Friday, December 3, 2010

You Are the Government: Wikileaks and Transparency

So Julian Assange of Wikileaks recently released about 250,000 secret documents from the State Department.  The very best thing you could possibly read about Wikileaks is Glenn Greenwald.  Here is a smattering, the tip o' the iceberg, of new information that we learned about our government's illegal and immoral activity from these documents that Greenwald  put together:

(1) the U.S. military formally adopted a policy of turning a blind eye to systematic, pervasive torture and other abuses by Iraqi forces;

(2) the State Department threatened Germany not to criminally investigate the CIA's kidnapping of one of its citizens who turned out to be completely innocent;

(3) the State Department under Bush and Obama applied continuous pressure on the Spanish Government to suppress investigations of the CIA's torture of its citizens and the 2003 killing of a Spanish photojournalist when the U.S. military fired on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad (see The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch today about this: "The day Barack Obama Lied to me");

(4) the British Government privately promised to shield Bush officials from embarrassment as part of its Iraq War "investigation";

(5) there were at least 15,000 people killed in Iraq that were previously uncounted;

(6) "American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world" about the Iraq war as it was prosecuted, a conclusion the Post's own former Baghdad Bureau Chief wrote was proven by the WikiLeaks documents;

(7) the U.S.'s own Ambassador concluded that the July, 2009 removal of the Honduran President was illegal -- a coup -- but the State Department did not want to conclude that and thus ignored it until it was too late to matter;

(8) U.S. and British officials colluded to allow the U.S. to keep cluster bombs on British soil even though Britain had signed the treaty banning such weapons, and,

(9) Hillary Clinton's State Department ordered diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data on U.N. and other foreign officials, almost certainly in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961.

And there are many others.  In response, Newt Gingrich joined other conservatives in calling for Assange to be considered an enemy combatant.  There is a swelling chorus of conservatives and political insiders calling for Assange to be killed and physical, military force to be used to stop Wikileaks, endorsed by Sarah Palin.

I support Wikileaks.  Wholeheartedly.  If we are going to live in a healthy democracy, if we are going to protect our individual rights against powerful institutions, if we are going to exist in a peaceful world, we have to -- have to -- have transparency.  There is no other way.  And I don't care if some short term U.S. interests are hurt.  We are only safe and empowered over the long term as a citizenry if we have access to full information and we can make decisions based on complete transparency.

We at the Mormon Left have spend a lot of time arguing for increasing the role of government in providing a safety net for Americans.  We've supported public welfare, single payer health insurance and the public option, progressive taxation, Social Security, aggressive regulation of the market, and the like.  So I can imagine a person thinking that supporting Wikileaks as a check against government and supporting government programs as intellectually dissonant.  But it's not.

A government that is transparent, accountable, and honest with its citizens can be incredibly effective at ameliorating social injustices.  What other organization has the resources and power to make sure that affordable health care is available to all Americans, or that all the elderly are taken care of?  None.  But that desire to allow government into our lives is based on the assumption that the government is being honest and accountable and not hiding material information from us.  If we find government unresponsive we have two major choices.  We can either demand that government stop providing those services that millions rely on in difficult times, or we can keep the services and make government more transparent and open.  I choose the latter, and that's why Wikileaks is to be applauded.

I've beaten this drum a few times, but there are certain fairly simple things we can do to improve our government and make it a useful tool in our hands instead of cutting off the social safety net and harming millions of everyday Americans.  We can reform campaign finance laws to limit the sway of special interests, enact term limits on all elected politicians, dramatically increase the size of the House of Representatives, reform the broken Senate and its anti-democratic rules, and the like.  Now lets add to the list "increase transparency."  I want full information in all but the most sensitive situations because when government, or any other institution, becomes secretive it means it is or will soon be doing something wrong.  And the Wikileaks documents prove conclusively that the American government, cloaked in secrecy, has been immoral and breaking every law it can get its hands on.  The proper response is to reform the way our government works in making it commit to more transparency.

I am so appalled and angered by the violent reaction to Wikileaks, such as those that want to use the military to forcefully destroy their organization and even kill them.  I think it could not reflect more poorly on those that want to combat transparency with violence and more secrecy.  Ultraconservatives rail against Pres. Obama and his radical and dangerous anti-American ideology, but they recoil in disgust when someone sheds light on how the American government actually works.  The tea party shrieks in horror when the government passes a stimulus bill to inject life into the economy as an unconstitutional intrusion into our private lives but whistles nonchalantly and turns the other way when someone reveals the extent to which our government breaks laws and acts immorally and then hides it from its people.  That is intellectual dissonance, and it is dangerous for the fate of our country.

