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Less secrecy means better government

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This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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6 March 2012 10:20


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Paul Monk is Director and Principal Consultant of Austhink Consulting. Part one of this post here.

That secrecy has been increasing decade by decade despite repeated, even official calls for the trend to be reversed is very telling. Two brief examples from the US help to underscore this point.

In 1994-97, the Clinton Administration flirted with the idea of substantially reducing secrecy, but failed. Its 1994 Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy took three years to issue a report. That report declared 'It is time for a new way of thinking about secrecy.' It called for a new era of openness to replace 'the culture of secrecy...that we associate with Dulles and Hoover'. Fifteen years on, secrecy in the US, like the national debt, is considerably worse than it was in the Clinton years.

But the failure didn't start with Clinton. My own favourite case of a fruitless call for less secrecy is the Defence Science Board's Special Task Force on Secrecy in 1970. It argued that secrecy ran directly counter to the nature of the scientific research whose technological work it sought to conceal. All things considered, its authors urged, the US would be better off if it adopted, unilaterally if necessary, a policy of complete openness in all areas of information.

I've italicized those words for special emphasis. This task force was not composed of naïve or fellow-traveling 'liberals'. It included such notable cold warriors and weapons scientists as Edward Teller and Jack Ruina of MIT. Nonetheless, the report was classified 'For Official Use Only' and its recommendations disregarded.

There is a long history to all this and ample scope for prevaricators to tangle the debate up in the weeds. We should not indulge such prevarication, however. Rather, we should be working from first principles and seeking to push back against secrecy on the basis that its increase is inimical to what we stand for as citizens of a liberal democratic polity. But this push must be based on principles and not on Assange-like anarchism. The goal is better government, not the fracturing of government.

The task is difficult and the debate needs to be conducted in an open-ended and intelligent manner. Above all, what requires thought – and quite radical innovation – is how to channel declassified materials into public debate in such a way that they add value, rather than simply causing confusion or mischief.

As a citizen, as a public intellectual, as a historian, as a consultant in decision processes and as a former intelligence officer who has had top secret codeword clearances, I believe good thinking requires that all relevant considerations be tabled and exposed to scrutiny. Wherever an excuse is found for not permitting this, either mischief or error are not far off.

There is an ample literature now demonstrating the merits of distributed and transparent decision processes over narrowly-based and arbitrary ones. There is a dismaying abundance of evidence that secrecy in government has led to bad policy. It's time we put two and two together and moved to a new level of public deliberation with a maximum of transparency. The challenge before us is to own this task and invent the means for tackling it.

Photo by Flickr user Ravages.

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