Competition Entry | Shrouded in Secrecy

How can individuals and societies protect themselves against the encroachment and abuse of government power in the modern age?

By Joel Phillips, Columbia University Undergrad

The first time I heard about WikiLeaks and its mysterious rebel leader, Julian Assange, I was definitely impressed. My generation was one of the first to grow up in a world in which our lives revolved around our computers. I certainly had a reserved admiration for those cool hackers, fueled by Redbull, who could create chaos around the world – from their dark, basement lairs.

Many of us also, I believe, long for a worthy cause. Julian Assange, in a sense, embodies this image. He is a rebel who is challenging the powers that be, bringing secrets around the world to light. However, all fantasies aside, if someone truly pressed me to reveal what I really believed, I would have had to admit that, cool as he may be, governments and corporations could never function without being able to retain certain “secret” information. I’ve been in leadership roles before. Some things are just simply better not shared with the masses. That would only create chaos. Right?

Leaders and politicians around the world tend to agree with me. Even the Obama administration, which had been such an advocate for government transparency, has come out in adamant condemnation of Julian Assange and his rebel organization, WikiLeaks. Just last year, in 2010, the first big bomb exploded in Washington’s face when WikiLeaks released the controversial footage of a 2007 air strike carried out by the U.S. military in Baghdad – against civilians. When the Pentagon learned of the potential leak of this information to the public, they went so far as claiming a national security threat from the WikiLeaks website. (The Guardian, 5 April 2010)

Then in July, 76,900 documents were released about the war in Afghanistan. In October, 400,000 more documents that came to be known as the Iraq War Logs were leaked. If that were not enough to embarrass the U.S., in November, diplomats around the world began to sweat as WikiLeaks began releasing U.S. diplomatic cables from the State Department. It’s safe to say, the U.S. government has been desperately trying to control the damage, safeguard the further release of its classified information, and go after with a heavy hand anyone who had a role in placing them in such a vulnerable position.

Several weeks ago, I came across a letter that a collaborating group of faculty members and officers from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism addressed to President Obama. Their message was straightforward:

we are concerned by recent reports that the Department of Justice is considering criminal charges against Julian Assange or others associated with WikiLeaks…The U.S. and the First Amendment continue to set a world standard for freedom of the press, encouraging journalists in many nations to take significant risks on behalf of transparency. Prosecution in the WikiLeaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration…We urge you to pursue a course of prudent restraint in the WikiLeaks matter. (Columbia University website)

The letter was careful not to endorse the specific methodology of WikiLeaks, yet came out strongly stating that the actions of publishing these classified U.S. government documents should not in any way fall outside the protection of the 1st Amendment.

This is the same position that is officially cited by the WikiLeak organization. On their website, much of the same language is used. Their mission is spelled out clearly on the homepage of their site.

WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists. We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices. (WikiLeaks website)

They support this goal by calling on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

In particular, Article 19 inspires the work of our journalists and other volunteers. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (WikiLeaks website)

This certainly does not contradict our own constitution. And so, I decided to look closer into the matter. I wanted to understand the real issues here. On one hand, the Obama administration promotes itself as the hero for government transparency advocacy, yet it condemns so adamantly organizations like WikiLeaks. Has WikiLeaks stayed within the bounds of its stated and seemingly noble aspirations? After all, it certainly is not right that our government would go out of its way to cover up things from the American people and the rest of the world.

Take the 2007 attack on civilians in Baghdad, for example. I remember watching that video when it was first released by WikiLeaks in 2010. I was out of the country at the time, but the video had spread virally around the world in a matter of days with the help of Twitter and other social media sharing. It was even more poignant for me at the time, an American living abroad. This was embarrassing. This is what has made the U.S. lose so much credibility in recent years. Was that really how American soldiers act? WikiLeaks steps in and eagerly holds our government accountable. I guess someone has to – if it refuses to do so of its own accord.

