In response to Wikileaks’ massive release of secret documents, America’s talking heads and political spokesmen have almost universally characterized Transparency as a threat and Secrecy as a victim.
Nothing could be further off point.
The clear and present danger to our body politic isn’t Transparency, however flawed its exercise. At most, Wikileaks’ bumbling renegade revelations threaten the government with the embarrassment of an unwelcome accounting, the abandonment of a few schemes that couldn’t stand the light of day, and a lot of nervous political fidgeting followed by bluster and spin, both public and private. On the other hand, Secrecy routinely enforced on the society by its most powerful institutions threatens the very values and practice of democracy itself. Its potential for harm is enormous:
Secrecy enables hypocrisy. Perusing the history of revealed American secrets, the most obvious common denominator has been how many were at considerable variance (think My Lai, Chile, the Phoenix Program, the Contras, Abu Graib, etc.) from who we claimed to be. Indeed, many secrets acted as active impediments to the honest practice of our national character and values. Concealment of critical elements and motives often turns whatever remains visible on the subject into varying degrees of phoniness. And the practice of saying what we don’t mean and meaning what we don’t say denies us the genuine engagement essential to managing the changes in our future.
Secrecy empowers hidden elites. As such, it inevitably thwarts democracy. The architects of secrets make de facto policy, with no consultation except with those in on the secret and no need to explain themselves to lesser security clearances. Information is the root of power and those who have it, exercise it, and those who aren’t in the know, have no say in what goes on. Indeed, Secrecy has often been practiced not so much to conceal ourselves from our enemies—who long since had the information we continued to hide—but to conceal ourselves from ourselves.
Secrecy knows no limit. The dynamic of keeping secrets is such that each secret breeds a dozen more in order to protect the original: “Revealing something might reveal something that might reveal something that might reveal something else that might reveal something that in turn might reveal something about something we can’t reveal.” When this daisy chain is unimpeded, even the most innocuous subjects end up out of bounds. The result is a document redacted down to solid black by the censors. It is hard to read America’s secret history without exclaiming, “This was a secret?” at almost every turn.
Secrecy is a law unto itself. And it often conceals crimes, both foreign and domestic, while providing a haven for scoundrels and criminals. The history of American disclosures is highlighted by a long list of unsavory characters we secretly empowered, understanding full well doing so was a violation of the nation’s ethos and even of its laws. (Think Mobutu, Nixon, Pinochet, Helms, Oliver North, Noriega, Cheney, Saddam Hussein, etc.) Those in on the secret are not subject to the same justice we enforce on everyone else, yet the central premise of the rule of law is that crimes are crimes for anyone and everyone, under any circumstance, and that no one is allowed to pick and choose what they obey without being punished for it. Secrecy regularly makes a mockery of that, corrupting the legal process at the very least.
Secrecy also soon becomes a way of life for those who practice it, as well as for the state on whose behalf they do so. At least that’s what Stanley, the only CIA agent I know, told me. I met him briefly in Saigon, a month before it fell, as I was being deported back to the U.S. We met again fifteen years later down at the pier where I kept my rowing shell. He had retired to a houseboat moored nearby.
“It doesn’t get any more macho than being Secret with a capital S,” Stanley chuckled when I asked him about it. “Trading in that kind of deception is all about control and domination. And it is seriously addictive. You get real used to having the informational high ground and being invisible. Then that posture morphs into the template for secret actions and the people who manufacture them. It is a whole other culture where everything—and I mean everything—is behind closed doors or under the table. And to succeed at it, you’ve got to be a major league son-of-a-bitch. Nastiness administered without qualms is the path to success. And the only people you have to answer to for it are as committed to nastiness delivered on the sly as you are. I finally had to get out because I couldn’t stand being a son-of-a-bitch anymore. And I decided being invisible was doing little good for anyone, especially me. I needed to come up for air.”
Which, of course, brings us back to Transparency as practiced by Wikileaks. Over history, the only countervailing force to the Secrecy juggernaut has been public exposure of secrets by concerned citizens, usually as an act of open disobedience taken at great risk to themselves. It’s a shame we don’t have a more consistent and reliable mechanism for generating Transparency than the random actions of someone courageous enough to let the rest of us in on what’s happening. But for the moment we don’t. And without it, there is no one to bring Secrecy to heel. The rest of the United States is a little better off thanks to Wikileaks, despite the severe flaws in their process. I want the government to worry that what it is up to might be found out at any time and the perpetrators held accountable. If Transparency brings embarrassment, then try doing things that can stand the test of public scrutiny instead.
There is also a larger principle involved:
We may have to keep some secrets. But we should never forget that the test of our republic will always be its willingness to keep as few of them as possible and to strive for even fewer.