Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Keeping Secrets

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks released over 75,000 secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan. Go read them now. I'll wait.

Good. I actually only read a handful of them myself. I'm mostly relying on the MSM exegesis to tell me that insurgents are using heat-seeking missiles, our coalition forces are killing a lot of civilians, Pakistan has some dirty ties to the Afghan Taliban, the Taliban is resurgent, and war is a terrible thing.

Apparently it is debatable whether these facts are top secret or nothing new.

However, on the topic of government leaks in general, I think I learned plenty from Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon papers by Daniel Ellsberg:
It is a commonplace that "you can't keep secrets in Washington" or "in a democracy," that "no matter how sensitive the secret, you're likely to read it the next day in the New York Times." These truisms are flatly false. They are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well. Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn't in a fully totalitarian society. Bureaucratic rivalries, especially over budget shares, lead to leaks. Moreover, to a certain extent the ability to keep a secret for a given amount of time diminishes the number of people who know it. As secret keepers like to say, "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead." But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public. This is true even when the information withheld is well known to an enemy and when it is clearly essential to the functioning of the congressional war power and to any democratic control of foreign policy. The reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest import to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.
Maybe this is why it's good that these documents were leaked -- somebody was trying to keep them hidden from us. And the more the "experts" keep saying that these documents are too complicated for civilians to comprehend, the more determined I am to keep on reading them.

By the way, if anybody comes across the memo explaining what the hell we're doing in Afghanistan in the first place, please send me a tweet.

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