21 June 2011

Change You Can Believe In

What’s going on with Barack “Open Government” Obama? His Justice Department has prosecuted more people for exposing government secrets than all the presidents from George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington to George “I cannot tell the truth” Bush combined. Compared to his predecessors’ three prosecutions in more than two centuries, Obama has added five in less than two-and-a-half years. Can it be that our “hopey-changey” president has more to hide?
The president’s latest attempt to put a civil servant behind bars for speaking to a journalist is a weak case at best. Stephen J. Kim worked for the Defense and State Departments on North Korean issues. After someone introduced him to Fox News reporter James Rosen, Kim let slip a CIA analysis of North Korea’s likely reaction to a United Nations resolution condemning its nuclear weapons and missile tests. The CIA correctly concluded that North Korea would tell the UN to go to hell and then conduct more tests. Was there anything controversial or life-threatening in leaking a rare assessment in which the CIA could take pride? The North Korea assessment contrasts with the CIA’s failure to predict 1956’s Hungarian revolution, 1989’s fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and 2003’s Iraqi popular reaction to the American invasion. Hey, they’re bound to get it right once in a while.

In a democracy, there should be no state secrets.*  The people elect representatives, and deserve to know what their representatives  are saying and doing on their behalf.  Note that representatives, by definition, represent someone(s).  Imagine how ludicrous it would be for someone who is travelling abroad to hire a person to represent him in the event of any domestic legal issues in his absence, only to be told by the person he’s hiring that he can’t get reports or summaries of representation.  And yet, that is essentially what the American government tells the American people on a daily basis, and they defend keeping citizens in the dark by invoking “national security.”

Thus, it is unconscionable for Obama (or any other politician, for that matter) to prosecute citizens for telling other citizens what the government is doing.  In fact, it is unconscionable that the government itself has to rely on third parties to tell citizens what it is doing.  So, instead of prosecuting these “leakers,” the government should be emulating them.

* I do not include military battle plans in the definition of “state secrets” because I first define secrets as hiding something that has already occurred.  Plans, by definition, deal only with the present and future, and cannot therefore be considered part of an ex post cover-up.

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