The new conventional wisdom on WikiLeaks’ massive Afghanistan document leak — to which I mostly subscribe — is that there is not too much new in the documents that we didn’t already know. (James Fallows has the most useful criticism of this position here.) There is a decided difference between the primary document history provided in the WikiLeaks leak and the public speeches and rhetoric of the Obama and Bush Administrations. Some specific discrepancies stand out — such as those that disagree with the United Nations or Pentagon public statements about civilian casualties, as well as the smoking gun of Task Force 373 (the secret assassination squad for top Taliban officials).
Nevertheless, one thing this massive document dump shows is that most of it doesn’t have to be secret at all! I mean, just because you stamp TOP SECRET on it doesn’t mean it will remain unknown. Task Force 373 has been rumored for quite some time, while the huge number of civilian casualties is well-known as an impediment to defeating the Taliban. What in the documents really needed to stay secret? If the Pentagon, rather than Wikileaks, had released the War Logs on a Friday afternoon as a declassification dump, would there be quite so much hubbub? The need for secrecy makes these documents seem more valuable than, say, the unclassified reports that the Defense Department puts out (PDF).
The proliferation of the “secret” world may not seem that dramatic over the last 10 years, but Dana Priest and William Arkin’s excellent WaPo series on the secret-industrial complex illustrates the explosion of people, businesses and money now involved in secret intelligence. And what do all these secrets get us? Well, not a whole lot. The secrets just require more money to protect them and more people to sift through them.
What is the danger of making most of these documents public? If “everyone” knew the information already, why not just have a more transparent system?
The danger in secrets is that they say to the public “some things are too dangerous for you to know.” This both elevates the power of the people who have access to the secrets and diminishes the power of the people who don’t. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily make the people in charge any better informed; it just changes the power equation. What WikiLeaks and other leakers do is attempt to change that power equation. The only way to diminish the power of secrets is to make them well-known.
Kevin Drum once excerpted a bit of Daniel Ellsberg (the leaker of the Pentagon Papers), which I find particularly relevant during this discussion of secrets. In 1968, Henry Kissinger, an academic new to the federal government, asked Ellsberg for advice. Ellsberg recalls:
“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.
“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.
“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.
“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.
“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.
“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.
“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”
….Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning. As I’ve said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.
No one says with more candor what Ellsberg reveals here — keeping too many secrets is bad for the people making decisions and the people who need to be informed about those decisions. Those in power will be too busy deciding what to say and what not to say in order to manipulate public opinion, that they will lose sight of the fact that they are beholden to the public they want to manipulate.
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