Sunday, August 9, 2015

Government Secrets and Our Trust

The need for secrecy

Most people accept that a certain amount of government secrecy is necessary. There are military and intelligence secrets, for example, that are needed to be kept, at least for some length of time, in order to improve country security. This is always a tradeoff though, and you would be hard pressed to identify any single secret that absolutely must be kept. You could take something like, say, the identities of your covert agents in other countries, which seems like it must obviously be kept secret, but to arrive at that point you have already assumed that you must have these covert agents in the first place. Maybe there are other ways to achieve the same ends, or maybe those ends themselves are questionable. There are always other options.

But let us assume that there are legitimate reasons for governments to keep secrets from their country's citizens. There is always the question of what kinds of things the government should be allowed to keep secret. If you asked the government, then they would insist it's only this:
  • Things that are necessary for the security of the country

The abuse of secrecy

If that was all, then we'd be done here. The problem, of course, is that there is a long, verifiable history of governments using their powers to make things secret for other reasons:
  • To avoid international embarrassment
  • To hide criminal or unlawful actions by government employees
  • To hide criminal or unlawful actions by citizens with a lot of influence on the government
  • To minimize public debate over government actions that the public is likely to disagree with
  • To more easily enable government propaganda/misinformation

There have been well publicized examples of all of the above categories over the past 15 years in the US and other countries like Australia and the UK, mostly related to abuse of terrorism prevention powers, but also quite a few in relation to the global financial crisis.

Some of the most disgraceful examples have been when the US government has basically stated that releasing information on their wrongdoing is a security concern because it would foster animosity and hatred towards the US by people overseas if they found out what the US had done! This is, for example, what has been repeatedly said in regards to releasing information and photographs related to the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo.

Think about just how insane a stance that is for a country that claims to care about justice and democracy. To basically refuse to allow justice to be administered because if the rest of the world found out what you had done, they'd kinda hate you for it. Imagine if a murderer in your city was acquitted on those grounds!

Policing secrecy

It's not surprising that these things happen. Governments are made up of people, and those people have their own personal agendas, their own jobs to protect, their own families to provide for. When someone fucks up, either deliberately or unintentionally, it's not at all surprising that if they have access to some way to suppress knowledge about it, they will take advantage of it. We know people are flawed, which is why we should never settle for any system that basically rests on, "Just trust us. We promise we won't abuse this power".

Government oversight is one of the ways we're supposed to be protected from this sort of abuse, but oversight is rarely truly independent and free of any kind of influence, and again, the people doing the oversight are just flawed humans too. We have numerous stories over the past 15 years of financial industry overseers getting too chummy with the people they're meant to be watching, and planning for their own future when they leave government and switch to working for the very companies they performed oversight on. We know that we can't rely on this to keep the government from abusing its power.

At the end of the day, the only real protection we have is whistleblowers. These are the people that tell us what the government and big businesses are actually doing, and letting us know when our trust has been abused. And the war on whistleblowers in the last 15 years has been spectacular.

Extrapolate from what you know

So how can we know how much to trust the goverment, and when to not buy into their claims that they're acting lawfully? We can never really know exactly what they're doing, since that's the whole point of secrecy. The sensible thing to do, then, is to take what we do know, and extrapolate from there.

Whenever a whistleblower comes out with information of wrongdoing, and we can have a reasonable degree of confidence that what they revealed is in fact true, the response of the government tells us a lot. Sometimes they will go with the "few bad apples" argument and insist that the unlawful behavior was an aberration, and justice will be served.

But if this is the case, then you would expect the government to be grateful to the whistleblower and not try to prosecute them. A government that genuinely believes it is doing the right thing and is not knowingly hiding criminal behavior should want whistleblowers to come forward, because those few bad apples give everyone a bad name.

Sometimes the government will insist that the whistleblower should have used internal channels and that releasing the information publicly was unnecessary and damaging. Consider that there is no way that we could know if that's true. A government with effective internal oversight will make this claim, but surely so would one with poor oversight that is actually committing crimes and hiding them. If what the whistleblower is revealing is actually true, then unlawful behavior is taking place, and either there is internal oversight that has been managing to completely miss it, or the goverment is just straight up lying.

If the whistleblower releases information that turns out to be accurate, and also states that they saw no viable ways of effecting change within the organization, then where do you think the safe bet lies here? That the whistleblower was releasing accurate information about wrongdoing but lying about the need to go public (and usually destroy their own career in the process), or that the government was performing all this unlawful behavior but had a totally robust internal oversight system?

And, finally, we have to ask how we would expect a governement to behave when it knows it has lots of dirty secrets, embarrassing secrets, illegal behavior secrets. If you know that there is lots of incriminating information that whistleblowers could reveal, then naturally you're going to come down hard on whistleblowers, prosecute them and put fear into any other would-be whistleblowers. If you were a genuinely clean government, then why would you do that? Why would you prosecute the people who are helping you stay honest?

So as you see your government try to justify the need to prosecute a whistleblower or sow disinformation about them in order to discredit them, ask yourself if you really think a government that believed it had no other dirty secrets would behave in that way. Ask yourself if it's likely that the whistleblowers have disclosed the only examples of your government behaving badly, and that they are otherwise perfectly squeaky clean. Ask yourself what else the government is so afraid of being disclosed that they feel the need to actively go after whistleblowers.

The only real information we have about how our governments are behaving in secret is what whistleblowers reveal to us, and how our governments respond when that happens.

How the government can regain our trust

So how should a trustworthy government behave? Well, certainly, a government that genuinely wants to keep within the law and not abuse its power should have robust protections for whistleblowers. I can't see any good reason why a government that doesn't want to abuse its secrecy powers would not want a system that encourages whistleblowing.

But also, an honest government would recognize that individual people within the government can't be trusted. There will always be people under different pressures and they will make bad decisions. A good government will recognize its weaknesses and try to set up a system that makes it hard to do the wrong thing, and makes it easier to do the right thing.

One possible way is to make coming clean and being honest always the best option. People in the government try to hide incompetence and illegal behavior because they think that they can contain the secrets and have a high probability of getting away with it.

But what if people in the government instead believed that they had very little chance of getting away with secrets and lies? What if they knew there was a very high probability that they would be found out, and then not only would they be in whatever trouble they would have been in if they had come clean, they would also be in trouble for trying to cover it up?

I think that if a whistleblower releases information on a single illegal act that the government intentionally covered up, and that it can be shown that either the superiors or the oversight of the person/people responsible for the act knew about it, then that whistleblower should receive full immunity regardless of what else they released. No matter how damaging any other information may be, it should be treated as acceptable collateral damage for the government trying to hide illegal acts.

This may sound extreme, but we need a system where a whistleblower has confidence that they won't be punished for doing what is ultimately a good service to both the government and the general public. And we actually need the potential damage to the government to be high enough to act as a sufficient deterrent so that coming clean will always be preferable. We need individuals in the government to be thinking not just about exposure of whatever specific act they are involved in, but the potential exposure of all other government secrets.

Imagine how much better a government would police itself when it was facing that kind of tradeoff. And further, if a government genuinely believes in obeying its own laws, and believes that it has sufficient internal oversight that the general public should trust them, we should ask why they are unwilling to agree to such strong whistleblower protections. If they really are as trustworthy as they want us to believe they are, then they should have nothing to fear, right?

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