Government and secrecy

With increasingly credible revelations about illegal surveillance within the United States, the general concern I’ve felt for years about the present administration is becoming progressively more acute. To be fiscally reckless and socially crusading is one thing. To authorize actions that blatantly violate international law (in the case of torture, rendition, and the indefinite detention of noncombatants) as well as domestic law (by disregarding constitutional safeguards and checks on power) an administration shifts from being simply unappealing to actually being criminal. You can’t just throw away the presumption of innocence and probable cause while maintaining the fiction that the foundational rules upon which a lawful society is based are not being discarded.

Perhaps the most worrisome of all the recent developments are the actions and statements being made against the press. I don’t know if there is any truth to the claim that the phones of ABC reporters are being tapped in hopes of identifying confidential sources, but the general argument that wide-ranging governmental activities must be kept secret for the sake of security is terrifying. If history and the examination of the contemporary world reveal anything, it is that protection from government is at least as important as protection from outside threats. As I wrote in the NASCA report (PDF):

Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority.

Harm to citizens needn’t occur as the result of malice; the combination of intense secrecy and the inevitability of mistakes ensure that such harm will result. Anyone who doubts the capability of the American government and administration to make mistakes need only think of their own explanations for the Hurricane Katrina response, Abu Ghraib, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and all the rest.

Three of the NASCA report’s recommendations speak to the issue of secrecy and accountability specifically:

  • Security measures that are put in place should, wherever possible, require public justification and debate.
  • The perspective of security as a trade-off should be pro-actively presented to the public through outreach that emphasizes transparency.
  • With regards to domestic defence planning, military practice reliant upon secrecy should always be subsidiary to civil and legal oversight.

People both inside and outside the United States would be safer if such guidelines were followed. When even Fox News is opening articles with statements such as the one that follows, something has gone badly wrong.

The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.

A legitimate government cannot operate under a general principle of secrecy. While there are certainly cases where secrecy serves a justifiable purpose – such as concealing the identity of the victim of some forms of crime, or the exact location of certain kinds of military facilities – a democratic government cannot retreat from accountability by its citizens by claiming that oversight creates vulnerability. The lack of oversight creates a much more worrisome vulnerability: worrisome for America, and worrisome for everyone who has faith in the fundamental values of democracy and justice upon which it is ostensibly founded.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “Government and secrecy”

  1. By email, someone suggested I read the following article in support of the NSA wiretaps. It may be of interest to others who feel as I do.

    The Right Call on Phone Records
    The NSA’s Program Safeguards Security — and Civil Liberties
    By Richard A. Falkenrath
    Washington Post. Saturday, May 13, 2006; Page A17

  2. Incidentally, I disagree with Mr. Falkenrath on almost every point. He says: “[A]ccording to USA Today, the telephone records voluntarily provided to the NSA had been anonymized.” This is nonsense. If the records couldn’t be traced back to particular phones and, ultimately, particular people, there would be no intelligence value to this program whatsoever. This program does violate the privacy of Americans and, by my thinking, violates reasonable limits on the kind of power government can exercise against citizens.

    Falkenrath’s argument that the voluntary nature of the information exchange, on the part of AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth is equally weak. The fact that an unconstitutional and illegal act was engaged in ‘voluntarily’ is no defence at all, for either of the people involved. Nixon’s goons breaking into the Watergate Hotel was presumably something they did voluntarily: a fact that is entirely irrelevant to its legality.

    Because there is no transparency in this system, we have no reasonable way of knowing what uses it is being put to. As the ABC example demonstrates, this could easily be things that are only tangentially related to terrorism, if at all. We have no reason to believe this system isn’t or wouldn’t be used to investigate all manner of things which the government has an interest in, but no legal authority to investigate in such an oppressive and dangerous way.

  3. But they’re building a _freedom_ tower! How bad could they be?

    Seriously, I’m scared too.

  4. Our friend Jon Stewart makes many similar points quite wittily in this video, entitled “Log of War.” It’s not right at the beginning, but waiting is worthwhile.

  5. The same friend who suggested the previous article has suggested another:

    Battlefield: U.S.
    Pentagon spies are treating the homeland like a war zone.
    By Laura K. Donohue
    Los Angeles Times. 18 May 2006

    I’ll comment on it later. I need to keep working on essays right now.

  6. Obama administration wants encryption backdoors for domestic surveillance

    Xeni Jardin at 11:58 AM Monday, Sep 27, 2010

    In a New York Times article today by Charlie Savage, news that the Obama administration is proposing new legislation that would provide the U.S. Government with direct access to all forms of digital communication, “including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct ‘peer to peer’ messaging like Skype.”

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