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Jameel Jaffer: Secrets

By Huffington Post
November 6, 2010

Which secrets should be kept, and which should be exposed? Those questions are at the heart of Doug Liman’s new film, Fair Game, which tells the story of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. Joe Wilson, remember, was the former U.S. diplomat who exposed one of the many false claims made by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Valerie Plame is Wilson’s wife, a covert CIA operative whose identity the Bush administration disclosed to reporters in an effort to retaliate against Wilson.

The film is about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, but it’s also about secrecy. The Bush administration gathers evidence to support its claim that Iraq presents an imminent threat to the United States and its allies. The intelligence is manipulated, and the evidence is false, but the public is told only the rotten conclusion — that Iraq has sought yellowcake uranium from Niger — and the public is of course not in any position to evaluate that claim, because the evidence to support it is secret. Joe Wilson exposes the truth; he pierces the secrecy that conceals government misconduct. He’s a whistleblower in the best sense of the word.

But of course Joe Wilson isn’t the only one in the film who pierces secrecy. When Joe Wilson exposes the truth about the yellowcake claim, the Bush administration decides to discredit him by exposing the truth about his wife. Joe Wilson has a secret, too, and the government exposes it. Lewis Libby and Karl Rove are whistleblowers in a different sense of the world. When they pierce secrecy, it is an extension of government misconduct that they’re already engaged in.

There’s a sense in which these two narratives — or these two sides of Liman’s narrative — are emblematic of twin political shifts that have taken place over the last decade years. The public knows less and less about government policy; government secrecy is increasingly the norm, and transparency the exception. At the same time, the government knows more and more about individual citizens; government surveillance is increasingly pervasive, and increasingly intrusive. These twin shifts reverse the proper relationship between a democratic government and its citizens. It’s supposed to be the government that’s transparent and accountable to the citizenry, but increasingly transparency and accountability work only in the other direction.

As government secrecy has become the norm, particularly on issues relating to national security, we’re increasingly reliant on whistleblowers to provide us with information. Without leaks to the media, we wouldn’t know about the Abu Ghraib abuses, we wouldn’t know about the NSA warrantless wiretapping program, and of course we wouldn’t know about the yellowcake scandal. It’s worth asking whether this is good for our democracy.

And as government surveillance has become the norm, citizens are also more and more vulnerable to government power. Valerie Plame is an extreme case, because her secret was one that, when exposed, almost completely destroyed her life. But the government knows more and more of our secrets — at the very least, it knows who we call overseas, it knows who we correspond with by email, it has access to our banking records, our telephone records, our credit records, our internet surfing histories. With information comes power; in this context, the power to expose is the power to destroy. Here, too, it’s worth asking whether this is good for our democracy.

From The Huffington Post