The Limits of Disclosure

Jeff has written an impassioned post decrying the new law allowing the government to practice military tribunals as a means of trying captive terrorist suspects. He argues that government must have full disclosure in such things, as only public scrutiny can prevent corruption.

One of his commenters makes the point that we don’t make all the decisions. We don’t live in a democracy, we live in a representative democracy, which is to say that while we don’t make all the decisions, we pick representatives to make the decisions for us on the societal scale. We don’t know everything; we can’t know everything. Joe average does not have the ability to fully understand all the decisions government makes — and by that I mean “no single human being is capable of becoming expert enough to make informed decisions on all of this shit”. That’s why the smartest thing a good president can do is surround himself with intelligent people who are individually experts in all the little bits and pieces… and it’s his Full Time Job to deal with this stuff! If the government disclosed the fine details of every move it makes and asked the voters to decide every decision (i.e. “true democracy”) we would have a mass-scale case of “knowing just enough to be dangerous”.

As the saying goes: It’s not the best form of government, but it’s the best one so far.

That’s not saying that I would be happy for the government to have a carte blanche ability to conduct all the secret prosecutions it wants for whatever reasons it chooses, but unless Bush is seriously distorting the legislation (and the interviewer not calling him on it at all) he’s primarily talking about keeping certain information secret. One notable thing about the transcript Jeff links to is that Bush specifies, repeatedly, that he is talking about people “picked up on the battlefield”. We can’t have a public trial because during a trial certain information is revealed that must, for security purposes, be kept secret. We can’t talk about the precise interrogation methods (or the limits thereof) because if the enemy knows that, they can train specifically to resist the particular methods we’ve stupidly told them we use (and not have to worry about the ones they know we won’t use).

Heck, that would be a good strategery right there — make a public statement that we’ll never, ever, ever use Technique X, and then three days into an interrogation whip it out — the psychological value of making them believe that there are no rules (when in actuality, they’re just a bit different than what they think they are) would be high.

And before a bunch of you go all “But that means we could do anything!” on me… no it doesn’t. It means that the permitted techniques would be kept with certain boundaries, but that would not be totally public knowledge. Congress would know; the military would know; the President would know. Certain others would know (some contractors perhaps, civilians involved with the trial system, lawyers), and all of them would have to be bound by law not to disclose specifics (i.e. have security clearance).

I agree with Jeff’s overall statement — the government of a free society must be scrutinized, must be visible, to the public. He concedes that there are some things that must remain secret (nuclear secrets, for example), but says there is a line that must be crossed.

He and I simply disagree where that line is.1 I have no question that there are cases where we do not want what these people know made public to the world. There are cases where we do not want the specifics of the investigations against these people made public to the world. The danger that I think Jeff recognizes is that the definition of what must be kept secret can change, and that over time that definition will creep further and further, until it encompasses far too much. He is right in this regard — it is the nature of any government to claim more and more control over time. Nor am I a believer in absolute safety — in fact, to even attempt to reach such a goal is a guarantee of repression.

The ultimate question of this entire discussion is… “What is reasonable?” I think it is reasonable that, during a war, certain types of information must be kept secret. In World War II, one of our primary strategies was also our biggest secret: we were reading the Nazis’ mail2. The danger in the current situation is the nebulous nature of the war: half the political machine can’t define just who we’re at war with, and the other half doesn’t believe we’re at war at all!

So, when you can’t easily define a war or the enemy involved, how do we define when it is reasonable to act as one does in a war? And how do we pass a law that essentially says “in war, you can do these things normally proscribed” when you can’t define “war”?

And in an age when the enemy you know is unafraid of its own destruction so long as it can remake the world in its passing, and the traditional rules of warfare are simply leverage points to be twisted into weapons themselves, how can you not allow yourself to think beyond the box you’ve placed yourself in?

A difficult question to ponder, much less answer.

1: As you might guess from my tagline, I spend a good bit of time pondering just this type of question….
2: That is, we had cracked their secret codes and were listening in on their encrypted transmissions. Japs too.

One Response to “The Limits of Disclosure”

  1. Sam Says:

    What I never understood was how it’s okay to shoot enemy combatants, but moving them to Club Gitmo and disturbing them sleep is a gross human rights violation.

    I don’t think the laws of the United States enter into it much – during wartime, you should be able to do any damn thing you want to any foreign citizen, provided that the citizen’s own government is informed (only if the government in question is not an openly declared enemy). If the detention of the person in question was unjust, it’s their government who holds the duty to air such grievances. It’s not a national legal issue. And I’m speaking as someone who could conceivably be held in this way, as I’m not American (although I’m a citizen of an allied NATO nation with troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and soon-to-be permanent resident of your northern neighbor).

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