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In the Light of Day

I am a big believer that all governments – any organization, in fact – should operate as much as possible in the clear light of day. There should be transparency; the fewer secrets the better. When WikiLeaks, a website dedicated to transparency, leaked nearly a quarter of a million diplomatic e-mails onto the web, I had mixed feelings about it however.

It is also part of the nature of governments that not everything should be carried out in the light of day. At times, information must be protected in order to save lives, the lives of covert operatives in hostile countries to the identities and locations of those whose testimonies have put powerful men behind bars.

The material that was leaked to the net doesn’t fall under that category. Most of the documents were little more than fluff, from the opinions of diplomats about their host nation to requests for personal benefits. There were a few, however, that were embarrassing, not only to our state department but to the diplomats and state departments of other sovereign nations. Some of the material revealed things that the United States State Department were involved in fighting against, such as computer hacking by China, among other things.

Mostly it raises a question in the diplomatic and military community about the safety of communications that were meant to be confidential and, according to some sources, seriously impedes the ability of the United States to effectively wage diplomacy in the information age.

My question is whether or not that an expectation of privacy and secrecy is reasonable. After all, most private citizens have no privacy. In fact, private citizen is a bit of a misnomer. Our e-mails are monitored and flagged when certain words appear in them. Our website usage is monitored and we receive spam e-mails that reflect what our interests might be. Our cell phone calls can be monitored and recorded. Our financial records can be accessed by anyone who obtains our social security number and has a moderate degree of computer competency. There is no secret that you can keep that someone can’t find out about.

So why does the government, who has been invading our privacy for a decade now particularly since the Patriot Act gave them the legal means to do it cry foul when their own privacy is breached? Certainly it raises some unsettling questions about who regulates information and who decides what the people should have access to. Quite frankly, I’m not certain I want WikiLeaks to make that call either. For a non-profit organization dedicated to exposing information to the light of day, we know remarkably little about the people who run it. The most visible face is Julian Assange, who is now on the run from potential prosecution for the most recent leaks but there are most certainly others, who have up to now, remained in the shadows. Shouldn’t an agency that advocates operating with transparency be itself transparent?

Certainly the government gives us little reason to trust them either. Pages upon pages of declassified documents tell us that authority has been abused, laws have been broken by the very agencies that are trusted to enforce those laws and positions of power have been used for personal gain. This is not just prevalent in American government, but any government. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but any power corrupts, sometimes absolutely as well.

So who determines what remains classified and what is public knowledge? What motivates someone to hide information? What criteria are used to determine what is top secret and what is not? Does anybody really know?

It is said that ignorance is bliss and most of us prefer bliss over the troubling knowledge of just what goes on around us. Personally, I don’t want to know what kind of correspondence is going on between the State Department and Military Intelligence. Is this stuff really necessary to my daily existence? No. Should it have been classified in the first place? I don’t believe it should have been. While diplomatic cables have always been protected as privileged communications, I can’t think of a single legitimate reason why all diplomatic communications should be regarded that way. While it is true that the contents of some communications needs to be classified for security reasons, I can’t imagine that the information in all 250,000 documents is really germane to anyone and anything more than embarrassing to the State Department.

Some of the material leaked includes descriptions of wrongdoing (such as the State Department ordering information for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon gathered by all diplomats, including biometric information, passwords and personal encryption keys used in official communications for the United Nations) or the opinion of State Department personnel (such as the former Deputy Foreign Minister of Brazil, Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes being labeled as having an “anti-American slant.” In fact, many of the cables that were released were harsh words of criticism by diplomats of their host governments and sovereigns. Not very flattering to the United States, but again, is this really stuff that should be communicated through those sorts of channels? Doesn’t anyone in the State Department remember “if you can’t say anything nice about someone…?”

I think most governments are overly zealous when it comes to protecting information. I am wary about any sort of body, be it a government agency or a corporate entity that feels the need to hide things from the general population. Information is power, after all, and hidden information is more powerful still to the people who have that hidden knowledge. However, while I applaud the intentions of an organization like WikiLeaks that attempt to bring information into the light of day that should be there, I have to admit that I’m a little wary of an organization whose personnel and agendas are just as hidden as the diplomatic cables were supposed to be. At least Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier allegedly responsible for leaking the cables (as well as other documents pertaining to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts) to WikiLeaks, is more or less up-front about his agenda and while I’m not sure he did the right thing, he at least followed his conscience (as did the hacker who turned him in). I’m just not so sure that the folks at WikiLeaks are doing the same thing. I am sure, however that many of those who have been in government service for too long have little or no conscience to follow. If they did, we wouldn’t need an organization like WikiLeaks.


3 Responses

  1. Very good insight!

  2. Have you ever encountered a secret that did NOT pose some risk of embarrassment or harm (physical or emotional) to some person or entity? Very little good every comes from protecting secrets.

    In the context of a criminal investigation, keeping your info close to your chest makes sense. That is not the case with the information that was leaked by Wiki. The types of information leaked had little to do with security, in the larger sense. If the opinions and info were reduced to writing, it was with the intent to use it for some later purpose.

    Don’t get caught up in the “should it have been leaked” issue. That’s a red herring. The important question is:

    Toward what end was the information collected in the first place?

  3. We have a diplomatic core plus special envoys sent to troubled places in the world. Dealing on a personal level rather than through governments has always been an effective way.The dumping of information without sifting for needed transparancy and useless titillation makes this dumping wrong. Privacy is a needed tool of diplomacy.

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