Secrecy and power

True believers in secrecy know that its most staunch defenders are secrecy’s worst enemies. They know that the inevitable consequence of the rampant proliferation of a secrecy culture, will be to feed doubt that secrecy itself has any legitimacy. The assumption will take hold that secrecy’s one and only function is the protection of power.

Secrecy is maintained by constructing barriers between those who can know and those who can’t. The powers of a Security State have less to do with protecting secrets than with controlling the barriers of secrecy and determining who can be allowed in and who must be kept out. In other words, secrecy ends up having more to do with maintaining inequities in the distribution of power than in protecting the public interest.

In the multitude of ways that the Obama administration has mishandled the WikiLeaks drama, none is worse than the signal it has just sent out to a generation of young Americans: if you have an inquiring mind, don’t bother applying for a job with the US government. If however you are happy to blindly follow orders and have a slavish admiration for institutional authority — who knows, maybe one day you could become president.

Yesterday, TPMMuckraker reported:

The Office of Management and Budget today directed all federal agencies to bar unauthorized employees from accessing the Wikileaks web site and its leaked diplomatic cables.

In an email to federal agencies obtained by TPM, the OMB’s general counsel directed the agencies to immediately tell their employees to “safeguard classified information” by not accessing Wikileaks over the Internet.

Classified information, the OMB notes, “remains classified … until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority.” Employees may not view classified info over a non-classified system (i.e., the Internet), the OMB says, “as doing so risks that material still classified will be placed onto non-classified systems.”

Reading a classified document appearing in the New York Times presents the risk that the designation of its secrecy will lose effect in the minds of those who are required to maintain a reverential respect for rubber stamps.

Meanwhile, the State Department, apparently hoping it might be able to lobotomize a few young minds in preparation for government service, sent out some friendly advice:

Students of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs were warned this week not to spread the Wikileak cables online if they ever wanted a job at the State Department.

The warning came through the office of career services, from an unnamed alumnus who now works at State and wanted to pass along the message.

“The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter,” reads the email, sent by the office of career services. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.”

Oh the irony, that any of us could have been so naive as to imagine that the Bush era might be followed by a more enlightened administration. Instead, a cast of colorful characters who were easy to demonize has been replaced by something worse: technocratic zombies who have normalized and solidified the power grabs initiated by their Machiavellian predecessors.

And this is what it has come to under Obama’s leadership: that the surest way of predicting how this administration will act, is simply to ask: what would be the most cowardly course of action? For that is the direction in which we can be sure it will proceed.

If this failing was merely that of a particular president or political party, America might not be in such bad shape, but the test came on 9/11 and America has been failing ever since.

Danger always poses a challenge. Will fear scream so loudly that nothing else can be heard?

“Courage is the ability to follow your principles even when you’re scared to death,” said Lt Cmdr Charles Swift after successfully challenging the Bush administration before the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

Swift appears in Secrecy — a documentary no less relevant now than when it came out in 2008. (If you’re a Netflix subscriber you can “watch instantly.”)

Last year (before WikiLeaks had acquired such prominence), the film’s directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss joined professors Jack Goldsmith (author of The Terror Presidency and former Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration) and Martha Minow from Harvard Law School, for a discussion on the documentary, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Ever since 9/11, protecting America has been the name of the political game, yet there has been no consensus about what constitutes that which is under threat and in need of protection. Global hegemony? Rampant consumerism?

What has gradually become clear is that it is American democracy itself which faces the greatest challenge and if the issue of secrecy is to be addressed in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy, it will be approached using the same principles that shape the whole operation of government, with checks and balances, for these are the principles which if not applied will fall into disrepair, leaving an America armed to protect everything while no longer standing for anything.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Secrecy and power

  1. Norman

    With secrecy, the public doesn’t know what the Government is doing in their name. For Wikileaks to publish the E-mails, correspondence, memos, puts light onto the otherwise opaque operations that this Country engages in. Corruption & cover-up, the two are symbiotic, to the detriment of the public. 9/11 was a part of the terrorist blueprint, but, who really are the terrorists? Shortly after 9/11, CNN broadcast a segment about some cleric who was able to talk with Osama bin Laden somewhere in the middle east, where the cleric told him and the other people around him, about the acts, that showed bin Laden thoroughly surprised by the results, giving the impression that he was unaware of what had taken place.

    This might sound strange, even unbelievable even, but then, so does the official version of what took place on 9/11, the subsequent clean up & destruction of the buildings remains. Yes, it sounds just like a conspiracy theory, too many participants to keep a secret. But then, how many who work in &/or for the Government classify secret communications, are privy to such, who might also understand that if they tell, will just disappear on day, never to be seen again! Like the Ponzi scheme, the cover-up has to continue, or else it becomes exposed. Looks as though we are seeing the end game today.

  2. esteban

    let’s start with the facts :

    governments will – lie – cheat – steal
    [oh yeah forgot – torture – kill]

    to get what they want
    [ostensibly for the people]

    i only have one question
    and i am serious here

    how much oil
    could we have
    bought and paid for

    for the price
    of these wars ?


    who do you blame
    for the ziki-leaks ?

    the one who did the deed ?
    the one who covered it up ?
    the one who revealed it ?
    the one that reported it ?
    the one who read about it ?

Comments are closed.