Secrecy and Democracy

Consider one of the Franken Rules of Life: There is nothing good that someone won't corrupt.

Today we talk about secrecy. Obviously, there are many worthwhile reasons to keep things confidential. There is sensitive personal information that is no one's business except those who require that you reveal it to them as a condition for something they can give you in return.

Of course, there's national security — war, diplomacy. Often, people's lives are endangered if their military activities are made known to an enemy, and resolution of volatile matters can be disrupted if word leaks about compromise over bitter disputes.

However: Consistent with the aforementioned rule of life, someone is always ready to take the sensible rules of secrecy and misuse them hide abuse and misdeeds.

There's the military leader who has encouraged the torture of prisoners and who convinces his commander in chief that many will be harmed if images of the atrocities are made public — besides him or her, of course. And the commander in chief, who is trying to show his troops that he cares enough about them to go back on the spirit of the campaign that got him elected.

There are the Treasury officials who succumb to Wall Street peer pressure and actually believe, after a while, that us riffraff have no ability to understand the intricate ways they're lavishing our trillions onto the members of their club. So they dig in their heels when we have the audacity to insist we be brought into their games.

I can't mention names, but I covered a story where the lawyer for a leading political figure told me off the record that he had maneuvered an investigation of his client into a grand jury. While publicly proclaiming he was doing that to get the facts out, he was really keeping them hidden till things simmered down, by taking advantage of the fact that for good reason there are strict rules of secrecy in grand juries. He was just taking advantage of them for bad reason. Wasn't that clever?

My favorite experience came when I was covering a series of meetings between adversaries at the top levels of our government. The discussions were supposed to be hush-hush so participants could negotiate some important policy matter away from the distractions of media and the need for posturing.

Put it this way: Reporters were deluged with leaks. Anything and everything that was discussed was immediately spun out from behind the closed doors to us willing ones outside who had an easy time of it telling our readers and viewers how our leaders were leading. That's what we do. But there was one event that made it particularly galling.

At the conclusion of the negotiations, one of the key players held a news conference. He wanted to complain about all the leaks. The problem was he was among the biggest offenders. He and his subordinates had passed me information in return for the standard commitment that I would attribute it to "sources.”

He stared at me as he was talking for the cameras, with a smirk on his face, knowing full well I would not violate my agreement. I could not. Not then. Not now. It stinks, but a promise is a promise. Unfortunately, journalists are often forced to play these games to get what few nuggets we get. The good ones try to sift out the fool’s gold of self-serving spin and do our job. We can't betray our sources.

It's the same kind of hang-up that precludes our really knowing who disclosed what to whom about torture in 2002 and 2003. Those pathetically few members of Congress who get the intelligence briefings in the name of oversight must agree never to reveal anything about them. Again, there are reasons for the ultra-secrecy. But in this she-said-they-said case, the rules make it impossible to determine who is distorting the truth, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or the CIA officials.

Again: There are strong arguments that can often be made for keeping this or that closely held. The problem is there are usually cynical opportunists who will take advantage of a predisposition among those in power to keep things secret. Otherwise that power might be threatened. What's also threatened, though, is the nation's credibility when we claim that what sets us apart is our openness.



Visit Mr. Franken's website at www.bobfranken.tv.

More in Civil Rights

The US human rights record on repeat

Read more »