The world, "moving irreversibly in the direction of openness"

I have had fairly ambivalent feelings about the Wikileaks drama that has been playing out in the last weeks. On the one hand, my journalistic integrity and my rights as a citizen implore the significance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. On the other hand, I firmly believe one of our government's most important jobs is to maintain effective foreign relations and work earnestly with other nations, and some have risen concern that this would jeopardize some of those efforts. Not to mention, there is a reason sometimes I do not know everything the government is doing, some things I am better off learning about years later, especially if it means my protection and involves working towards national and (more often, please) international goals.

Starting on November 28, a collection of 250,000 government documents were disseminated via Julias Assange's website Wikileaks, 11,000 of which were labeled secret. In all actuality, though, these secret documents have not fatally wounded any governmental diplomacy or plans of action. In fact, to me it has seemed to place other countries' governments in front of a mirror, forcing them to consider things they may have been said behind closed doors about them, but never explicitly out in the open. Kind of like in middle or high school, the things teenagers say behind each other's backs are often more honest, and reflect sentiments that someone might wish they had the guts to say to your face. (Not condoning spiteful teenage behavior, rather recognizing that it occurs inevitably.) From the December 13, 2010 issue of Time magazine:

The repercussions of the WikiDump are only beginning to play out. In Korea, the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong Il learned that its longtime protector, China, may be turning on it and is willing to contemplate unification of the peninsula under the leadership of the South Korean government in Seoul. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discovered through the leak that while his Arab neighbors were publicly making nice, privately they were pleading with the U.S. to launch an attack against Tehran's nuclear program. Whether that revelation weakens Iran's bargaining position or whether it will encourage Iran's leaders to hunker down and be even less cooperative in negotiations remains to be seen. What is plain is that in Iran and elsewhere, the WikiLeaks revelations could change history.


( Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2034276,00.html#ixzz17lbeFYHI )

That last line is certainly significant. We are witnessing a new phase in history, that will influence history itself, as we are seeing the convergence of two phenomena: a wired planet that has a nearly instant ability to share nearly limitless information meets an era where governmental secrecy has reached unprecedented heights. Reading this article, I started to see its similarities to the "crying wolf" problem, where too many bits of information are pegged "secret" by an increasingly large number of people with security clearances, and there is no way to standardize everyone's discretion or interpretation of the word "classified" and what merits such a branding.

Probably the reason for my internal confusion was the very revolutionary nature of these two forces colliding. The way we think about government and citizenship, and the protection of the latter from the former, is always evolving, and unknowns are scary things. And they way that government interacts with information is fundamentally affecting our lives too. This may be the natural next step in ensuring all three components of our world are in working order. Government. Citizen. Information.

The article quotes a "former intelligence-community official" who said, "The world is moving irreversibly in the direction of openness, and those who learn to operate with fewer secrets will ultimately have the advantage over those who futiley cling to a past in which millions of secrets can be protected." If we want Chinese citizens to have access to their government, well we better have it, too. (And I don't think supporting the transparency of the government makes anyone anti-American. Period.)

Classifying too many things as "secret" is where the real problem underlying this theatrical world news began, as the Time article argues. Having a more stringent definition for the term means the ability to keep the truly important stuff from leaking, without jeopardizing governmental integrity. Because if a federal system has too many secrets, its people begin to question it, and with good reason. During the Pentagon papers case in 1971, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said just this, and Julian Assange has fully embraced the sentiment as well:

The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.

Less secrecy means, in other words, what needs to be kept under wraps can stay that way. Looking at it like this, I have fewer qualms with the whole Wikileaks thing, because I think it points to where the government must direct itself now and in the future, understanding that in the end, nothing can be guaranteed to remain secret forever, and using this fact to remain proactive in their disclosure of information. We live in an instant kind of world, but this won't be an instant transition. With the direction technology has taken in the last twenty years though, I can't imagine they've never discussed this eventual reality before. It makes us all consider seriously the responsibilities of our leaders and what we expect from them. It also makes us question our rights and where they start and end, and how much protection we can expect. All things considered, I'm OK with the Wikileaks commitment to holding leaders responsible and keeping them accountable.


"If men were angels, we would need no government"

So spoke James Madison, on that every pressing question of what to do with governance; how much is good and how much is too much? How much is too little?

Because men aren't angels, they lie to each other, sell each other faulty or unsafe products to make a buck for themselves, or any number of unwholesome things. Thinking more about what I posted yesterday, and the role of government in improving our lives and standards of living, I have to endorse many of the things it does for us. The government cannot be limited to, at its most bare, a military protection from outside forces, because we need protection from ourselves more often. I recalled something I'd read about a year ago, from the political commentary section of Reddit. It makes a strong point:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US department of energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the national weather service of the national oceanographic and atmospheric administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the national aeronautics and space administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US department of agriculture inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined as safe by the food and drug administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issed by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the department of labor and the occupational safety and health administration, enjoying another two meals which again do not kill me because of the USDA, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to ny house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal's inspection, and which has not been plundered of all it's valuables thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the internet which was developed by the defense advanced research projects administration and post on freerepublic.com and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can't do anything right.

Let's give the powers some credit...

Sean Wilentz, in the Fresh Air interview, comments on that notion, of the government always being seen as a threat to liberty, to a paranoid degree. "What are we left with? We're left with no government at all. It's basically, it would end up with, a kind of dog-eat-dog world, mitigated I suppose by religious charity; it's a view of America that's just un-American."



(Since this comment was not the original work of the person who posted it, here is  the link to the commentary on Reddit, posted by nailz1000. This is the source of this quotation. He notes there that this is from the Laissez Faire subforum on Something Awful.)