The Role of Secrecy in 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.


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  1. I have more questions about how to do this than answers…that seems to be inherent in the nature of a discussion about secrecy. All I can say is that for right now, I think its imperative that we talk about this and try to get to some answers.

    • Edger on April 26, 2009 at 17:17

    Transparency would be a good thing:

    As the Center for Constitutional Rights pointed out pointedly in their Friday Press Release:

    The Obama Justice Department further argued that even if such rights were recognized, the Court should rule that the previous administration’s officials who ordered and approved torture and abuse of the plaintiffs should be immune from liability for their actions.

    Obama and Atty Gen. Holder are now not only clearly supporting but have clearly set out to obtain “legal justifications” for continuing the previous administrations torture policies as their own policies.

    Yoo ain’t see nothing yet. He was an amateur.

  2. that fact has never stopped me from commenting before, so why stop now? {snark}

    I did hear somebody on my teevee this morning  say something to this effect. Sorry, Sunday mornings in my house are hectic as shit so I cant really pay attention the way Id like to.

    But…anyway, NL you said above:

    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.

    I would imagine that the argument from the other POV on this is this:  in a democracy, our “access,or “voice” is with our ELECTED officials and congressfolk. Thats where we have {cough} trust, and it IS their obligation and responsibility to provide oversight. (And they, esp the Intel Committee and such, they do have security clearance and bla bla bla, right?) So, we as citizens and voters, we voluntarily concede our power to those we elect. Thats “democracy”.

    So my guess is that that is the position we will be having to push back on. Thank you NL, for bringing this up and opening up the discussion.

    Ill go read the FOIA link now.

  3. is that now the technology exists to essentially run the United States as a totalitarian dictatorship, and Bush moved that agenda forward to a ridiculous degree.

    There’s a lot of technology that we are not supposed to know anything about. Everything from the data vacuums snarfing down every packet on t3h 1nt4rdn3tz to new multi-scope assault rifles that can slice and dice you four different ways. There are rumors that other possible weapons in use against tomorrow’s “domestic insurgents” are controlled, small-scale electro-magnetic pulse technology (no boom boom, but still, out go the lights!) and the use of robotic spy drones on the ground and in the air. Color, high-res pinhole cameras, some with audio, are commonplace and capable of being hidden in everything.

    Corporations that are in bed with the feds, like Google, are not always forthcoming about how they do what they do. For example, here’s how they did Google Maps: they used new three-dimensional camera technology (incidentally developed at Columbia University) mounted on cars and just drove all over the place, then combined it with existing satellite data. How they did this was not exactly put on the front page of the New York Times for a reason. Only this screen capture from Google maps taken when the sun was at a fortuitous angle tells the rest of the story.

    There’s a fresh crop of survivors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to indoctrinate into the corporate feudal mindset – tomorrow’s “security contractors” and TLA agents, trained by today’s brainwashed fools who are throwbacks from Desert Storm, Vietnam and even Korea.

    Biological and chemical weapons have been developed and used to a degree never seen in the last century. White phosporous has been used in Gaza; while Iraq and Afghanistan have seen no small use of depleted uranium munitions. During the Bush administration no less than 14 internationally known biochemists who specialized in the study of human pathogens met mysterious ends, Bruce Ivins (the scapegoat for the anthrax scares) being only the most recent and well known.

    When you can control people, you WILL control people. When you have a weapon, eventually you will come across someone willing to use it.  

  4. As we see with the socialist…the failed socialist meme, the dinosaurs from that era are dying off and the residue from their paranoia (justified or not) starts to dissolve, we do have a chance to build a new world.

    Obama is the beginning of that.

    But we simply have to take this opening to defeat as much of that mindset in our people and institutions a s we can.

    It will , and is, lol, a painful passage to go through, but the only way to move forward is to weaken the influence of “the shadow government’ that the intel community has become.

    It is time for big brother to retire and a new ethos and paradigm of both military and intel power to emerge.

    • kj on April 26, 2009 at 21:36

    is the title a question?  i know the answer!  i know i know!  pick me!


    Sunshine is our friend.  

    (of course, the atmosphere is messed up, but still, sunshine is our friend.)

    • kj on April 26, 2009 at 22:34

    individuals are losing (or some cases, ala Facebook) giving away their “privacy” in some outrageous proportion to the extent that corporations are gaining cloak and cover.

    i’m in the “Fringe” school of X-Files.  we know what we know because courageous individuals give their lives to give us information.

    again, everyone has their role.  the more stories that can be told, and heard, coming from people who have been tortured, the better.  

    Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness is one book i wish everyone had by their side.

    what we see now is time, sped up.  the torture is happening in real time.  the problems of time and dimension… if i were bright enough, i’d figure out how to make the one enhanced (time) match the second lack (dimension).

    anyone see the thing about twitter?  the speed of communication slowing down our empathic responses?  🙁

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