Friday, December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks and Government Transparency

Post 26—

In these days of Wikileaks, government transparency is once again on the front burner in the media. Article upon article and report upon report have been filed and published or televised. These leaks have caused governments both serious damage and embarrassment. By the sound and looks of it, will continue to do so for the immediate future. Of course, the US government, the world’s busy-body superpower, gets the brunt of it, but other governments feel embarrassed and threatened as well, including Canada. It also hits individuals. William Crosbie, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, offered his resignation after his slamming the corruption of the Afghanistan regime was revealed.

The question is whether all this unrestricted exposure of government secrets benefits anyone, apart from the operators of Wikileaks themselves—and, of course, all those in the media business and, yes, I need to admit it, it gives bloggers something to write about! But Fen Hamson of Carleton University is not so sure. Crosbie, he argues, was doing his legitimate job, but his kind of comment is not the sort “that can withstand public scrutiny.” Public servants should have the confidence that, in the pursuit of their legitimate duty, their confidential statements and reports created in the course of policy development are kept confidential. How can governments engage in their business of policy creation, especially when it comes to rogue and other hostile nations, without the confidence of confidentiality? This kind of exposure of documents is “corrosive to Canada’s foreign relations and to international diplomacy in general.”

Hamson is right, I believe. He goes further. These leaks are likely to have the adverse effects of governments creating more obstacles to the flow of information and make public access to it even more difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Probably more will be kept classified in the closet for a much longer time and more strictly controlled. Thanks, Assange.

But, as always, there is the other side of the coin. Please note that my question about benefits of such leakage is about “unrestricted exposure, ” not about all exposure of government documents, even secret ones. Yes, the Assange leakage shows allies spying on each other and members on the United Nations. Western democratic governments lecturing the rest of the world on corruption and human rights, turn a blind eye to these practices on the part of their “client states.” Secret backroom deals that are not meant to see the light of day and lobbying for causes and policies of doubtful benefit to some other nations are often conducted behind cloaks of secrecy.

Chris Waddell, also of Carleton, explains that governments often use national security as an excuse to hide the above kind of behaviour in order to “avoid embarrassment, to avoid having to explain the rationale for their policies and to say one thing publicly and something else privately.” He suggests that in general it is better for citizens to know more about the development of their government’s policy than to know less. We would be “better off if there were less of all three of those things” in the above paragraph.

I agree with arguments on both sides of the coin. But I would argue that the side we examined first should be much less common than it is. In our imperfect world, it would be impossible for governments to conduct legitimate business without secrets. At the same time, the tendency of the second side of the coin is all too prominent and makes a joke of transparency, a hallmark of democracy. This Calvinist blogger votes on the side of transparency, much more of it. At the same time, at the end of this article Iland up on the side of condemning the indiscriminate leakage perpetrated by Assange as too reckless and not having counted the cost and potential damage to peoples and their policies.

I close this post with a quotation that constitutes the closing of an article by the famous Canadian ethicist, Margaret Somerville of McGill University: “As I continued to read and think even more about WikiLeaks, I found it easier to know what was the ethical path to take with respect to it and its perpetrators. I believe that, overall, WikiLeaks involves grossly unethical conduct, some of which is also illegal.” (“Wiki-Leaks, Wiki-Leakers, and Wiki-Ethics,” Comment, 10/12/2010. I highly recommend reading this article for its first-rate professional ethical discussion.

The discussion to be continued.

(This post has made grateful use of Randy Boswell’s “Do Leaks Defend or Thwart Democracy?” Vancouver Sun, December 4, 2010, p. B3. Thank you, Boswell.)

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