Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Government Needs a Really, Really Good Reason for Keeping Secrets

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo thinks I'm a "doofus" and "really dumb." He also doesn't think leaks are always wrong, but, he says, regarding the military's need for "a substantial amount of secrecy," "when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason."  My problem with his position is that I would hope that journalists (a term he uses to describe himself) would view their relationship to government secrecy in the opposite way: the government ought to have a really, really good reason for keeping secrets.

He spends much of his article debating a straw man – someone who believes there should be no secrets and every leak is a good leak.  In this way he can position himself as nuanced and thoughtful compared to his reckless, imaginary opponents. This ignores the fact that the major players in the Snowden affair - including Snowden himself - have made clear that they understand the problems with certain kinds of leaks that could, for example, put human life in danger.  Manning, too, has said that his actions were about shedding light on bad acts, not doing harm or trying to "blow the whole thing up," as Marshall writes.

Putting that fallacy aside, the problem with his position is that he, like the journalists that broke the Snowden story, believes there is a need to balance before releasing or publishing leaks, but he would give way too much weight to government secrecy.  Even in the abstract that is an odd position for a journalist, but facts and context make his position pretty shameful.  Neither of the recent whistleblowers are doing anything anywhere near as harmful as the acts they've uncovered, yet reading Marshall you might wonder if you missed the news about Manning revealing tomorrow's troop movements in Afghanistan or Snowden providng North Korea with a map of nuclear facilities.  Marshall doesn't specify what great harm they've caused that would outweigh what he admits is the important benefit of some leaks - that they reveal "government wrongdoing and/or excessive secrecy."  So both leaks clearly reveal a lot of both, there is voluminous evidence for that, where is the evidence of the harm Marshall is grappling with and feels the need to call others to task for?

He doesn't need much evidence because, to Marshall, government secrecy ought to be sacrosanct.  He must not think the government (at least this government) engages in much wrongdoing; and it may surround much of its actions in secrecy, but he clearly doesn't find it all that "excessive." He goes out of his way to discuss his allegiance to the government, which in this context must mean the elements of the government who are in charge of the massive spying operation uncovered by Snowden and the war crimes and conspiring with dictators uncovered by Manning.  Sure, he gives lip service to balancing, but in the end he reveals that his "balancing" really means that the people who reveal the worst crimes of our government will probably go to prison and probably deserve to and if they did any sort of public service it was greatly outweighed by the harm they did to the state with which he is aligned.

Some leaks are good, he explains, but government needs secrets, especially a government he identifies with, and besides, why should Snowden decides what gets released?
Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically - for better or worse - to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?
Why should some young guy he's never heard of decide?  Well, why should Glenn Greenwald decide?  And why should Marshall decide?  He acknowledges that it is possible that some of Snowden's leaks should have been published, but doesn't explain which (a rather easy way out) and doesn't explain how journalists could ever get their hands on such information without someone in government "breaking an oath and committing a crime" and thus making a moral choice about what the public ought to know.

This calculus is a lot easier if you believe, as I do, that we all ought to know nearly everything our government is up to.  Of course there are examples where revealing government secrets does more harm than good – whether you are a government insider or a journalist receiving that information.  But Marshall's problem is that he seems to think that that is almost always the case – the government should have secrets and a whistleblower better have a damn good reason for removing that cloak of secrecy.  In a democratic and free nation, however, the truth ought to be the opposite.  The government needs a damn good reason to keep things secret.  In the case of what Snowden has revealed and what Manning revealed, I'm still waiting for one.