My quest to understand the deeper issue led me to Scott Horton, a lecturer at the Columbia Law School, a human rights attorney, and a journalist – also a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine. I wanted to examine both the history of the issue and the legality of it; and also to see an opinion from a journalistic point of view. Horton was an ideal candidate who met these criteria. He has written much on the subject and was eager to speak with me and share his perspective.

Horton prefaced his forthcoming thoughts by saying that every government does have a legitimate right to claim state secrets. There is a need to have some temporal military and diplomatic secrets in some cases. His concern, a subject he speaks about passionately, is that some governments, namely the U.S., have become increasing obsessed with holding “state secrets.”

The situation has gotten out of control. While there are legitimate times to classify a bit of information as “top secret,” in recent years, the stamp has found its way onto billions of documents – from diplomatic cables to videos like the one from the 2007 civilian attacks in Baghdad that was eventually leaked and decrypted by Wikileak whistleblowers. (Horton) In that case, for example, there was no national security issue, it was simply a matter of not wanting to be held accountable for a gross error on the part of the U.S. military and an unwillingness to face up to it.

This notion that secrecy has gone to the extreme resonates with me. First, why do governments find the need to be increasingly selective in the information they make available to the public, and what, if any, are the consequences of this?

If we look back at government from a philosophical perspective, we can point to ideas like those of John Stuart Mill who asserted that open discourse and debate always has the best outcome. Correct decisions are the end result of this important democratic principle. Horton made two points. First, secrecy tends to undermine the ability to have public discourse; and secondly, secrecy within a government is used as a tool by certain factions to create hierarchy and establish one’s position. This is the idea that “I have more access to info than you can’t criticize me.” (Horton)

Horton has some strong opinions on the matter and drew a stark comparison between recent U.S. government behavior and the political climate in Germany around the end of the First World War. In Economy and Society, economist and sociologist Max Weber examines and criticizes the political situation in those years. He looked into issues such as why Germany had lost the war. His conclusions were clear. One of the key things he points out is that an obsession with secrecy is a major reason why Germany lost the war. This had the unintended result of reshaping the democratic government into something more along the lines of a totalitarian government. (Weber)

Secrecy made the government more mistake-prone. Big mistakes happened, but since no one knew about it, no one could criticize. Secrecy was, in essence, used to protect people who made stupid mistakes. This trend led to more and more stupid people with more and more power rising within governments and became increasingly powerful. At the end of the war, you had a particularly incapable administration leading a country that was very susceptible to errors. (Horton)

Weber did recognize there is a legitimate time and place for some secrets, especially during war, but if the keeping of secrets and the lack of transparency gets carried away with, the end result is, in the words of Horton, a “stupid, mistake prone government.” There is no better way to learn about where we are heading today than by looking at relevant historical precedence. The wise take heed.

Horton made the point that the same is happening today within the U.S. government. More and more secrets are being kept, mainly in order to protect decision makers and cover up mistakes. This has been especially true concerning the decision on whether or not to go to war. He reminded me that, with the war on Iraq, there was an aggressive use of secrets to deceive people and justify the war’s validity. We all remember well the controversy surrounding the beginning of the war in Iraq. Did they have weapons of mass destruction or not? The Bush administration wanted us to think so. Some experts were doubtful. The bottom line was, at the time, the facts were hidden in secrecy – even between those within the government. If someone believed maybe Iraq didn’t have the weapons, we were led to believe that was because they didn’t have access to other “classified” information. Some of us blindly believed. Others were skeptical.

If we give credence to Horton’s striking parallel, the situation is alarming. I see it clearly. It is not difficult to see how this course of unnecessary government secrecy goes against the core foundational theory of democracy and can only lead to a mistake prone path. We have certainly seen evidence of this in recent years.

I can’t help but think of how, even after the war began, it was riddled with cover-ups like the one of the 2007 civilian attacks in Iraq. Even more disturbing to me than the civilian deaths and the playful attitude of those carrying out this killing spree, is the length to which our own government went to cover-up and prevent this from being released to the public. Reuters had even attempted to obtain the video with the freedom of information act, but it was blocked by the Pentagon. (The Guardian, 5 April 2010)

It is not hard to see that such an environment can easily breed stupidity and carelessness. If gross mistakes can be made without the responsible parties being held accountable, then something must be done. Why aren’t more red flags being waved?

