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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Neither secrecy nor openness in international affairs should be absolutes.

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."
—President Barack Obama, January 21, 2009

This statement appears at the top of the US State Department web page headed "Open Government Initiative." The page outlines steps taken or planned in accordance with President Obama's Open Government Directive, issued coincidentally, a year ago this week.

The publication of a selection of state department cables apparently leaked by an army private who made the call on what he thought should be known more widely wasn't what President Obama had in mind. The leak, the posting of cables on Wikileaks, and the associated media coverage has changed the atmospherics of discussion about more openness in the foreign affairs field around the world, including here. "Need to know" and secrecy, on the way out for a brief moment, are coming back into the discourse as claimed vital prerequisites to the conduct of international affairs.

 Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer thinks there is a right to privacy that has been breached in disclosure of the record of the Rudd-Clinton meeting in March last year:
Well I think it is outrageous that a private conversation between the then prime minister of Australia and the US secretary of state is leaked in this way because you would think in a relationship that Australia and the United States have that those two would be able to have a private conversation and express whatever views they wish. People are entitled to privacy, including prime ministers and secretaries of state.
These aren't private meetings, although depending on what is said the content may need to be protected, for a time. Most commentators agree what was said on this occasion was in line with what could be read into public statements regarding our assessment of the strategic implications of the rise of China.

Of course Downer, hand on heart, could say he never leaked while serving as foreign minister, although independent MP Andrew Wilkie might still be wondering how one unaccounted for copy of a classified report he wrote while at ONA that went to the then minister's office ended up in the hands of columnist Andrew Bolt shortly after Wilkie left ONA.

Daniel Fitton in the Sydney Morning Herald reports former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans saying tighter controls on access to official information is certain.

Foreign Minister Rudd himself acknowledged leaked documents were “part and parcel of the business of the relations between states” but:
“What now happens? I think rule number one for our friends in the United States is `how do you tighten things up a bit?” 
I'd be surprised if that's not a not a message directed to DFAT staff as well as a US audience that won't need any encouragement.

Proponents are going to have to work harder to make the point that excessive secrecy is an unnecessary, inappropriate and expensive default position for government held information even where international relations are concerned, and in circumstances where a related national security consideration may arise. Clearly some highly sensitive information if disclosed has the potential to impact adversely on the pursuit of national interests by harming international relations or national security, with no countervailing public benefit. Such information needs to be safeguarded-not left sitting on a database to which between two and three million US government employees had access, as was the case here.

The release of a whole lot of other information about foreign affairs and the conduct of international relations will not cause harm, but may add to public knowledge and understanding. In a third category is information that should be disclosed because this will advance the interests of good, honest, accountable government and the well being of the community, on occasion even where some harm of a lower order to another public interest  may result. The real issue is to get the balance right in identifying what fits where, and ensuring consistent principled standards are applied in decisions about disclosure.

There will always be potential whistleblowers tempted to take things into their own hands.Some deserve protection in the light of the importance of what they bring to the attention of authorities and in some cases the public: wrongdoing, corruption, a breach of trust, waste, fraud, acts or failures to act that expose the community to harm. Some will disclose information that causes no real harm to identifiable national interests, even though they breach their conditions of employment. Others off on a frolic of their own who leak indiscriminately, if caught can always expect to feel the full force of any applicable law.

The irony of the current situation won't be lost on President Obama, or Secretary Clinton who not only see more open government as a goal worth pursuing for its own sake in the US  but who urge and encourage others to be open and transparent.The US seeks to promote ideas like rights of access to government information, along with free speech and a free press as fundamental to the operation of a democratic society. These attributes are in the same category as free and fair elections, universal suffrage, the rule of law, accountability for elected and public officials, and a market economy. The US spends large amounts of money promoting open government around the world. For example the United States announced during President Obama's recent visit, an initial commitment of approximately USD 1 million -- with a matching commitment of in-kind assistance from the Indian government -- to enable the U.S.-India Partnership on Open Government to support the efforts of reformers and activists in other countries. A whole raft of transparency related projects are funded by USAID. Democratic governance has been an Australian international assistance program priority as well.

President Obama told the United Nations in September:
In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. Now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; and to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundation of freedom in our own countries, while living up to ideals that can light the world.
Prosecuting the cause of freedom internationally has just got a lot more difficult.

Openness and transparency in the operations of government may be important apart from the comfortable cultural fit with the values of democracies: in theory at least these values contribute to good government and stability, build confidence and predictability in dealings between nations, reduce fear and uncertainty about others' motives, and make aggression more difficult to conceal. Although James Marquardt of Lake Forest College in Chicago in a book to be published in February Transparency and American primacy in world politics apparently suggests "the United States routinely uses its calls for military transparency in particular as a policy instrument to discipline its rivals and therefore paradoxically contributes to greater tension in international relations." (I guess you need to read the book.) And some like former Assistant Secretary US Treasury Paul Craig Roberts argue the evidence shows the US government has no regard for the First Amendment and does not believe in accountable government. (That seems just a little overdrawn.)

Michael Wesley of the Lowy Institute in  "A victory for the culture of paranoia" in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald more pointedly said about our home front:
A growing culture of secrecy can only increase public cynicism about government motives and methods, leading in turn to even more government defensiveness and paranoia. At a time when Australia's international policy affects, and is influenced by, a growing segment of society, from business to NGOs to churches and the media, we cannot afford a culture of mutual wariness between our officials and the public. But over the past 20 years, despite a remarkable period of internationalisation of our society, there has been no sign of the opening up of government to interaction with the public. Such interaction as exists is arms-length and formulaic.
We all stand to gain by moving against excessive secrecy and towards principled openness and engagement regardless of any setback resulting from these leaks and Wikileaks publication to the world.

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