The Pentagon papers were released in the New York Times in 1971. That has been nearly 40 years now. You'd think that gross incompetence by the Pentagon would by now have lost its ability to embarrass us. Perhaps this is just my day for confessing to naivete, but I find this is not so.
When I found this article, entitled 'Pentagon Demands Wikileaks Files', in the print edition of Al Jazeera English today, I was actually embarrassed for my country. Only briefly, and just a little, but the feeling was heartfelt and sincere.
My second reaction was a flash on an old Cheech and Chong routine, in which Sister Mary Elephant indignantly demands, "Young man, now give me that knife!". Ah, the cultural artifacts of an ill-spent youth returned to haunt me. Wikileaks will give them the rest of the files alright, in much the same way that Sister Mary got the knife delivered to her.
It's difficult to say which aspect of this demand made me squirm the most.
On the one hand there is the unspeakable arrogance of the demand itself, as though the Net were at the command of the US government, as though Australia were not a sovereign and independent nation, as though trotting out the same tired old arguments would somehow change the fact that the Supreme Court slapped down an attempt to block the Pentagon Papers on the same grounds 39 years ago. Has a decade of rampant American Exceptionalism saturated their tiny brains to the point that they have come to believe their own bullshit propaganda?
On the other hand there is the painful evidence of gross technical incompetence, or actually worse; that those at the top echelons of the Pentagon utterly fail to comprehend the nature of the 21st century. Consider the following two paragraphs from the story linked above -
A Pentagon task force of around 80 people is combing through the materials already posted on the website and flagging up documents deemed to pose a risk. Morrell said that foreign governments were being notified of dangerous material.
The analysts have already carried out about 400 initial 'word searches' of the leaked documents and are continuing to work around the clock to carry out a more detailed study of what exactly has found its way into the public domain.
In the 11 days since the files were released to the public, a team of 80 people has managed to carry out 400 "word searches". Even allowing for the fact that the Wikileaks servers were absolutely swamped the first day, I don't really need to spell out the reasons why this is laughable, do I? No, I didn't think so.
The US military is chock-full of bright young men and women with technical skills that put mine utterly to shame. Why then does the US military suffer from this institutional senility when it comes to dealing with the realities of the Net? This demand reveals a fatal failure to understand that once information has been released online, there is no hiding it again. "Give us back the documents", the Pentagon cried. Say fucking what?
It just makes me cringe.