WikiLeaks suddenly takes on a whole new justifiable, even admirable role. More than just rebels eager to rile the powers that be, they play the role of blowing their whistles and forcing governments to be transparent, albeit against their will. It should be noted that I am being careful here to separate the group’s leader, Julian Assange, with the organization and its purpose. Also, WikiLeaks has recently stepped into the spotlight because of massive leaks in the past year, but they don’t stand alone. There are numerous other websites doing similar things. (OpenLeaks, for example) These organizations have recognized the imminent consequences of secrecy trends going unchecked. They have made it their goal to be an outlet for whistleblowers to come forward with “classified” government information. They are forcing into the light something that someone has chosen to hide, often for interests not shared by the public in this challenged democracy. In theory, they have every right and obligation to do so. Recall the first amendment, concerned citizens.

Daniel Ellsberg is a former U.S. military analyst who released the famous Pentagon Papers in 1971. In a sense, his was a predecessor to the spirit behind WikiLeaks. He could be considered the first whistleblower as he released top-secret documents about the government’s dealing with Vietnam at the time. In a recent interview with Scott Horton, Ellsberg exhorted a group of law students. “The challenge cannot be greater. So as lawyers, I hope you will stand up for the principles of a country that didn’t make it illegal up to now to tell secrets of state that the public needed to hear.” (Wong)

What does the government have to say? In 1997, Congress commissioned a study, which became known as the Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy. Some stark similarities can be seen in the conclusions that support Horton’s claims. At the time of this report, there were already well over a billion pages of classified information in the U.S. The report actually also looks to Max Weber, as did Horton:

Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret... Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament—at least insofar as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy’s interests. (Weber, Economy and Society) (Moynihan Commission, 1997)

This is certainly everything we hope our government is not. A foundational principle of this country is that we have a well informed and educated public. The conclusions of the Moynihan report:

Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate. (Moynihan Commission, 1997)

The report further concludes that secrecy does have a legitimate place, but that it must return to a restrained and limited role.

How has the government fared since this advice was released in 1997? The result was eight years of the Bush administration steeped in secrecy, cover-ups, and classified documents to hide behind. Beyond the examples given regarding the war with Iraq, the civilian deaths and abuse cover-ups, we could also talk about September 11, 2001 or Guantanamo Bay or other things that the Bush administration kept so hidden from the public.

What about the Obama administration? This became a point of contention he had with the Bush administration during his campaign. He vowed to make the government more transparent.

On the last day of March this year, in a quiet meeting behind closed doors, President Obama accepted an award for transparency in his government. (Phillip) This should come as no surprise for a president who had spoken out so strongly for more transparency and less secrecy in government. "My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” - Barack Obama, January 28, 2009. Promising “a new era of openness in our country,” President Obama [said]: “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency” (CNN, 21 Jan 2009).

Hardly. First of all, why is an award for transparency shrouded in secrecy? No press was invited. One of the people who was invited was Gary Bass, of OMB Watch, a non-profit organization based in Washington dedicated to seeing a more transparent White House. Afterwards, he expressed concern over why the meeting was made so private. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney responded by saying, “This president has demonstrated a commitment to transparency and openness that is greater than any administration has shown in the past, and he’s been committed to that since he ran for President.” (Phillip)

Obviously there is something to hide – his actual record? Since assuming office, we see a story he would probably rather conceal. To illustrate this, consider his record on whistleblowers, or those who choose to reveal secrets of the state. (Think: help promote transparency, like WikiLeaks) In his campaign, Obama explicitly vowed to create a more transparent government, but instead those who attempt to bring to light government classified information – are being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. These kinds of cases are, in the words of human rights attorney Scott Horton, “malicious, nasty, and unfair.” The reality is that Obama has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other presidents throughout history – combined. (Horton) One of these, Private Manning, is accused of being the source for much of the classified information Wikileak has made public in the last couple of years.

