When Casey Stengel, manager of the early maladroit New York Mets, asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” he was talking about baseball. It was funny, and within a decade those Mets had won a World Series.
When I ask that same question I’m talking about our hopeless, helpless, hapless American security; it’s not funny, and at stake is nothing less than our nation.
Go back only to World War II. Can you imagine telling enemy prisoners in advance exactly how gentle their interrogations will be? Or exactly how many more troops the president is considering sending to a war zone, and we’ll let you know when he decides? Or the secretary of state announcing when the Battle of the Bulge gets rough that we’re “limiting our goals in Belgium”? (And can you imagine Gen. Patton’s reaction when he’s briefed accordingly?) Or our major media routinely handing crucial intelligence to the enemy nicely gift-wrapped on Page 1? Or an American ambassador openly disagreeing with a plea for more troops from the American commanding general? (I say “openly” knowing Ambassador Karl Eichenberry’s comments weren’t supposed to “look” open. They were deliberately leaked to take the pressure off President Obama to accede to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s appeal for more troops in Afghanistan. Do you hear any White House anger over that “leak”? That leak was about as accidental as ballet.) It’s as though they never heard of doors you could go behind and close.
Can you imagine any White House before this one bulging with lovers of Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, teenage homosexual activity, trees and animals having lawyers to sue humans, the ridiculing of free speech (from a stalwart of the FCC, no less), even polygamy? What exactly does CNN mean when it says it’s not an American but rather an international network? And are we sure we know what Mike Wallace was saying when he insisted that, as a combat correspondent, he would not tip off American troops even if he learned of an enemy ambush? Maybe we don’t want to know.
America just doesn’t “do” security anymore. And the reason you don’t hear more outrage from those who remember when America did security, and did it well, is not because they’ve died off or gone senile. It’s because the shock of what’s going on has cut off their audio. I’m just the right age to make this outcry – old enough to remember and still young enough to raise hell and put a chunk under it.
The most amusing demonstration I ever attended was in front of the New York Times building after that venerable paper had blatantly spilled highly valuable military intelligence on its front page. The protesters wore T-shirts with mock front pages of the New York Times dated June 5, 1944 – the day before D-Day – with headlines blaring, “American and British forces to land on Normandy beaches tomorrow. Allies hope Nazis will think that’s a diversion; the real invasion to come farther north across the Pas de Calais.” The satire was stretched enough to be funny, but not enough to be invalid.
Back in the days when America understood security we had classifications like confidential, secret and top-secret. Americans took such things seriously. During World War II my mother worked in the civil-defense headquarters of Greensboro, N.C. She refused to tell me where it was. During the Korean War the Army assigned me to a desk job at an intelligence agency. Here’s what’s remarkable. All of us GIs at that agency lived in a group of barracks together. I don’t recall one single instance of any of us asking or telling another what kind of work we were doing. We were told not to.
My badge, worn at all times, had a bar running diagonally across it indicating I did not have a full security clearance. I had only a “partial” clearance. Why should an outspoken patriot from North Carolina with absolutely no questionable item on his record be denied a full clearance? I’ll play out the argument for you. ARMY: “Your grandparents are all from Communist countries.” YOUNG FARBER: “No, Sir. Those countries are Communist now but when my grandparents left they weren’t Communist yet.” ARMY: “OK, but how do we know how many in their families survived World War II and how they feel about Communism and America and whether anyone in your family carries out communication with those relatives within the Soviet bloc through mail-drops in neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland? Partial clearance. Case closed!” That’s when America “did” security.
Would you like a sample of a top secret? How about the number of rolls of paper towels sent monthly to our Air Force base in Thule, Greenland! Why is that top secret? Every idiot in uniform back then realized that the enemy could do some math with that information and come pretty close to doping out the strength of our garrison there. Does anybody in authority today have any idea what I’m talking about?
There were posters in American bars, especially in ports, that said, “Loose Lips Sink Ships!” Did they really? You bet. We know there were plenty of hot chicks with Ohio accents in bars from Baltimore to San Jose. We know some of those hot chicks sidled up to beer-gulping sailors and merchant seamen and eventually asked, “When are you shipping out, Mate?” We’ll never know how many of those hot chicks had boyfriends named Fritz with radio transmitters strong enough to reach Nazi subs that surfaced regularly in time to get those messages. Likewise, enemy lips that can be loosened can save ships, lives, cities. Doubt as to what treatment you’ll get down the road as an uncooperating prisoner under interrogation is an effective lip-loosener. Do you see any endorsement of torture here? I don’t.
An American GI named Fred Howard told me how easy it was to get German prisoners talking. They simply dressed up an appropriate-looking American in the uniform of a Russian colonel who continually walked around the POW camp. Whenever a German prisoner asked, “Who’s he?” the American would say, “Oh. That’s Colonel Volkov of the Russian Army. Every Tuesday we give the Germans who won’t talk over to him and they’re bused over to the Red Army base in Leipzig.”
Let’s let Casey Stengel end it. At an early Mets training camp press conference one year a reporter asked, “Mr. Stengel, regarding next season, barring the unforeseen …” He never finished the question. Stengel interrupted him with, “There ain’t gonna be no unforeseen!”