Secrecy and Power; The July 22 issue of Other Voices, the Connexions newsletter, is now out. It spotlights the relationship of secrecy and power.
It is one of the essential attributes of power that it insists on secrecy. Or, more precisely, those who wield power over others routinely claim that the details of what they do, and why they do it, are far too sensitive to be revealed to the public. The decisions they take, the discussions they have, the information they consider, the lobbyists who influenced them: all this must remain behind closed doors. Terrible (though unspecified) calamities would result if their jealously guarded secrets were to be revealed.
Self-serving as this view may be, it contains an important germ of truth. It is a defining characteristic of almost all bodies that wield power – governments, public agencies, courts, police, corporations – that they view the people they ostensibly serve as the enemy. If the public finds out that they are seen as the enemy, the interests of the power-holders could indeed be harmed. Having their secrets exposed to the public is seen as an existential threat, and is met with fury: witness, for example, the extraordinary vindictiveness which the American state directs at whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange.
It is on the level of national security that the cult of secrecy is most apparent and most pathological. It is also on this plane that the distinction between secrecy and privacy is clearest.
Privacy is something that belongs to individuals. It is the right to go about one’s business without being spied on by the state or corporate entities. Governments and corporations hate the idea of privacy, and do everything they can to deny anyone, anywhere, the right to privacy. They suck up information, all kinds of information, anything and everything, and trade it like a commodity.
Secrecy, on the other hand, is a weapon used by the state and other wielders of power against the public they ostensibly serve. Whereas everything that every member of the public does must be subject to surveillance by those in power, everything important done by those in power must remain a secret.
The same attitudes are prevalent wherever power is wielded. Far-reaching international agreements, such as the so-called “free trade” deals, are always negotiated in secret. Pesticides and other chemicals are routinely approved on the basis of ‘evidence’ which can’t be revealed because it is a trade secret. On those rare occasions where corporations are successfully sued by those they have harmed, the actual settlement is concealed behind a court-imposed non-disclosure clause, so that others can’t take advantage of the precedent. International financial agreements have been carefully crafted to allow the wealthy to move and hide their money to avoid paying taxes. Trials of those accused of crimes against the state are held in secret; sometimes those taken into custody are held in secret prisons without even the benefit of a trial.
One of the paradoxes of the cult of secrecy, as it pertains to national security, is that very often it doesn’t work. Security agencies, with their thousands of employees and their billions of intercepted communications and storehouses full of secrets, routinely fail to foresee events which journalists and ordinary observers on the ground see, analyze, and understand without access to any secret information.
But then, it would be naive to think that the goals those in power claim to be pursuing are their real goals. Wars are profitable. Trade deals are profitable. Toxic chemicals are profitable. Keeping the real enemy — the people – from interfering is essential. And therefore, so is secrecy.
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