By CHARLIE MITCHELL
OXFORD – It depends. If you count yourself among those who think of government as a separate thing, a self-contained entity akin to Walmart Inc. or the New York Mets, then you might have one view about government secrets being revealed.
If, on the other hand, you cling to the notion that government exists only because the public needs it to serve our collective interests, you might have a different view.
The latter thinking is the blueprint Thomas Jefferson and that whole Founding Father crowd envisioned. Today, things are different. The people are often “us” and government is usually “them” and “they” tell “us” what to do. A government that’s separate and distinct from the public is what we’ve got, but it wasn’t the plan.
For the second time this year, a website called WikiLeaks has Washington, D.C., and other world capitals in an uproar.
It’s not clear what motivates Julian Assange, the creator of the site, to expose America’s laundry. But if the result is to share with Americans (and everyone else) what Washington is really doing (as opposed to what it’s telling “us”) then that’s a good thing.
Secrecy shouldn’t be discussed in broad terms. Specifics matter.
If the first wave of WikiLeaks, there was the belief that active military operational plans were being made available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. For families in Mississippi with relatives stationed in danger zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be impossible (and stupid) to make the case that was acceptable.
It turns out, according to Pentagon officials, that nothing of any value to an enemy enterprise was in the WikiLeaks portfolio, but there was justifiable outrage nonetheless.
No one should challenge the notion that government should have a tight seal on much that is military in nature.
The second batch of WikiLeaks documents is different. Much of it – and reports are that it is voluminous – mostly centers on U.S. Department of State memos and strategies.
Far from creating a direct danger to the safety of individuals, it appears many of the documents are merely embarrassing. More directly, indications are the memos confirm to the world that American diplomats – up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – are masters of saying one thing and doing another. The phrase “a pattern of deception” comes to mind.
Certainly, there are some who believe government secrecy is OK in this context. These are the folks who think of government as a “they” and believe that just as directors of Walmart or the coaching staff of the Mets should have strategic plans and ideas they don’t make public, it’s OK for the U.S. government to have the same. It’s a proposition not totally meritless.
But some questions arise. For example, if we are the world’s “only superpower” why do we have to be sneaky when it comes to diplomacy? Why should we hide what’s known as our foreign policy objectives? Why do we to tell one head of state one thing, another one another thing and tell the American people a third version, if anything at all?
An argument could be made that if you’re the biggest, baddest person in the room, finesse (or underhandedness) is not a tool you need. Let others double-deal, dodge and delay. A superpower should be able to say, “This is how we see it” and “This is what we intend to do about it.”
Perhaps this oversimplifies. There’s always that risk.
But a second consideration arises. It’s the acid test of secrecy and it’s a simple one. Merely ask whose purpose keeping a secret serves, or mostly serves.
In the case of military operational information, clearly the answer is the soldiers and those of us they protect.
In the case of State Department banter, the answer is less clear. Secrecy might advance the national interest, but it also might only shield double-dealing and protect the political hides of the hordes of people who draw paychecks as international policy wonks. Collectively, it may make us a less trustworthy nation when the national interest would be served clarity, definiteness, dependability.
The WikiLeaks flap is sure to be followed by many more. In each situation a question to ask is whether government’s purpose to keep a secret for the people or from the people.
If it’s the latter, then government is not performing as designed.
Government is always supposed to work in our interest. At least that was the plan.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.