The recent disclosure of government secrets by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning has brought to the fore difficult questions of accountability and effectiveness in the executive branch. The problem is easy enough to state: national security requires that certain information be kept from our enemies, but who is to decide which information is properly kept secret, and which in the public’s interest to have disclosed?
Those who are required to defend the country, and so empowered to keep secrets, are the only ones in a position to determine whether the secrets they keep ought to be kept. Hudson Institute senior fellow Gabriel Schoenfeld pithily puts the problem in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here for $19.95 and get immediate online access), “All government requires secrecy, but self-government requires transparency.”
In “Whistleblowers and Traitors,” Schoenfeld praises Rahul Sagar’s outlining of the predicament in Sagar’s recent book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy. As Sagar shows, this tension between secrets and disclosure has been with us since the founding of the Republic.
The nature of the problem militates against any solution; while the framers built various safeguards into the constitution, none is altogether satisfactory. “The Catch-22 is that identifying abuses of secrecy requires access to the very material being kept secret.” How then are we to distinguish the whistleblower from the traitor?
As Schoenfeld argues, of greatest interest and originality in Sagar’s book is his discussion of the press and its interaction with “whistleblowers” as a potential “regulatory mechanism” constraining government secrecy. It is tempting to celebrate the leaking of documents to the public as a boon to democracy – more information means a more informed electorate. Such celebration would misplaced:
The dilemma is that while leaks can serve as an “effective and credible” means of policing the executive, their unlawful nature undermines their legitimacy. A system where leaks are not condemned but condoned would have serious consequences and be fundamentally anti-democratic. The parties involved in leaks—government bureaucrats who illicitly disclose confidential information, and journalists who disseminate it—are self-appointed, private arbiters. Allowing leakers and journalists to determine what constitutes an illegitimate government secret, argues Sagar, “violates the democratic ideal that such decisions should be made by persons or institutions that have been directly or indirectly endorsed by citizens.” When, instead, the decisions about which secrets are kept and which revealed are made by government officials exceeding their authority, by the journalists they leak to, and by the publishers who run the journalists’ revelations, the leaks “constitute a form of usurpation.”
Democratic norms both demand the information and condemn the informers. Sagar outlines five conditions a whistleblower must meet if his actions are to be lauded; Schoenfeld offers a sixth. Check out Schoenfeld’s review to review these conditions, and to determine whether Snowden or Manning can be said to meet them – whether they ought to be considered courageous whistleblowers, or despicable traitors.