An informed public

I've recently finished reading Wool, Hugh Howey's vision of "a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them." In Howey's telling, the secrets behind those regulations turn out to be more toxic than the uninhabitable world outside the self-contained community.

Howey published Wool in 2011, a year after Wikileaks first released U.S. military and diplomatic cables and two years before Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian revealed that the U.S. has been involved in a widespread effort to collect information on its own citizens' communications. Both the Wikileaks and Snowden revelations have prompted debates about the role of secrets in a democratic society.

In the spirit of reasonable disclosure, I start out as a skeptic of the government's claims that these leaks aid terrorists. Until 2010, the United States maintained a color-coded "Homeland Security Advisory System", with the color changing whenever "credible threats" were detected. Last month, the U.S. decided to close 21 embassies and consulates in advance of a possible attack that its intelligence efforts had uncovered.

We don't think of changing the threat level or publicly announcing embassy closures as "leaks", but the acts themselves convey information to anyone who may be plotting an attack. We reveal at least some of what we know because someone in the government decided there is benefit in doing so.

Information becomes a "leak" when someone decides to release information outside the chain of command. Of course, some leaks are planned – how often have you heard a reporter invoke "a senior administration official" as a source? – and those don't seem to bring down the government, either.

Interestingly, a cohort of journalists whose careers have been built on the selective disclosure of government information have roundly criticized Edward Snowden for leaking classified information. Some have gone on to suggest that Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald should be held liable for his coverage. The United States government has tried to limit what The Guardian can publish, a move that may work in the U.K., where prior restraint is allowed.

Last month, New York University professor Jay Rosen characterized the debate as "The Toobin principle", in which the government and the media agree to "repeal the concept of an informed public". Rosen focuses on arguments advanced by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who simultaneously characterized Snowden as a criminal and the public debate over intelligence practices as "a good thing".

Rosen goes on to capture James Risen, national security reporter for the New York Times, who responded to Toobin on CNN:

We wouldn’t be having this discussion if it wasn’t for [Snowden]. That’s the thing I don’t understand about the climate in Washington these days, is that people want to have debates on television and elsewhere, but then you want to throw the people who start the debates in jail.

In Rosen's view, the secrecy argument is built on four flawed premises:

  1. Reasonable intelligence gathering has evolved to include gathering "everything from everybody", in case it might prove useful some day
  2. The security debate is "a discussion the public cannot afford to have"
  3. Challenges to surveillance practices have been blocked by the same people who conduct the surveillance
  4. Congress could review these practices only in secret

In his post, Rosen invokes Adam Serwer, writing at msnbc.com, who skewers the secrecy debate:

Absent former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks to The Guardian and the Washington Post that sparked the controversy, the current debate over surveillance powers wouldn’t even be happening. As long as the information was secret, legislators could renew these authorities without having to worry about a public backlash. It was only the leaks that spurred Congress into doing its job.

Much as piracy is the consequence of a bad API, leaks are a function of a government with too many secrets. I'm not looking for the encryption keys or the floor plans for the Pentagon, but I do think that the U.S. government should be making a public case for its surveillance. Perhaps the populace will assent, but we deserve an informed discussion and debate.

That said, reporters who argue against Wikileaks and The Guardian are more worrisome than the government. A world in which those holding the secrets cannot be challenged is already familiar to Hugh Howey. It's not the world I'd want to live in.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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