Transparency and secrecy

I’d like to consider in more detail some papers published in Theory, Culture & Society last year. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, these papers represent some very interesting inroads into a better understanding of secrecy, transparency and ultimately perhaps even truth.

Clare Birchall’s article, which introduces the special section, makes some sensible suggestions already in her abstract:

Despite common demands to support either transparency or secrecy in political and moral terms, we live with the tension between these terms and its inherent contradictions daily.

She sets up the terms of the debate as opacity and openness, but goes on to say that “we must work with the tension between these terms” rather than choosing one or the other. There is a tension between them.

This is a good start, but we need to go even further. Obviously the relations between privacy, secrecy, transparency are not symmetric. We can know very little about the state, but it can know a great deal about us, as I’ve said many times before. This is to say only that there are power dynamics at work.

Some of her remarks about a perceived love of transparency, or at least transparency talk, are widely off the mark a year and a half later. “Open government is the new mantra” she writes, “a sign of cultural…authority” (pp. 8-9). Today, this reads like little more than government talking points, but even in 2012 (post sealed indictments against WikiLeaks and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning) they are more than a little optimistic. She does note that some Obama administration transparency efforts have been “compromised” but relegates this to a footnote instead of a central problem to be taken into account. Are there really “countless copycats” of WikiLeaks (p. 15)? I don’t think so.

Also optimistic is her partial history of transparency, at least in the US. Her examples (Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, FOIA, etc.) could all be rebutted by pointing out that often, these were hard won, partial concessions, and that they permitted many other activities to go on in secret. That is, these transparency moves are covers; a kind of secret themselves.

The most striking of these in recent years, for me, was what happened to the government’s transparency website, USAspending.gov. Unveiled with some fanfare at the tail end of the Bush administration, it was meant to provide a public, user-friendly and authoritative source to government spending on outsourced contracts. In fact, intelligence agencies almost immediately gained exemptions to it (including the NGA and NSA), while others (such as the NRO) just never took part in it. We tell the story of this a bit more in a forthcoming paper “The New Political Economy of Geographical Intelligence” for the Annals. Nowhere on the site does it mention any of this–you have to read obscure GAO documents, and CRS articles that are not directly released to the public.

(Ironically, I recently emailed the NGA press office to inquire if they were still exempt, but have not received a reply or even an acknowledgement. So much for transparency!)

Birchall argues, following Derrida, that the state is placed into an “infinite hesitation” in the face of transparency. It cannot be too transparent, because then it allows no room for personal privacy, and it cannot not be transparent because then it is also hegemonic and clandestine, if not covert.

But could the issue not be resolved by splitting apart the object of analysis and instead of arguing for all-or-none transparency, see citizens as in a relation with the state? To citizens go the choice of privacy-transparency, but to the state goes no choice but the requirement of transparency (and not just the state, but corporate actions).

Ah, but how much choice to the citizen? Well, that’s up for debate, but in my view it’s a better one that debating all-or-nothing transparency/privacy. Here I like what she has to say about the need to resist going “beyond” either term, and get used to inhabiting it strategically (p. 12). I think this is absolutely correct.

One thing to be mentioned here is the role of corporate America. If oversight of government activities is bad, try business, especially intel businesses. These often operate with even less transparency than government (what really does Booz Allen Hamilton do? That $15m intel contract–what’s it for?) As Birchall notes, this can give rise to “lip-service transparency” in the neoliberal context.

There are lots of provocative questions here, and it is surprising that more people have not considered the relations between secrecy, lies, truth, and transparency. (Birchall does give examples of these.) One angle that continues to intrigue, is that between secrecy and knowledge.

Isn’t it interesting that one of the great foundational stories of western religion is that of the tree of knowledge. This tree is forbidden because it has dangerous knowledge (not all transparency is good). So here we enter forbidden knowledges, arcana, Pandora’s Box, the occult, secret societies. The “will to knowledge” then, in Foucault’s words, becomes something both highly problematic and yet compelling.

So in some ways this could be read as another consideration of truth, and the difficulties of truth. Knowledge is about getting the truth. But I do think there’s still a lot to be worked through about secrets, and the relationships between knowledge and truth. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the articles in the TCS special section.

One response to “Transparency and secrecy

  1. Pingback: Looking at “Top Secret America” as the “Empire of Secrets” – Militainment and the National Security State

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