There is a general feeling that transparency is inevitably good and that secrecy, if not bad, leads to a dark road where evil acts are buried among the flower gardens. We believe that what distinguishes a totalitarian society from a democratic one is that the former has a political elite that largely sustains its power through secrecy and public relations. Democracy, so the theory goes, is superior because openness allows citizens to judge the actions of those representing their interest.
WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange have delivered a different message. And like a lover who finds his or her partner has been saying one thing and doing another, and has used secrecy as a cover for behavior that is inconsistent with the basis of the relationship, there is bound to be a loud, wounding cry of pain. What the current state of play by the United States and allied countries has demonstrated that the line between transparency and secrecy has always been blurred. It has been a delusion that democracy is in the affairs of state open with its information.
The problem is we want a black and white world where transparency is on the side of the good guys and secrecy is something that North Korea, China and Russia use not only to advance its interest but to oppress those within the regime that might dissent, criticize or question the wisdom of the government, its policies and officials. Corruption, for example, is something that grows best in the dark; the light of day destroys the opportunity for a kickback or at the very least increases the risk and fewer officials are willing to participate in off-the-book activities.
Secrecy isn’t, however, always bad. Indeed it is essential. It forms the core of the client-attorney privilege. Enforcement officers can hardly be expected to share plans to arrest a criminal. Most people would agree that putting activation codes for weapons of mass destruction into a highly secure, secret system is a good idea. In other words, it isn’t that people in a democracy are transparency purest. Even the most totalitarian regime must have a system of information sharing or it couldn’t manage the affairs of millions of people. The paradox is while every system claims to act in the best interest of its citizens none of these systems is truly wide open or accountable for significant actions. The ends are the basically the same for every government: a better, secure life for citizens. The means of getting to that point, which leads the charge, and their legitimacy and authority are quite different matters.
Democracies like America chant the mantra of elections and voting. Other regimes like China chant patriotic slogans based on nationalism, history, language and ethnicity as overriding concerns and so long as governments advance those values they can claim legitimacy to rule. What has emerged from WikiLeaks is the essential mistrust that many in democracies have for elected officials. Elections no longer automatically confer a legitimacy to act, and the time it takes for voters to become disgruntled and officials to become isolated has shortened. WikiLeaks feeds that deep sense that democracy has failed the people who have had faith in it.
Under the smokescreen we find the dirty secret that in achieving their ends, America, the beacon of democracy, has employed means that are not in substance much different from regimes they deplore. As the Chinese are in uproar over a human rights activist receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Americans in full battle mode over Julian Assange, the commonality becomes apparent for all. Both the Chinese and Americans react with anger and outrage that their secrets are exposed. People are taking sides. Some Americans are calling for the imprisonment, death or assassination of Julian Assange. Does that sound like people who cherish democracy? It sounds more like something from North Korea’s lunatic fringe.
How many times have you recently read by some pundit or officials: there is nothing new in this information. We already knew that. Of course, that is total crap. It is the lazy minded who say something so patronizing and stupid. Known by whom? Certainly not by most people, and if true, why all the outcry?
That is the point, the WikiLeaks saga shows that neither totalitarian nor democratic regimes are geared up for sharing information with the general population. It is a matter of degree of what is shared, what gets out the gossip and how far that gossip spreads. But gossip can be easily dismissed unlike a cable with the American Embassy eagle at the top of the page. There is no room to squirm out of the detailed analysis that some leader is stupid, crazy, drunk, corrupt or arrogant.
The secrecy cover is off. People in western governments are running around in circles trying to figure out how the genie can be put back in the secrecy bottle. The fact is the genie is out. The stuff that has been released is a small fraction of what is circling like an invading fleet of starships from another world. And this isn’t the most sensitive intelligence. The top-secret information, which is in the hands of 850,000 people in America, must be causing massive anxiety amongst the ruling class.
No matter what happens to Julian Assange or Wikileaks, the technological capability to deliver secrets will only increase over time, the desire to participate in an information crusade will vastly overtake the current terrorist threat, the growing expertise of computer literate and disaffect computer hackers ensures what we’ve seen is only the brief interlude to a very long digital performance. We can’t ever forget that the complexity of human emotions and motivations will always produce dozens of Julian Assanges.
Since the end of World War II America has been the center of democracy; its leaders using the empire as part of their evangelical mission to spread the doctrine around the world. America remains the secular Vatican for democracy, and its far flung empire of bishops and cardinals are finding out America’s old time religion is shot full of holes. As America launches future recruitment drives to gather a larger flock to the merits of democracy, it may discover that it has become a lot tougher to bring in fresh converts. Suddenly the Chinese system as an alternative secular religion may be on the ascendancy and that isn’t a good thing for the rest of us.
Men and women like Julian Assange are behind their computers as you read this blog thinking this is their chance to be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. In a celebrity mad world, what better way to get 15 minutes of fame than upload the dirty laundry from your company, bank, university, agency. It isn’t just that future government won’t be sleeping soundly again, the rest of the power structure is vulnerable and for them, it is only a matter of time when their secrets are released and a new circus is born.