The publication of American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks has caused considerable uproar and controversy. A great deal of debate is going back and forth on the issue but much of the media and government attention is not on the most damning implications of the leaked cables. Instead they are chasing the much smaller story of the leak itself. This is hardly surprising; the mainstream media has consistently avoided embarrassing American government officials since 9/11. In the midst of all the chatter of the leak itself the bigger question has been ignored.
In government, business, and many other places privacy and secrecy have an important place. Whether they are trade secrets, military strategies, or medical information keeping confidence is a necessity in many facets of modern life. The situations when truly vital secrets should be exposed are very limited and in the eyes of the law dictated by necessity. One cannot, for example, have one's psychiatric records examined by the authorities without a warrant or probable cause. A business does not have the power to force another business to divulge trade secrets. A counselor cannot be forced to share their discussion with a client unless those discussions reveal a clear danger. Private information that is protected by law is by and large the kind of information whose access must be protected for reasons of need.
Secrecy in matters of government is much more complex. There are many pieces of information that government needs to keep quiet to do its job. We live in a dangerous world with people who would love to have access to truly valuable information so they can bring harm to the United States. Military operations are the most obvious as are any other activities like espionage that by necessity requires tight control of information. These necessary secrets are hidden because they must be, otherwise they become weapons others can use against us. The public does not have a right or need to know such necessary secrets. It is when government actively obfuscates public policy it has crossed a very dangerous line. For our representative government to function the citizens must be well-informed on matters of public policy including how our representatives are executing that policy. When government denies access to information central to issues of public interest they cut the voting public out of the discussion.
The real bombshell in the leaked cables was not the juicy tidbits of Foreign Service gossip, that several Arab leaders have been pushing the US to bomb Iran, or that China probably hacked Google. It is in the exposure of the stark divide between the administration's narrative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in public and what is in black and white in their own documents. Obama has said from the beginning of his campaign that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity. We have been assured it is a war we must not leave prematurely or run the risk of destabilizing Central Asia. Our president also promised openness and transparency in his administration. He promised honest, adult discussion of the issues. Our government assures us in public that the mission is on track having given deadlines for withdrawal justifying each based on the “opinion of commanders on the ground” asking always for our patience in spite of declining support. In private they are agonizing over a deteriorating situation where their most crucial ally is a government they do not trust which is paralyzed by corruption at every level.
The leak of the State Department's private cables did more than confirm how dire the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan truly is. They have proven that our government does not trust we, the people to make informed decisions about our country's foreign policy. In refusing to honestly debate the issues these cables bring to light in Afghanistan this administration has crossed a line it should never approach. There is a place for secrets, but those secrets are ones that must be kept for the sake of matters of need. Saving face is definitely not one of them. Agree or disagree with the leak, the United States is not harmed by the administration admitting that the Afghan government is highly corrupt, the war is not going well, our contractors have made things worse, and the reconstruction money has virtually disappeared. Those are the facts not to mention public knowledge. Refusing to talk about these serious issues with the public and insisting we are making progress is not going to change that any more than positive thinking is going to make anyone a millionaire. Keeping up a good image when it is anything but true is not strength. Telling the public not to believe their lying eyes and to just trust them strikes at the foundations of representative government.
The question that has been batted around in the media has been what to think about WikiLeaks. In the midst of the 24-hour drone the bigger question has been lost: why does our government feel the need to lie to us about what is painfully obvious?
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