Bad Religion has a song called You Are the Government:

That is exactly spot on.  We the People.  We are the government.  The government doesn't have a right to keep its actions hidden because we are the government.  We empower the government to do all sorts of good for us, the very least we should receive in return is true transparency and accountability.  Wikileaks helps us achieve that.  If you don't agree perhaps you'd feel more at home politically in China.


Architect said...

You are not alone in your support of Wikileaks...

If the State Department doesn't want the public to know, hire ethical employees, don't order them to do unethical things.

Secrets are fine, but keeping secrets about criminal activity is a crime.

Architect said...

As long as the government loots one group to give to another, groups will spend money to try to influence politicians to move them from the taxed group to the subsidized group. No amount of laws will stop them from gaming the system. The larger and more complex the regulations and tax scheme the more difficult it is to administer fairly, the more incentive for loopholes, special deals and the underground economy.

The role of governments is to enforce private property rights. Once the government starts making value judgments about who deserves what, picking winners and losers, who to tax because they have enough and who to subsidize, you now are asking the government to discriminate. People are human - even those serving in government. They tax their enemies and subsidize their friends. We presently have scores of programs that are at best a waste of resources and at worst, harmfully retarding progress (whether it is in medicine, the environment, trade, peaceful relations with other countries, local economies, transportation, jobs, ...)

Jacob S. said...

A lot of that may be true, but I think the proper response is to root out the power special interests have in the government and policy-making instead of ending some of the most important social programs we have. Some are money pits, no question, but many are necessary.

I disagree that the role of government is simply to enforce private property rights. That would exclude such things as road and infrastructure building and maintenance, child labor laws, and a myriad of other useful things that keep society running smoothly. I think the government you envision was preferable back when the nation was created and was largely agrarian and sparsely populated, but the world is simply too complex for that now.

I'm glad we agree on Wikileaks, though. If there is one thing the right and left should agree on it is the need for more transparency and accountability in government.

peter said...

I absolutely agree that we shouldn't be covering up criminal activity. However, would you want what you say to your spouse about everyone in the ward to be published in the ward bulletin? (Probably, you guys are much more spiritual than I am. :)) It seems like many of the things I am hearing from wikileaks are about opinions or assessments that, though not necessarily false, are unflattering and that airing them hurts our ability to negotiate/interact with other countries. What does publishing this sort of information accomplish?

In addition, Iran and Venezuela and a number of other countries are outraged and offended...but how many of them would like thier internal memos to be made public? Probably not very many.


Jacob S. said...

I think we pretty much agree, Kristy. Perhaps some background of the mechanics of all of this might be useful. Wikileaks has something like 250,000 documents in their possession. They did not just indiscriminately dump them all into the public sphere. They worked with several media organizations like the NYTimes, Le Monde, and that German paper (Der Speigl) to find the most important documents to release, which ended up being a little over 900. The point is, they didn't just dump everything they had, nor did they just pull out some embarrassing but harmless documents.

From what I've read, most of the documents expose illegal or immoral activities. To the extent that some document is just embarrassing I agree that it doesn't make sense to release it, but my understanding is that those are a small percentage. If it takes a few unimportant documents getting released that might harm the US in the short term because of embarrassment to get hundreds of documents that expose illegal activity that should be fixed for the long term good of the nation, I'm all for it.

Aaron said...

I agree, but only up to a point. Does the world have a right to know what mobsters the FBI has under observation and what agents are reporting back on them? Does the world have a right to know who is in the federal witness protection program and where they are? Does the world have a right to know who CIA agents are and where they are working? Is there nothing that should be kept confidential? Can a government -- any government -- operate in complete transparency?

Jacob S. said...

I actually agree with you, Aaron. I absolutely think there are times when the government needs certain things to be secret.

My problem with the whole Wikileaks thing is that, first, the default position of many people is that the burden of proof is on the citizens to prove why the government should be transparent, not the other way around where the government should have the burden of proof to show why something should be secret. And second, we are talking about the uncovering of illegal and immoral actions by our government and all anyone wants to talk about is how awful Assange is and important it is for the government to have secrets. The whole discussion seems disconcertingly skewed in a bad direction.