Is transparency enough?

Two recent events have got me thinking about transparency. Particularly whether demands for transparency of process, coupled with oversight, are sufficient to ensure good practice.

The proximate cause of these thoughts was Sarah Elwood’s excellent talk to the geography department “Activism, Civic Engagement and the Knowledge Politics of the Geoweb.” Sarah discussed NGOs and their use of geospatial and GIS technologies, and noted that they claimed these offered a benefit to the user (eg., to increase participation) due to their added transparency compared to previous NGO efforts. Sarah was careful to note that these were the NGO claims, and that they needed further assessment. Given the subject matter of her talk, the clear implication was that transparency alone (ie., access to knowledge about their activities) is no more sufficient than previous claims for transparency of the map were ever sufficient. (The map as a transparent window on to the real world.)

The original comments that started me on this however were a couple of posts on Derek Gregory’s blog (here and here) on covert killing through drone strikes. Here are the pertinent sections, first in the context of a recent report on the civilian impact of drones:

military protocols are indeed more public, even transparent, as the authors note, but the space between principle and practice is still wide enough to inflict an unacceptably heavy burden on the civilian population.

Derek had previously made a more developed version of his point:

Madiha’s root objection is to the way in which what she calls the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.  The story is always in Washington and never in Waziristan.  It’s a hideously effective sideshow, in which Obama and an army of barkers and hucksters – unnamed spokesmen ‘speaking on condition of anonymity’ because they are ‘not authorised to speak on the record’,  and front-of-house spielers like Harold Koh and John Brennan – induce not only a faux secrecy but its obverse, a faux intimacy in which public debate is focused on transparency and accountability as the only ‘games’ worth playing.

It is certainly true that the administration’s “now you see it, now you don’t” position on CIA drone strikes (as opposed to those performed by the military in Afghanistan) are hypocritical. On the one hand they issue the standard Glomar response (“neither confirm nor deny”) about drone use in countries with which the US is not at war (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). On the other they send out self-congratulatory announcements about killing suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen, even when they hold American citizenship (such as Anwar al-Awlaki). (Glenn Greenwald has written the most informatively on this, eg here.)

I would also agree with Derek that “false transparency” is deceptive (as is the quest for total or full transparency). However, I would argue that the conditions of knowledge, or if you like the politics of knowledge, are currently in such an asymmetrical state that efforts to rebalance these asymmetries are meritorious. Not just the two recent reports on drones (which I haven’t read yet but plan to do so), but also efforts like WikiLeaks, which I wrote about recently in Geopolitics. The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers has been truly unprecendented, and brave employees of the NSA, like Thomas Drake, and of the CIA, such as John Kiriakou (who revealed its practice of waterboarding and admitted it was torture) have been charged under the Espionage Act. Not to mentioned Bradley Manning, accused whistleblower, who allegedly provided State department cables to WikiLeaks. (The Drake case was dismissed but the Kiriakou case continues. Proceedings against Bradley Manning are also continuing today.)

While transparency is not enough, and false transparency is misleading, I think it’s important to continue to work for increased government oversight, and I know that it is effective. Things like FOIA and working on declassified documents in archives do yield plenty of information. The FAS Secrecy blog is also highly informational (not least in part because of their use of FOIA to obtain eg., the NGA Congressional budget justifications). In a paper I wrote this summer with two colleagues, Susan Roberts and Ate Poorthuis, we used information we obtained from  corporate filings with the SEC. The paper would not have been as empirically rich without it.

This issue has connections to the vexed problem of visuality, but my focus has more often been on knowledge, and, as here, access to knowledge and denial of access (secrecy). I have a blog post coming up on “the secret” so more on that soon.

5 responses to “Is transparency enough?

  1. Pingback: Harvard CGA presentation | Open Geography

  2. Pingback: Is a secret a lie? | Open Geography

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