All or Nothing?

I’ve received such an overwhelming response to my 12/23/10 blog, Julian Assange, My Parents and the Espionage Act of 1917, that I feel compelled to revisit the issue.

Commentaries on the WikiLeaks releases fall into two categories. Those in power condemn them as dangerous terrorist acts that will create mayhem, murder and war, while many on the left, myself included, have in essence said the more, the merrier. But is my position a bit cavalier? Do I really believe that there should be no secrets whatsoever?

First, I do set some limits. Individuals have a right to personal privacy. For instance, we don’t want our hospital records or personal correspondence made public without our permission. While I’m not in favor of wholesale disclosure when it involves people’s private lives, I lean strongly in the opposite direction when it comes to governmental institutions.

In theory our government agrees. Since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the 1970’s, it is assumed that the public has the right to know what is in the government’s files. As a citizen, if you want governmental information you can file an FOIA demand and sue if the government does not comply with your request. But it isn’t that simple. You must demonstrate that you have a personal or professional interest in the material, and the government has a list of exceptions (personal privacy, national security, etc.) that provide it with grounds to deny your claim.

My brother and I were precedent-setting plaintiffs in one of the most successful FOIA actions. It started in 1974, when the law was in its heyday and the judiciary was more plaintiff-oriented. It took us over a decade, a national organizing campaign and hundreds of thousands of dollars to force the release of approximately 75% of the material in the government’s possession related to our parents’ case. Still, portions of many files we forced into the public eye had substantial deletions.

Today, the FOIA has been watered down. The Bush Administration’s response to FOIA requests reminded me of Nancy Reagan’s idiotic “just say no” campaign, and the Obama Administration argues that releasing government documents would damage our national security. Moreover, since September 11, 2001 the government has classified as secret a vast array of material. These policies, coupled with the judiciary’s growing deference to governmental secrecy, means that the presumption of openness has been turned on its head.

We’ve all observed so many government excuses for concealing information. Data has been withheld with alarming regularity to hide abuses of governmental power, official dishonesty, stupidity and corruption. This behavior imperils democracy. How can people make informed choices without access to information that details governmental actions?

But don’t governments have the right to keep some secrets? I might feel differently about allowing the government to conceal its files if a system could be devised that would give the public sufficient control over the bureaucracy to insure that only material that really required classification was kept hush-hush. I’m unaware of any government that has created such a system and I suspect it is an impossible task.

There are those who cite delicate diplomatic negotiations as examples of needed secrecy. But that’s what we have now. Current world diplomatic relations hardly provide a shining example of cloak and dagger success. Of course, since all nations keep secrets, and many engage in covert operations to undermine each other, any totally open country would be vulnerable to a range of attacks and assassinations by other countries.

Do progressives only want the disclosure of the world’s great imperial power’s clandestine activities, or do we apply an openness standard to all nations equally, regardless of how we feel about their policies? The answers to these questions are not simple, but in any case, politicians, generals, and diplomats are more likely to simultaneously shed their clothes in public than they are to reveal their secrets. But that does not mean that increased openness is not a laudable goal to strive for.

Over the past 30 years the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of non-disclosure that I now applaud any spilling of governmental confidences. Abuses of human and civil rights have grown so rampant that whatever damage exposure will cause can’t possibly match what has been done behind closed doors and dungeon walls. International relations are a dangerous mess. I favor airing the dirty laundry and nasty tricks, even if it risks some chaos in an attempt to clean house.

WikiLeaks won’t and can’t expose all secrets in any event. Maybe if we had the power to open every file and reveal every message we might have to set limits. But given the present climate, arguing over whether governments should have the right to keep any secrets when non-disclosure is the rule, is like someone who is groping through a pitch-black cavern worrying about being unable to sleep if we turn on too many lights. A bright beam of truth would be a welcome relief.

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Comments

Reasonable, realistic, and low-risk, given the alternative. ...of, by, and for the people... such as it is...

Amy B.

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