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Out of the dark: The quest for open government

By NIKA SABASTEANSKI | March 28, 2013

In February of 2010, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks made history by releasing the largest set of restricted government documents to the public, leaking over 250,000 private U.S. diplomatic cables and 500,000 classified reports concerning covert military operations.

The WikiLeaks episode raises a fundamental question: how transparent should government be?

This question might very well become one of the cardinal topics of the twenty-first century as we foray into an illusive world in which enemies no longer wear uniforms and wars are fought from continents apart.

What were once plain and distinct divisions of morality have become muddled and merged. In an age with no fireside chats or clear-cut military goals, the American public is demanding a higher level of transparency from its government. Without clarity providing the magnet for our moral compass, we constantly demand an open government.

Transparency is a hallmark of the principles on which this country was founded, and in many ways was a direct response to the clubby, closed-door atmosphere of monarchies. Government, be it oligarchy, monarchy or tyranny, was based on the clear power distinctions between rulers and their subjects. Publicity was regarded as weakness.

Today, however, public relations is an integral aspect of government. In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant writes, “All maxims which require publicity, in order that they may not fail to attain their end, are in agreement both with right and politics.” He continues to argue that if a maxim is dependent on publicity for success then it must align with the goals of the society and thus with the rights of its citizens. In other words, success through transparency requires a marriage of the government’s decisions and the needs and desires of the community. Of course, this syllogism does not imply that publicity is a sufficient cause to engender an agreeable result; only that if it happens to, the decision must have been wholesome.

Setting aside the drawbacks of complete transparency for a moment, Kant’s argument is logically sound, albeit a tad naïve. Perpetual peace can never be attained with a government at odds with the objectives of the body politic. Yet the U.S. is certainly not seeking some utopian form of perpetual peace. A ceasefire lasting a few weeks seems attainable, but perpetual peace is a pipe dream without a Pax Americana. If the Kantian end of a government and its constituents is not perpetual peace, but rather a baseline law and order, is the same degree of transparency necessary?

The CIA has been carrying out cloak-and-dagger operations for its 65 years of existence, but more recently has been granted the new responsibility of operating drones to destroy targets and kill enemies, both foreign and domestic. The CIA has never been a branch of the military, but with this newfound role in drone warfare, it now functions as an essential component of the defense establishment.

Recently, the Obama administration discussed plans to hand over drone warfare entirely to the Pentagon, primarily to reduce the secrecy and lack of accountability awarded to the CIA. The Pentagon’s decisions would not only be significantly more transparent, but would be subject to international and even U.S. law that does not apply to the CIA’s covert operations. The missions would also be more publicly visible and thus more accountable because they would be carried out within the established military chain of command, instead of within the closed-door atmosphere of the CIA.

The American people have raised significant concerns about the drone program largely because it is fast becoming the military’s go-to weapon. Citizens would likely feel less moral revulsion if drones were to be used instead of CIA agents to kill a select number of targets, as they have been for decades – a job distinct and once separate from the military. However, the idea that a secret military – one that taxpayers are funding and depending on for freedom, security, and peace – could ever be truly functional is unrealistic.

A military exercising the government’s prerogatives without accountability will soon divorce itself from the people and distort the balance of power between elected officials and their constituents. A transparent military, on the other hand, which executes operations through the aforementioned chain of command will likely remain close and responsive to the demands of the people. Drones are just the tip of the iceberg – they are simply the most overt incarnation of the trend toward invisible battles – and we have a right as a people, who were brought together precisely to avoid the unchecked whims of kings, to know what our newest soldiers are up to.

That said, transparency is only effective if it does not jeopardize the very operations that are designed to fulfill society’s goals. While our motives are pure and justified, at what point is too much transparency actually detrimental to the government and the goals of the citizens? Surely, the government ought not have to run every decision by the people. Were it to constantly ask its constituents for approval, the administration’s efficacy would be compromised. Sensitive information is not useful in the hands of an uniformed public set on private agendas. For a future close to the one Kant imagined, we must strike a balance between publicity and privacy. Both principles should advance the goals of the government while protecting the power of the people.

Nika Sabasteanski is a freshman Neuroscience major from New York, N.Y. She is the political philosophy columnist for The News-Letter. 

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