Monday, January 26, 2009

Secrecy And Outcomes

Recently it has come to light that the Obama Admin. can't immediately review the cases of inmates of Guantanamo because the records don't exist in one place or possibly completely at all. You can certainly make the case that incompetence existed throughout the BushCo, but that misses the mark. The mess that exists in this case is entirely too broad to lay on the incompetence of the worker bees. This thing is a mess because it is secret.

Secret means you can't talk about it and you can't communicate freely about it and nobody except those on board know enough to critique what you're doing. Beyond that, there is the issue that nobody can press for progress or even ask what progress there is because nobody knows anything about it. You can talk in broad terms about "the public right to know" and surely be right, but that abstract notion won't get you far. Secrecy means disasters are buried, it means that bad behavior is buried, it means that performance cannot be measured. That lack of accountability means that things are going to go south, quickly and badly, and not be addressed for quite some time. If it were common knowledge that a large portion of those held were entirely innocent of terrorism, how long would the public have held still for it?

The problem with hidden programs is that as they go south they not only continue to go there, the consequences pile up and thanks to secrecy there's no way through the labyrinth to sort out what the problem is or where it started. Even once you get into it, there are so many layers of secrecy and agencies and policies that you never know what it is that you do know. Because GWB was responsible for creating the most secretive administration in history he certainly gets the blame for what has gone wrong beneath that layer, but that doesn't address solving the mess. I certainly blame GWB for putting Albie in the AG seat, but what the hell actually went wrong over there is still not known. It isn't known because the questions to answer that can't be asked because it is all so secret. It makes a difference to the health of this nation to be able to sort out such things.

It is not in the interest of the nation for the plans for the Stealth Bomber or nuclear weapons to be available for general consumption. What the President or anybody discusses with their lawyer ought to be bound by the same outlines, but that has not squat to do with what some damn lobbyist wants or what some political group wants. If the government is involved and it doesn't involve something that'll get us killed we need to know. It isn't that Joe Damn Schmoe on Ordinary Street either cares or has much to say about it, it is the simple fact that there are knowledgeable and intelligent alternatives available outside "those in the know." Operating with one set of opinions or knowledge leads to continuation of action rather than modification or correction. This leads to unacceptable results and no program can contain all possible information. Even when people know something has gone wrong and have resigned, they are constrained from doing anything about it - legally constrained.

It is hard enough to quit a job over principle that you care about and supports your family, it is even tougher to risk adding to that burden by going to jail for principle. It is pretty easy to sit in you house and say, "I'd go to jail," but that certainly could mean losing your home, your family's economic security as well as your freedom. Tough to do. There has to be a penalty for harming the security of the nation and that means secrecy laws must have teeth. The fact that they must have teeth also means that they must be meaningful in their application. Gadflies can be irritating, they can even be obstructive, but they are not - in the end - of the consequence that unbridled action brings.

Much of what ails this country today is the outcome of ignorance. It is not only within government that proper questions didn't get asked, much of what went wrong in the investment banking industry happened because those questions didn't get asked by government but especially within the companies themselves. Over the last eight years society has built a high degree of tolerance for or even respect for the keeping of secrets. A mindset of, "I don't need to know or to ask," has grown larger than it ever was. How can the Risk Management Officer in a multi-billion dollar business not know what is going on?

Yes, I support open government, but I support it for more than just a principle. I support it because the outcomes are bad, bad all of us. It doesn't just propagate bad government and bad policies, it teaches a very dangerous lesson to the public. Under the best possible circumstances the public in general is too busy trying to manage living to pay close attention to much else, teaching them that this is the way to conduct a society by setting a "Know-nothing" governmental policy aggravates that to untenable proportions.

You have got to ask questions. You have got to be allowed to and to get answers.

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