As many of you probably already know, there is a “whistleblower” organization out there called WikiLeaks, which seems to have made destroying America’s credibility on the world stage its reason for existence. According to the recent document dump, it has come to light that Arab nations want the US to bomb Iran, and America wants to survey foreign dignitaries, as well as other unflattering information. These leaks are much more than just some hijacked embassy cables however, it demonstrates how lackluster our document security tactics really are, and how President Obama is incapable of doing to anything to prevent it. It also has made the case of how important classification of documents really is, and brings forward the never-ending debate between open government and one that has secrets.
Let’s start of with a little history lesson. In 1966, President Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act, allowing the average citizen to request government documents and receive them, unless it fell under a narrow set of classifications which would prevent the documents from being released. This was hailed as a breakthrough in creating an open, transparent government, as well as making it easier to hold government accountable, something conservatives like me applaud.
However, after September 11th, President Bush made numerous amendments to the law to limit what can be released, such as security information, as well as tracking requests that take longer than 10 days to process. This is due largely to many of the new security measures Bush initiated during this time to root out terrorists, like the PATRIOT Act which allowed for wiretapping and warrantless searches. Although this was seen as an infringement on our rights, it was meant to keep America safe against a new type of enemy that we hadn’t encountered before. It was unpalatable, but the necessity of it given the times we live in makes it understandable, though it should be repealed once the threat of terrorism has been reduced to the point where it is insignificant.
When President Obama took office, he promised to scale back many of these acts, but instead he continued many of the old Bush provisions, including retroactive classification of security documents not previously considered classified. Also, hidden in the Wall Street reform bill was a provision that shielded the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) from having to give information, making the already murky regulators even murkier. Not exactly the transparency we were hoping for.
Now we have the flow of information coming from WikiLeaks, which brings the issue of information distribution to a whole new level. The big question that is yet to be answered is where the information is coming from. There are two possibilities for this leak: either a hacker has somehow been able to hijack sensitive, seemingly well-guarded diplomatic cables, or WikiLeaks has an insider in Washington. Regardless of which of these possibilities is true, it doesn’t inspire confidence in our government to safeguard documents and secrets from unwanted parties, and given the nature of some of these documents being released; it undermines what the Obama administration’s foreign policy goals really are. Two cables that are the most surprising are ones that state that the Arab World would endorse an attack by the United States on Iran to get them to stop their supposed nuclear weapons program, and one where Senator John Kerry (D-Mass), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated that he was going to persuade Israel, our closest Middle East ally, to give up the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem to Palestine. Whether or not these are true remains to be seen, but if they are, this is severely damaging information that could endanger American troops overseas and undermine President Obama, and even future presidents, in their attempts to bring world peace and defeat terrorism. Even if you disagree with President Obama’s policies (which I do), it is scary to think that these documents were so easily accessed, and what other sensitive information got released.
This is one of the dangers that comes from free proliferation of government documents, and stronger safeguards should be put in place to prevent hackers from accessing our system. I’m not advocating a complete repeal of the FOIA, freedom to access government documents is one of the most important components in keeping government honest and accountable, but we must recognize that to have the upper hand in fighting terrorists and diplomatic maneuvers, some information must be hidden from public view to keep the advantage on our side. As long as people’s rights are not being violated, especially the right to avoid illegal search and seizure (which is a reason why I believe the PATRIOT Act should be scaled back to avoid tapping private home telephones and cell phones because of their status as “private”) by some of the classified government practices, I will begrudgingly tolerate it, but I do have one message to the government concerning secret deals and maneuvers: Don’t do anything you would be ashamed to have revealed to the American people.