I asked Scott Horton about media coverage of WikiLeaks. In addition to being an attorney, he is a journalist and writes for Harper’s. Referring particularly to the New York Times, he said that “the news editors are really focused on keeping the government happy...and not crossing the line to have the federal government go after them.” He went on to say that they are, in his opinion, easily intimidated. They have joined the Obama administration’s agenda of concentrating the spotlight on Assange and Manning instead of on the real issues. Horton has recently studied the global media coverage of WikiLeaks. “The most irresponsible coverage of WikiLeaks anywhere in the world is in the United States.” Often the articles, instead of addressing the cover-ups and potential corruption, take the side of the U.S. government in pointing the finger at various incidences that are portrayed as examples of how the leaks have wreaked havoc on the government.

Why hasn’t the media taken a more objective look at these issues? Even major news outlets like the New York Times with huge stories like WikiLeaks in the past year have, for the most part, decided to err on the safe side with the government. It is interesting to note that the government, in the past year, has never attempted to discredit the documents’ legitimacy. Again, the damage control policy of the government (with the support of the U.S. media), has largely attempted to draw attention away from WikiLeaks as an organization and away from the content of the leaked documents and wires. The focus, instead, has been to incriminate its leader, Julian Assange, in the court of public opinion. This is ridiculous, because, in the end, this has absolutely nothing to do with Assange. This is about mistakes, cover-ups, and allowing the world to see a transparent perspective of U.S. government proceedings.

Another example of U.S. media swaying the public’s focus away from the pertinent issues can be seen in an article published by the New York Times last August about Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is largely credited for leaking the government documents to WikiLeaks. A large part of the article centered around Mannings’ troubled childhood and insecurities about his own sexuality. As interesting as it may appear to some, the fact that his boyfriend was a “self-described drag queen,” is completely irrelevant, and serves only to shift the American public’s attention away from the content of the leaked documents. (Thompson, The New York Times)

Is there really any instance where we can point to WikiLeaks and say that because of the documents released, an undesirable outcome ensued? There have been no cases of national security being put at risk because of the leaks. Sure, there are plenty of embarrassing situations for the U.S., but good seems to be the result in almost every situation. Even if we take the recent incidence of Carlos Pascual, ambassador to Mexico, it would be hard to say that WikiLeaks did real damage. Among the leaked cables were ones in which the ambassador harshly criticized Mexican President Calderon’s handling of the war on drugs. Calderon was irate and demanded that Pascual be removed as ambassador to Mexico. Several days later, he did resign, but even Mexican media, which is usually eager to criticize the U.S., admits that this has more to do with personal differences between President Calderon and Pascual. It’s no coincidence that Pascual’s new girlfriend is the daughter of the PRI’s leader, the political party which happens to be the strongest opponent to Calderon’s government. Most U.S. media, again, have portrayed this as another reason to justify the government’s aggressive campaign to dismantle WikiLeaks and build its case against Assange and Manning.

In a recent discussion panel at Harvard Law School, Scott Horton asserted that many of the recent incidences and resulting rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa can be credited to WikiLeaks. He went so far to say that it is clear that what has transpired in Tunisia and Egypt is a direct result of the WikiLeak cables being made public. (Wong) In Egypt, the ambassador, Robert Godec, had sent detailed reports of the corruption, abuse of power, and lavish wealth that the president and his government enjoyed. When, through the published Wikileak cables, the Egyptian people read these accounts, they decided things had gone too far and began to demand that the president step down. The situation in Tunisia was similar. (Coll, The New Yorker)

The evidence is overwhelming. The widespread lack of transparency and the current trend in the U.S. government to classify non-essential information and cover-up stories is alarming if not downright disconcerting. The real issue here isn’t WikiLeaks, it isn’t what an ambassador sent in a cable to Washington, it isn’t even (although it certainly could be) how we were deceived into believing the government had a legitimate reason for going to war. The issue that the Columbia Journalism School acted upon when writing to President Obama was justified and necessary in this process, but even defending a journalist’s right to go to press with classified information isn’t the main thing that concerns me. The issue here is much deeper. When I examine the root of the issue, I can only see the government’s apparent need for and preoccupation with secrecy. It is the fact that an environment is being created in our government, or alas, is already deeply embedded, that perpetuates a leadership consisting of foolish people making foolish decisions. If bad decisions, like those to cover up the stories of civilian deaths in Iraq, can be made and then easily covered up, bad decisions will be made even easier. How much more has happened that we may never know about? A climate of escalating secrecy ensues – it must, in order to maintain and protect itself. If we take a step back to gain an objective perspective, this is the heart of the issue.

