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Hoyt Purvis: In politics, foreign affairs knowledge can be power

by Hoyt Purvis | June 19, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

Information is the coin of the realm.

It is a prime commodity, particularly in Washington and national politics, but well beyond – in sports, business, research.

We are witnessing a tug of war between the executive and legislative branches and within the Congress over information.

The summer skies bring us sometimes tornadic cloudiness and new constellations in the information battles.

We have information interference, opposition research, social media networks, open-source investigations and intelligence research. And, of course, we have misinformation and disinformation, a good example being the anti-vaccinators, many of them citing scientifically discredited information about the alleged dangers of vaccines.

Much of this focus on information and access revolves around President Trump and his insistence that determining what information remains secret and what can be released for congressional or public consumption is up to him. And some documents that can be released are limited, with key sections or identifications subject to being “redacted,” a term that has become a standard feature of the political lexicon – to censor or obscure portions of a text or document allegedly for legal or security reasons.

In this new information age, we increasingly turn to online and open-source intelligence. Open-Source intelligence is collecting information or data from publicly available sources that can be a form of investigative journalism. A notable example is Bellingcat, an independent organization of researchers, investigators and journalists using open-source and social media investigation on a variety of subjects – from Mexican drug lords to the downing of a plane over Ukraine to tracking the use of chemical weapons and conflicts globally. Bellingcat says, “We operate in a unique field where advanced technology, forensic research, journalism, investigations, transparency and accountability come together.” Online and open-source investigative reporting may be even more important at a time when we see a shrinkage in the number of newspapers.

Famed Watergate-era investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were reporting at a time when dogged pursuit of human sources, many of them anonymous, led them to vital information in tracking down the truth. Woodward is author of Fear: Trump in the White House, one of the growing stack of volumes on Trump’s presidency. Woodward says he can understand why people are hesitant to trust unnamed sources. Having lots of documents and testimony is better, he said, “but you’re not going to get that” every time.

Another component of the information battle is the pursuit of and utilization of opposition research, which has become a standard feature of political campaigns. While collecting information on a candidate’s background and record on issues should be entirely appropriate, in some cases ”oppo” involves dubious means of discovery and deployment of “information”, and, as we have learned, it may be foreign-sourced.

When Trump was a presidential candidate in 2016, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said: “I am confident that once Donald Trump has some of the information I have—for instance, about Vladimir Putin—as a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, that he will be much less friendly toward Vladimir Putin.”

The significance of information and access to it is by no means limited to matters of national security and politics and for Congress to perform its oversight function – but, as noted, also in commerce, sports, economics and other realms. Information spreads knowledge. And books remain an essential source and a repository of information – and entertainment.

Summer is supposed to be a good time for reading – light or heavy. In today’s political clime there’s a steady outpouring of books and information on the times of Trump. (Will we be seeing a book from Sarah Huckabee Sanders soon?)

Guess what tops the best-seller list: The Mueller Report, with related materials by the Washington Post. This includes redacted findings from the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice.

There are, of course, currently popular volumes on other subjects, such as The Pioneers by Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David McCullough on settlers moving westward.

Another current best-seller is Sacred Duty, by the aforementioned Sen. Cotton, who tells of the “Old Guard,” the ceremonial honor guard at Arlington National Cemetery in which he served.

A portrait of a power-seeker is George Packer’s Our Man, an extensive examination of the career of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, ambitious, audacious and sometimes highly effective. Holbrooke, who died suddenly in 2010, understood the value of information and how to use it, including leaking to the media. (Having traveled with him and others in an official delegation to China in 1980, I saw him operate first-hand.)

Different, but a significant and interesting new book, is Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation, co-authored by country music’s Tim McGraw and award-winning presidential biographer Jon Meacham.

It was Thomas Jefferson, subject of Meacham’s The Art of Power, who said, “I cannot live without books.”

It was also Jefferson who said, with regard to the importance of information: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

And, in one of the most salient comments on our society, Jefferson proclaimed, “Properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate.”

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