violence he sometimes witnessed.
Plus, Ernie's columns were subject to censureship in those days, for the reasons of controlling release of "OPSEC" information, even though there was a slower time between actions, writing stories and the publishing of same.

But these days, with nearly instantaneous communication and web publishing, that's changed.

Yon has plenty of guts, and has written some great columns, especially about 5-6 years ago in Mosul. I think that as Cass points out, he has bent and stretched OPSEC rules on more than one occasion. In the battle zone, it could be that the local commanders weighed the benefit of Michael Yon being in the field writing the stories that might never be told, versus his penchant for telling too much.
Somewhere along the line, Michael has begun to believe that he is bigger than the story. It happens all the time (Woodward and Bernstein come to mind, especially Woodward). He's formed an impression of McChrystal, and that is going to control his outlook, forever. Probably.

Bill Mauldin was a great and funny cartoonist in WWII, but he ran afoul of George Patton once, and from then on he always went out of his way to ridicule Patton, when he could. Patton could be a real jerk at times, but he also had the responsibiity of commanding 3rd Army (over 100,00 men), and Mauldin had the responsibility of delivery cartoons of the war to the newpapers.

Did I miss anything?

Michael Yon,the Unitary Blogger.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 14, 2010 06:58 PM

I am most certainly with you on the OPSEC issue.

That aside, this whole situation has devolved into a soap opera. Here in the Military-Industrial Complex™ I call it "As The Rotor Turns"...

Posted by: camojack at June 15, 2010 01:35 AM

It's just sad.

Posted by: MikeD at June 15, 2010 09:00 AM

For as long as I've known who he was, Yon has consistently and repeatedly implied (and even said outright) that he was being silenced, or that his embeds were being cut short, because he criticized military leaders or wrote that the war was going badly.

I want you all to stop and think about that one for a moment, because there are two positively Olbermanesque whoppers in there:

First, if Yon has (as he repeatedly reminds us) spent more time embedded with US troops than any other "person" - can't say "blogger" and can't say "journalist", how much sense does it make to claim the military is trying to suppress his reports? If allowing him more access than any other embed is their idea of an effective silencing mechanism then those evil PAOs really *are* incompetent and should be fired :p

If military leaders/PAOs really wanted to silence dissent, why would they allow Yon to embed longer than other reporters? Why would they allow him to embed at all?

Something does not ring true here.

Secondly, Yon has repeatedly claimed that his embeds have been cut short because he criticized military leaders or said the war wasn't going well.

[pause for effect]

This would be because no one else in the media has been saying these things? REALLY?

I spent a good 4 years of my life refuting inaccurate and negative reporting on our progress and the quality of military leadership. It defies belief that Yon would make such a claim.

The only explanation I can offer is that such claims are emotionally satisfying to his readers. They are such a flagrant violation of common sense that I can't think of another explanation.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 15, 2010 09:22 AM

Agree with all of the above, Cass. And my real beef with You regarding his criticisms of the leadership is that, when he wants to question the overall conduct of the war, he won't point the finger at where it needs to be pointed: the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, he wants to rip on commanders in the field for policy decisions that are way above their pay grades.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at June 15, 2010 10:44 AM

Yon, not You... sorry about that.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at June 16, 2010 10:25 AM

Yon's cut his own throat in the Army SF community.

SF don't talk, period. They don't say they have secrets. They don't deny it. They simply don't talk about it. At all.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at June 17, 2010 03:23 PM

He's apparently putting "trust" in unverifiable sources. What up with that?

his other sources have cut their ties with him. He's unreliable and untrustworthy.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at June 17, 2010 03:30 PM