Nothing is pretty about war. Mistakes have always happened and probably always will. A mistake like that of U.S. soldiers firing on and killing what ended up being civilians was tragic, but if the government had taken disciplinary measurements, where needed, and owned up to the fatal error that was made, there might be less reason to worry. It is the tendency towards hiding these kinds of mistakes that is so troubling. There is nothing noble about that.

Where will this lead us? This is the only question that remains in my mind. I can find no other position than to hope for more loyal citizens to step forward and blow their whistles at hidden injustices and corruption, and be willing to shed light to the public, through organizations like WikiLeaks. Truth is not always easy, and transparency can be discomforting, but in the end –they always prove superior.

Works Cited

Coll, Steve. “Democratic Movements.” The New Yorker. 31 January 2011.

Columbia Journalism School. 4 January 2011

CNN. “Vowing Transparency, Obama Oks ethics Guidelines”. 21 Jan 2009

Horton, Scott. “WikiLeaks: The National-Security State Strikes Back” Harper’s Magazine. 3 August 2010.>

Horton, Scott. “The Pentagon Loses a Skirmish with WikiLeaks” Harper’s Magazine. 19 March 2010.

Horton, Scott. “The Washington Post and WikiLeaks” Harper’s Magazine. 29 October 2010.

McGreal, Chris. “WikiLeaks reveals video showing US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians.” Guardian. 5 April 2010


Phillip, Abby. “Shh! Obama gets Anti-Secrecy Award” Politico44. 30 March 2011

Thomas, Ginger. Early Struggles of Soldier Charged in Leak Case”. The New York Times. 8 Aug 2010.

Wong, Joanne. Harvard Law School. 30 March 2011

Weber, Max. Economy and Society. 1922.


Wikileaks Mexico Fallout

Good article but let me paint a slightly different picture of why the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico may have insulted his Mexican hosts.

First a bit of background; one of the wealthiest families in Canada, the Bronfmans, made their money exporting booze to the US during Prohibition. This is all documented in a book called The Bronfman Dynasty, by Peter C. Newman, published in 1978.

Similarly, the US WAR-ON-DRUGS is creating the family dynasties that will own South and Central America for the next 100-200 years. Clever, NOT!

But more specifically, as to the US Ambassador to Mexico; the US has a domestic drug problem. They've decided Prohibition will work THIS TIME. They ask their neighbour, Mexico, to deal with it by restricting drug flow into the US. The Mexicans know Prohibition will fail and this is another stupid war but as with many nations are cowed by US bullying. The US Ambassador then criticises Mexico for not doing enough in a stupid activity that is a recognised failure and has already cost many lives and a trillion dollars. Mexico learns of this thanklessness through Wikileaks and in disgust at his insult tells the US Ambassador to leave.

To cover this, the US blames Wikileaks for revealing this insult, ignoring that the issue is a stupid US policy and a stupid US Ambassador determined to enforce it!

The Mexican President would not expel the US Ambassador because of his girlfriend's family relations. It's all too soap-opera to be believable.

This 'girl-friend' message is a very clever 'shrouding the real issue in secrecy to divert attention from more mistakes'. And, as you have outlined above, means the US does not need to take responsibility for its failed WAR-ON-DRUGS policy.

The US Drug Problem needs to be brought out and openly discussed. Likely, as with Prohibition in the 20-30's a radical decision needs to be taken.

If there is not the courage in the US to do so, that is not Mexico's fault.

Just a thought, but I enjoyed your article otherwise.

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