Friday, January 14, 2011

Pulpit fiction II

By Bill Kraus

The people who seem to be most concerned about the revelations spewing out of WikiLeaks are the same people who promised transparency, full disclosure, intense efforts to communicate with all the people.

Everyone in public life accepts the need to know concept in public communications. What WikiLeaks reveals is that need to know rarely means that everyone needs to know everything. A covert few think it means that no one needs to know anything. Most officeholders are located somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes.

My own bias is toward full disclosure.

Public officials are by definition doing the public’s business. The logic of not telling the public what is being done in the performance of the job eludes me.

A few things become very clear very quickly to anyone who takes a place in the fish bowl that is the public sector.

1. You must choose your words carefully on the premise that anything you say may appear on the front page of the next day’s paper. The more embarrassing or indiscreet what comes out of your mouth is the more likely it will appear.

2. Secrets are rarely kept that way. A useful rule of thumb is that if three people know about something, one of them will leak it.

3. The public’s right to know is expanded by the fact that it is too expensive and ultimately fruitless to try to keep anything from the public or their agents in journalism.

It is indisputable and irreversible that the occupants of places of power are routinely privy to more information than the rest of us. This kind of knowledge can be heady enough to tempt even the most outgoing public servant to clutch it to his or her bosom. Superior knowledge in and of itself is ego expanding and it’s always gratifying to be “in the know.”

But back to the latest gusher of “I wish I hadn’t said that” stuff, the indiscreet beans that are now being spilled by the private first class leaker, his main outlet--WikiLeaks--and the press which is spreading the word far and wide

The private first class who was WikiLeaks’ main source of all this juicy information is clearly in trouble. His chances of making corporal are long gone. His prospects of spending time in the Army’s equivalent of the Navy’s brig are very high.

I would not, however, like to be asked to prosecute the WikiLeaks people who broadcast what they got from him nor the journals and journalists who reported what WikiLeaks sent them.

Treasonous? Hardly. Damaging? Maybe. But only if the information that is now being disclosed was included in an earlier classified and encoded transmission. This could lead to code breaking which, in turn, could lead to the decoding of communications which did deserve to be kept secret. This was what the critics of Daniel Ellsberg’s revelations in “The Pentagon Papers” said they feared. So far the stuff that is coming out doesn’t like it should have been classified unless some overzealous privacy worshipper is in charge of deciding what is and isn’t a state secret.

There is no way the people who are taking all of this to a wider audience can be expected to know that this might be happening. Their intent is to do what the government should have been doing all along, being open and transparent in their communications with the people who put them in office and are paying their salaries.

The people have a right to know.

The government officials have a right to be discreet not covert.

If everybody exercised their rights appropriately, there would be no need for a WikiLeaks.

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