by Jacob Davies
I've been meaning to write something about the Wikileaks leak of diplomatic cables, but Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice pretty much sums up what I wanted to say:
What I do know is that this leak is a reminder of what it means to live in a national security state. Not in the sense that these particular documents impinge on my civil liberties or yours. Rather, it’s the combination of sheer volume—that quarter-of-a-million cables number—and the banality of so much of what’s come to light so far.
...Once you set out down a road where each unknowable fact needs its hedge of other secrets to preserve the original wall of ignorance and so on…you end up in a position where it becomes impossible for the governed to give informed consent to their governors.
There is the obvious problem, of course: bits of knowledge that disappear into the nothingness of the security apparatus, not because of any danger they pose, but because they impinge on the autonomy of the state. Things that if we knew them we’d react badly to, the sweetheart deals or the unobservered f**k ups that it’s just easier (for some) if hoi polloi don’t know.
But those are probably the easy misdeeds to correct: if the catastrophes are obvious enough, then there are threads to pull if we had more McClatchy’s and no Foxes on the job. The deeper issue is that of the paternalistic state, one in which secrets are kept simply because everything runs so much more smoothly if we don’t know precisely what is being done, to and for whom.
Diplomacy is one of the few areas where a high level of secrecy is justified by practical concerns - the specifics of military technology are another - but that fact doesn't do away with the concern for the needs of an informed citizenry in a democracy. How can citizens choose who to vote for if the actions of their representatives are secret? If the justifications for their actions are secret?
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free", as some guy once said in a moderately different context. Without truth, as best it can be approximated in this confusing world, none of us can hope to make informed decisions. There are enough obstacles to learning the truth without the government spending so much of its time creating more. And one real message from this release is that much of what is secret would be harmless if public; of course, because of previous press leaks - many of them likely condoned by the government - much of what was revealed was already public.
It's not clear to me that a truly democratic state can also be a perpetual national security state consumed with secrecy. During wartime? That's one thing. But the US is not at war and has not faced any serious threat of war in decades.