How Healthy is Government Secrecy?

One of the most important aspects of government, regardless of whether we are discussing democracy or authoritarianism, is government secrecy.  This can show up in many forms but one of the key reasons for its existence is the illusion of competency at all times by the ruling entity.  The risk the ruling elite face when something damaging reaches the masses is too great no matter how small or big.  If this were ancient times, for example, an Egyptian pharaoh would not want the people realizing he does not actually possess supernatural powers.  In today’s more democratic world, governments do not want people knowing anything that may be used to put their reelection chances in jeopardy.

An article in The Guardian this weekend gives the perspective of what dangers may come from one former U.S. government insider William Leonard, ex-head of the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007.  Leonard points out the amount of documents being kept secret has expanded greatly over the past two administrations and wonders how positive this is for the public.  He sums up the most lethal actions in this statement:

Governments have decided under the cloak of secrecy to unleash the brutality of violence in our name and that of our fellow citizens. So extra judicial kidnapping becomes ‘rendition’, torture becomes ‘enhanced interrogation’, detainees are held on information that barely qualifies as hearsay, and assassination becomes ‘targeted killing’.

One always must remember that in a democracy the actions taken by the government are always assumed to be the will of the people no matter how horrible those actions may be.  Take U.S. support in the past for former dictatorial strongmen around the world.  The Shah in Iran.  Mubarak in Egypt.  Hussein in Iraq.  The American people were never asked whether we wanted to support these men and, if aware of their actions and not fed their “shining” personalities through the lens of the government wanting to support them, would not likely have condoned U.S. support.  But, since we democratically elect our leaders, it is assumed our government’s actions are our will.

Which brings us to a few more articles that appeared over the weekend.  It was revealed by a UN investigator on Friday the Pakistani government does not officially sanction U.S. drone strikes on its soil.  Although it does appear likely that a secret understanding exists between the U.S. and Pakistani governments over this policy, the strikes are so unpopular in Pakistan the government must maintain a veil of innocence regardless of whether they approve or not.  As stated in the article, “it is estimated that between 2004 and 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,460 people.  About 890 of them were civilians.”  Judging from their cooperation (Pakistan’s government, not its people) and lack of true outrage at the U.S., it seems very likely that secret agreement is very real.

This leads to another article on drones and an issue that has been hotly debated but might be a colossal distraction from a bigger problem (a possibly welcomed distraction by the U.S. government).  Jonathan Hafetz, Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law, points out in an op-ed that debating whether U.S. citizens should or shouldn’t be targeted by drones distracts us away from the use of drones themselves and the thousands that have been killed by them, whether guilty or innocent.  Hafetz states there have only been two cases of American citizens being targeted by drones in comparison to the thousands of foreign nationals who have suffered the same fate.  His most important points:

Despite increases in the accuracy of drone strikes, errors still occur. Those errors have a devastating effect not just on the family members of victims and their communities, but also influence opinions about the US in countries where the strikes occur. One consequence is to increase radicalisation and undermine support for US counterterrorism operations – precisely the result the US wants to avoid.

Another consequence is the precedent the US is setting on the international stage. Over time, more countries will have access to this new technology, which they may use against perceived threats in ways the US does not like and that could unleash destabilising forces. The US will be in a stronger position to exercise leadership in this area in the future if it acts responsibly now and conforms its conduct to broadly accepted legal principles. In the final analysis, the US will be judged by how it uses drones not against its own citizens, but against others.

Every mistake made in drone policy has devastating consequences and all of those mistakes are not viewed by foreign peoples as an error in judgement by a few officials in government.  It is seen as a mistake by the U.S.A. no matter what state you live in or who you voted for.

Which brings us to one last issue in relation to government secrecy that arose this weekend.  In an interview with Israeli TV, President Obama stated, “right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close.”  This somewhat echoes the recent revelation by Israeli intelligence that they believe Iran will not have a nuclear weapon until 2015 or 2016 but does not tell us why Obama believes that or what type of intelligence we have that Iran is even pursuing a nuclear weapon in the first place.  This being the case, are we truly willing to allow Iranian blood (or anyone’s blood for that matter) to be shed with little to no evidence given to the American people as to why the attack on Iran is even needed?

All of this being said, is government secrecy in a democracy healthy?  Let’s take two relatively recent cases where government incompetency was exposed and might have been avoided if the public had increased transparency to what the government was actually doing.  First, a small one, the GSA scandal over the agency’s conference in Las Vegas.  The cost of this was relatively small and the scandal not particularly devastating but it rightly deserved to be shown for what it was, a gross excess by irresponsible government employees.  If those at fault had been aware of possible public scrutiny and were more fearful of exposure of their extravagances, they likely would not have been so careless in the first place and the hundreds of thousands in wasted taxpayer dollars would have not been spent.  Second, a bigger and more devastating instance of government secrecy: the Iraq War.  If the public was aware of how shaky the intelligence was regarding the WMDs, would the war have been allowed to begin in the first place?  Not likely and, again, money and, more importantly, lives would have been saved before the government was allowed to carry out its incompetent action.

Some may make the argument a certain level of government secrecy is needed, for instance how to build a nuclear bomb and where these bombs are being housed.  Fair enough.  But that has seemingly been expanded to new levels and is growing in ways that are certainly unhealthy to the public the government is supposed to be serving and representing.  With the amount of media outlets available today, more government transparency would be healthy regardless of political leanings.  The number of enterprising reporters doing investigative work would ensure that every level of government is kept under the watchful eye of the public and fewer and fewer instances of carelessness would occur.  When you know someone is looking closely over your shoulder, you make sure you are doing the best work possible, which is something we are at liberty to want and should expect out of our government.

But this will not happen if government secrecy continues to expand.  The time has come to further question what we need to know about government and what we will allow to occur in our names.  The difficult part is having one of the political parties swallow its pride and say they will allow this while they are in power and are potentially exposed to the effects of more transparency.  It is up to us to demand this change in the relationship of public and government from the political party we support for the greater good of everyone, whether we live on American soil or anywhere else on Earth.

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