WikiLeaks: On Balance, Transparency Trumps Secrecy
But what struck us, and reassured us, about the latest trove of classified documents released by WikiLeaks was the absence of any real skullduggery. After years of revelations about the Bush administration’s abuses — including the use of torture and kidnappings — much of the Obama administration’s diplomatic wheeling and dealing is appropriate and, at times, downright skillful. — nytimes.com
Young and idealistic, as well as moderately familiar with politics and policy, I was shocked — shocked I tell you! — during our orientation weekend role-play. That’s because I had come full face with the realization that public meetings are, in the main, window dressing. Decisions are made not necessarily on the “best” information but on who is friends with who (access) and back-scratching (quid pro quo). Minds are made up in halls, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. The public meeting is where decisions are made public, not where individual decisions are made.
In that orientation weekend, our days were divided between learning sessions and role-play time. The issue before our community was fluoridation of water. Each person was assigned a role and a position; some people were allowed to deviate. The process was, for an idealist, a disillusionment.
The Wikileaks cable trove leads to a similar reaction.
First, in global diplomacy there is a lot of maneuvering behind closed doors. The examples in this New York Time op-ed — Russia and China — are classic. Anyone who has had to persuade more than two people to adopt a common course of action has probably had to resort to similar wrangling.
Second, citizens deserve to know what’s being done in their names, especially when it involves their Treasury (and line of credit). In plain English, we deserve to know what bribes are being offered in our names and the extent of those bribes. Whether that’s the quid pro quo for voting for a piece of domestic legislation (think of North Dakota and the health care bill) or an Afghani official spiriting away $50 million in cash, the world — the public interest — is not served by having this information kept secret.
Third, citizens deserve to know when their government is violating international protocol by harvesting biometric data and credit card numbers of global diplomats and government officials. Ditto the “the kidnapping, extraordinary rendition and torture of German national Khaled El-Masri” as well as Bush Administration admonitions to the Germans not to prosecute those CIA agents who picked up the “wrong” man. There is no moral high ground in either of these examples.
Is there a role for secrecy in global diplomacy? Certainly, although the more narrow that role the better for society in general. Analysis of this first release shows that secrecy is being used to hide misdeeds — something that is toxic to civil society and representative democracy.
And, as any teenage female can tell you, the more people who “know” a secret the less likely it will remain secret: it’s another riff on the power law. But our government has decided to expand the number of people who can classify — and access — “secure” documents.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton issued executive order 12958; the order empowered “some 20 officials” with the authority to classify documents as top secret. But it delegated that “authority to 1,336 others, and granted derivative classification authority to some two million government officials and a million industry contractors.”
The result, according to Sen. Patrick Moynihan (1997, Commission for Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy): “Almost everything was declared secret; not everything remained secret, and there were no sanctions for disclosure.”
The situation has not improved in the intervening 13 years. For example, over at the Pentagon, the agency that keeps getting a bye from Congress on conforming to a financial audit: “GAO independently estimated that 87 percent of about 3,500 investigative reports that adjudicators used to make clearance decisions were missing required documentation, and the documentation most often missing was employment verification.”
Finally, the cable trove reveals a country convinced of its imperial role in the world, not unlike that of its mother country a century ago. It’s a role for which we no longer have the purse, assuming that we ever did. The trove reveals that we are a backroom dealer in diplomacy — and everyone knows that we are the world’s largest dealer of armaments — thus making a travesty of the international organization that we helped birth and which is housed on our own soil.
Thus, in the main, I think the Wikileaks cable release will have done more good than harm if we can turn the debate away from recrimination about leakage and to the substantive issues the leaks reveal.