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Secrecy And Democracy, The Hard Balancing Act

The Wikileaks story is going to be the big news for a while, but I thought I’d talk about the need for balance in terms of secrecy. The release of the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic communications is going to be more than a little embarrassing. How could it not be? These are internal communications where frank and perhaps overly blunt observations will be shared or statements by our government or foreign governments might be contrary to publicly stated policy.

Secrecy is a tough thing in a democracy. Democracy requires a well informed electorate to function. There is a real need for a free people to have the facts when they are deciding on their elected representatives. Knowing what our government really means when it states it policy publicly is a critical factor.

However there is also a need for internal candor and the ability to speak bluntly at time and even, though it pains me to say so, keep the information from the public. Some things like military movements or the efforts of our covert agents need to remain secret, at least as long as they are relevant.

The problem we face right now is not a new one. The level of openness and secrecy has see-sawed back and forth over the last 40 years. The revelations of Watergate and the Church Commission showed what can happen when our government is allowed to hold information as tightly as it likes. The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to allow us access to those things we as a people might want or need to know about the actions of our government.

Sadly the Bush Administration reaction to 9/11 has drastically undermined this process. They went from the Clinton Administration policy of granting nearly every FOIA without contest to consesting nearly every one. They used the State Secrets exemption more than any other administration ever. This combined with the fact that they were using these secret status to conceal war crimes, while at the same time flatly saying we do not torture is another reason not to blindly trust the government in terms of what it keeps secret.

The domestic wiretapping, the Patriot Act (still a shudderingly Orwellian name) and the retroactive changes to the FISA Court have made all of us wonder just what the government knows and what they tell the truth about.

We have swung too far in the direction of State Secrecy. The sheer volume of information which is generated by our government and held as something the public can not ever see is not acceptable. This kind of secrecy is powerful and tends to lend itself to abuses. We have seen that is the fact of crimes, acknowledge in public but protected in the courts by the State Secrets assertion.

I don’t think that the wholesale dump of documents is really the way to go about breaking this wall we have allowed  to be built in the name of “security”. It is too random, too open to some actual damage amongst the chaff which shows the day to day operation of our war efforts or our diplomacy. Still at this point we don’t really have another option. There is no incentive for the government to become more open. There are things which have been done and said which would force the Obama Administration to do the last thing it wants to do, seriously investigate the criminal Bush Administration.

There are political reasons for this reticence, to be sure. The Republicans will use it as fuel for the Crazy Train their Party has become. They will use it as fuel to say the President is weak on terror is wants to bring the United States down. It will find fertile ground among the Tea Partiers and other low information nut cases. It would be a huge mess. It would also be the right thing to do in terms of rule of law and in terms of having an informed electorate being able to make real choices.

What has to end is a policy mind set that was best described by President Clinton. He said in terms of a “ticking bomb” scenario that any president would order torture, it would be part of their duty. It would also be part of their duty to face the legal consequences regardless of the outcome. This is a very nice real politic statement but it ignores the reality of human nature.

There may be times when a person thinks the right thing to do is commit a crime. In a national security situation it would be even easier as the greater good is so big. However there are almost no people who, once the deed is done, will willingly put themselves in the position of facing the law. There will be extended justifications and rationalizations, chief among these “I kept the nation safe!”.

With that rationalization they will do whatever they can to prevent the exposure of their crime, even if it means committing other crimes or abusing power. It might even come to the place where to protect a crime in a supposed national security interest they would expose a covert operative of their own national security establishment.

Where does all of this leave us? We must find a way to balance the need for secrecy with the need for accurate information about the actions of our government. The first step would be to prevent the use of the State Secrets exemption to cover up prima facia crimes. Just knowing that a judge is required by law to turn down that defense if there is clear evidence presented en camera would help to keep the level of crimes down and loosen the hold of secrecy on the Executive branch. After all it is the foreign policy problems as well as the domestic ones which would erupt from a full investigation of the crimes of the Bush Administration which tie the Obama Administrations hands.

The next would be to make a time line in which all government documents become public, no exceptions. By saying that there is a twenty year limit to secrecy or even huddles to accessing all government documents we put a level of restraint into the actions of government agencies. Knowing that the cable you send today will be public knowledge in two decades will tamp down the more hyperbolic of writing. It will also make it clear that there is a limited time any administration can claim one thing while doing another.

Can we get to this kind of balance? Probably not right now. The Republicans are no longer rational on any issue of national security as they have come to see it as purely political and they do not look to the greater good. There is also a knee-jerk response from many against the way these recent dumps of documents have happened. They want to talk about the illegality of it, ignoring the way secrecy has been used to protect illegality of the government. Until it becomes crystal clear that there are major crimes and actions by the government which the people are unwilling to put up with, the haphazard dumps by Wikileaks are likely to continue to be our best option, even if they are a fairly poor one.

The floor is yours.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for Govtrak.org

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