October 2007


More and more secrets are being kept in this country. Less and less is what we used to call "open and above board." Is this a good thing?

More and more secrets are kept these days. In research, even academic research, almost half the budget is spent on security. Companies spend untold billions to keep their proprietary secrets secret. We have the most secretive Federal administrations in our nation's history. Is all this secrecy all it's cracked up to be? What happened to openness, operating above board, in the public eye?

The test of public programs used to be transparency. Can you see everything that's going on? Well, then it's probably honest and legal. Are they hiding something? Oh, oh, we'd better get the lid off that and take a look -- cause it could be trouble. Lies, cover ups and damage control are all products of secret operations.

Taking a look from the other side of the question, are there things that really ought to be kept secret? Sure. For example, the shift rotation and patrol schedules of local police should not be posted to the Web for any common burglar to look up. If we are engaged in any military action, the future movement and disposition of our forces should not be broadcast in advance. But these are very special cases.

We should support a certain, very limited amount of secrecy, when this secrecy is needed for specific activities accomplished that serve the public good. Other, more general secrecy usually serves some other interest at our expense. We should be against things that profit a few individuals at the expense of the public good. Most secrecy simply hides things from us that we'd make a fuss about if we found out -- a smokescreen behind which embarrassing or inconvenient things are kept by to the powers that be.

The worst kind of secrecy in government or in business, of course, is the kind that hides plain old garden variety crimes from public view. This is the gangster kinds of secrecy - the "code of silence" kind of deceit. Often it is masked by the "what the public knows won't hurt them" rationale. This is what federal and state officials and legislators did for years about the New Orleans levies: if they don't know that we're under funding repairs, they don't know we stole that money and siphoned it over into our own pet pork barrel projects that made us and our friends a whole boatload of money.

The Bush administration is, as I said before, the most secretive administration in our history. There often seems little rhyme nor reason in their secrecy. Why are so many routine accounting budgets of so many public agencies classified? Are we afraid of being attacked by muslim bookkeepers? Their penchant for secrecy has approach nearly Stalinist proportions in recent years. And this has happened largely without public outcry or even public comment. Some public spirited journalists have mentioned it, but there has been very little call for the government to roll back the veil and so operate more in the open.

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.
Will Rogers (1879 - 1935)

This should be the rule for government, too -- after all, it is in theory our government and we are paying for it. We should not allow it to conduct its affairs in camera and keep them secret from us. If they were honest and actually doing the will of the people, they'd not feel any need to cloak themselves in secrecy. To do so gives the appearance of dishonesty even when the practice of larceny is absent.

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