Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Powerful Secrets

Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine Law School, has an important essay in the Los Angeles Times today which examines the uproar over the publication of tens of thousands hitherto classifed documents concerning the US prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. In that essay, he examines the striking parallels between the Wikileaks exposure of government documents and the Pentagon Papers, and concludes that the current hand wringing of government officials is not really over national security.

The most important lesson from the release of tens of thousands of pages of classified information about the war in Afghanistan seems to be getting lost: Far too much information is classified, often simply because it is embarrassing to the government. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that there "weren't any new revelations in the material,"and nothing has been identified that is likely to be damaging to national security. The question, then, must be why so much of this material was classified and kept from the public? ...

The Nixon administration vehemently opposed the release of the Pentagon Papers even though the documents were largely historical material about what occurred during prior presidencies. The Obama administration has decried the release of the information about the war in Afghanistan even though it appears to be primarily about what happened during the George W. Bush presidency. The reason is the same in both cases: The administrations feared that the disclosures would undermine public support for the wars in question. In both instances, the concern was that the revelations might make it harder to gain continued congressional support and to sustain public support for the war effort.
[Emphasis added]

In the Wikileaks case, it almost worked. In fact, to some extent it did work: yesterday's vote in the House on the "emergency appropriation" for continued funding of the war in Afghanistan was far closer than it would have been as some Democrats who know that the public is growing weary of perpetual war were given some cover by the revelations and voted against the appropriation bill.

But the undue government classification of matters as secret for national security purposes does more than shape policy, it hides both embarrassing mistakes made by the government and outright criminal activity engaged in by the government. If it weren't for publication of materials on what was going on at black prisons run by the CIA and the military and on the incredible domestic spying program being run by the NSA, those activities might have continued unabated and even expanded.

Professor Chemerinsky's conclusion is one that our government, our free press, and we-the-people should always keep in mind:

The free flow of information, at times, may be embarrassing to the government and may keep it from pursuing its desired policies. But that is exactly why it is so important in a democratic society.

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