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Strong opinions, weakly held

The sanitized version

The big news yesterday was WikiLeaks’ release of a massive number of secret military documents on Afghanistan and Pakistan written between 2004 and 2009. Before releasing the documents, WikiLeaks allowed the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian (UK) to review the documents and attest to their legitimacy.

Amy Davison, writing writes the following in response to the New York Times’ assertion that the documents do not contradict the official accounts of the war:

What does it mean to tell the truth about a war? Is it a lie, technically speaking, for the Administration to say that it has faith in Hamid Karzai’s government and regards him as a legitimate leader–or is it just absurd? Is it a lie to say that we have a plan for Afghanistan that makes any sense at all? If you put it that way, each of the WikiLeaks documents–from an account of an armed showdown between the Afghan police and the Afghan Army, to a few lines about a local interdiction official taking seventy-five-dollar bribes, to a sad exchange about an aid scam involving orphans–is a pixel in a picture that does, indeed, contradict official accounts of the war, and rather drastically so.

The contradiction between what we learn from the leaked documents or from the best reporting I read from Afghanistan reminds me of the story about Dell and Intel that I linked to yesterday. Dell got in trouble because they were taking kickbacks from Intel in exchange for not putting AMD chips in their servers, and then hiding that revenue and attributing their profits to other things. Dell wound up paying a $100 million fine for accounting fraud. The Intel-Dell deal was obviously good for Dell’s bottom line and, given that Intel freely entered into the arrangement and continued to pay Dell year after year, worked for them as well. But public corporations are required to disclose where they get and spend their money, so the secret deal got them in trouble.

On the other hand, the government is free to classify embarrassing or inconvenient information that doesn’t serve their goals, and of course, government officials leak that information off the record whenever it’s convenient to do so. When someone without authorization to do so leaks that information, as in this case, we hear lectures about the national interest and federal law. Is it too much for us to demand the same level of transparency from the government as we do from public corporations?

4 Comments

  1. Absolutely. They work for us.

  2. well, it’s tricky, of course. that is, one wants the government to be able to do undercover intelligence-gathering and sneak attacks, where necessary (let’s keep our images to WWII for clarity), so it’s hard to say exactly where the transparency should start. does the government have to come clean on its current strategic assessments? it’s hidden operations? or just the information obtained from them (somehow dissociated from whatever would make it clear how we got it) or maybe an after-view of what we did and where/how/why?

    I love the idea of transparency, of having real information with which to evaluate my “employees'” performance and/or critique their policies, but I honestly don’t know how you can do that in a situation where there is an “other side” who could make a different, and possibly detrimental, use of the same information. there might be ways, but if so, nobody is talking about them…

  3. I definitely see the value in secrets, both for the government and for businesses. (Nobody says Dell should be required to disclose its product road map for the next five years to its investors.) However, I think that the government is so sharply skewed toward secrecy that we need to pound the crap out of them in hopes of getting any movement at all.

  4. oh, pound away! I guess I thought maybe “the same level of transparency … as we do from public corporations” meant a bit more than that. thinking again, I can see that that bar is already rather low, heh…

    🙂

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