Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Role of Secrecy in a Democracy

One of the things that I think we will need to tackle in order to ensure that this country never again tortures is to think about the role of secrecy in a democracy. Last week I wrote a bit about the fact that, especially since the Cold War, our intelligence services have routinely been engaged in torture. The one difference between those incidents and the Bush administration is that the later had the hubris to make it official policy and tried to give it a ridiculous cloak of legality. Under previous administrations, it was practiced with even more secrecy and often took decades for the amount of information we know to become public.

It seems to me that there is an inherent contradiction between democracy - a form of government that is based on an informed citizenry - and secrecy. And I think the very nature of giving power to human beings to operate in secret is almost guaranteed to produce abuses of that power. If our intelligence services are allowed to continue to operate in secret, we are left with very little means to hold them accountable for what they do. As a matter of fact, it becomes incredibly circular. As I write this, I recognize that I know very little about how our intelligence services operate and it becomes difficult to proscribe solutions. So I am left to "trust" them and the oversight provided by elected officials to tell me where the lines about secrecy should be drawn. This is especially frustrating for those of us who have seen the abuses of power that are so often cloaked in secrecy.

But what I do know is that the world has changed. That doesn't mean that the abuses of the past should be ignored. But the Cold War - on which so much of the need for secrecy was based - is over. And just as we should have seen a "peace dividend" in a reduced need for the build-up of our military, I think its time to implement that dividend in shinning more sunlight on our intelligence practices.

A simple look at the wiki article on the Freedom of Information Act will give us an idea of the challenge there is to doing that. It was passed in 1966 and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. Since that time, just as we saw with the Bush administration, it has been expanded or curtailed depending on the position of the President and/or Congress. But there has been a pretty clear pattern...most Democratic Presidents have expanded it and most Republicans have curtailed it. So Obama is not the first Democratic President to have placed increased emphasis on transparency. As a matter of fact, much of what we know about the abuses of power committed by intelligence agencies during the Cold War is public information because Clinton "issued executive directives (and amendments to the directives) that allowed the release of previously classified national security documents more than 25 years old and of historical interest, as part of the FOIA." So the pendulum of secrecy has been swinging back and forth for years now at the whim of those in office.

To further highlight the problem and our challenge, in the 1990's, we had the Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy whose task was "to conduct 'an investigation into all matters in any way related to any legislation, executive order, regulation, practice, or procedure relating to classified information or granting security clearances' and to submit a final report with recommendations". It was a bi-partisan commission who's findings were unanimous:

1. that secrecy is a form of government regulation
2. that excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when policy makers are not fully informed
3. the government is not held accountable for its actions
4. the public cannot engage fully in informed debate

So we've had commissions, laws and executive orders...but the reality is that, without advocacy from the people and groups like the ACLU, it looks to me like we continue to be at the whims of whoever happens to be in office at the time. 

I'd suggest that at this time, with so much of the media paying attention to surfacing documents that demonstrate the abuses of power that happen in secret, its time for us to have this issue be explored. Its no longer good enough to have my government tell me that there are "evildoers" out there that they must protect me from as a way to coerce me into giving up my right to know. I grant that there is information (particularly private information about individuals), that needs to remain secret. But to me, the burden of keeping the secrets needs to be placed back on the holder of them to be justified rather than on a citizenry that generally has the right to information about what our government is doing.

1 comment:

  1. I've often been confronting similar issues on my blog from a Canadian perspective. Seems to me that the private information about individuals thing is quite different from security. We can easily say that personal information must be confidential (we do that in all kinds of other places, like doctors and lawyers) without any reference to security.

    The bottom line, in my mind, is that in a democracy, the accountability of the government is the first priority. And you cannot hold the government accountable if you are not allowed to know what the government has been doing in your name.

    At the very least, we all definitely need far more robust freedom of information rights.


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