Tuesday, November 23, 2010

relativism of secrecy (or something)

Does the length of the Afghan war affect how we view the appropriateness of these leaks? What I mean is that I think the public is more willing to give leaders the benefit of the doubt regarding the necessity of classifying information during times of true national emergency. The first month or two of the Afghan campaign, for instance, when the US was making a push to track down Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, etc., is an example of when a level of secrecy is acceptable and warranted. If wikileaks had chosen that moment to publish sensitive information that could have derailed the chance to grab Bin Laden, I have a hard time believing even Mill would have approved. Clearly, there are matters of national security that must be kept confidential, and our democratic system allows us to put in place people we believe we can trust to act appropriately given access to that information. I'm not certain how to establish a strict timeframe after which the government's classification of information becomes less essential, or if it ever does. But I think the government's ability to make a compelling case to keep information secret wanes over time. Since the public has now largely turned against the war, and most Americans want US forces out of Afghanistan, there has been much less public outcry against wikileaks than there might have been under a different political situation. I know that as information professionals we want to have hard and fast rules about this sort of thing. The truth of the matter is that the state of public opinion at any given moment has as much to do with what an entity such as wikileaks can get away with as any rules or guidelines about freedom of information.

Where do we fit in here? Since the government seems to lack an official entity to advocate for the declassification of information, it is up to us to fill that role. Barring truly compelling situations of national emergency, we should always support the freedom of information, regardless of public opinion. There will be times when that stance can get us into hot water, of course, but since the government will always try to keep information secret, there needs to be a dedicated corps willing to fight on behalf of the public's right to information. Wikileaks helps provide us with the tools to make the fight a bit more even. Hopefully, out of that struggle, somewhere in the middle, there will be a point where the appropriate degree of secrecy vs. access is reached.


  1. You hit a crutial topic concerning the benefits (and negatives) of democracy. The greatest strength of our political system – the ability to choose our government - is also its greatest weakness. Those in government who wish to be reelected must be reactive towards public opinion; meaning that if the public changes its mind, the goals for a country change as well…we wanted to go to Afghanistan and have top notch security and now we don’t. If one thing remains constant in a democracy it is that the politics and opinion ever shifts.
    But what does that mean for libraries? We view ourselves as modern institutions who provide the newest technologies and best possible information to the public. But, if the public doesn’t want access to the information (and laws are put in place to deny access) but then they do (with said laws still active) how are we suppose to provide the requested information without breaking the law ourselves. Should every library be an individual Wikileaks on a local level? I think not. Libraries are fortunate to be an institution who is not governed by strict measures (unlike schools) which provide us with the freedom to go about our mission under some logical guidelines….ex - patron privacy laws.
    Our mission is not to provide the world with information but rather our communities, aka taxpayers, with information. Wikileaks takes freedom of information to a whole new, global level. Props to him! But, I don’t think that is a level where libraries need to be present. Or, maybe it is?

  2. Interesting point about the timeframe of classifying information. Yeah, I think I would trust the government more in the early days of a crisis/event -- I guess that's human nature to want to believe that the "leaders" are doing what's best at the time. But again and again history shows us that they often make very foolish choices and then spend a lot of precious time and money covering their tracks.

  3. What I also like about Alcibiades' post is that it is bringing to light a crucial way in which people dedicated to the free circulation of information in the tradition of Mill might actually function as a check on power - certainly on governmental power, but perhaps on other kinds of more insidious or less-codified/evident power, too. Many of you already know that journalism is referred to as "the fourth estate" by some; might library and information professionals be a part of that group, too, when practicing information dissemination that actively challenges forces that seek to do the opposite?