Sunday, December 05, 2010

The uses and abuse of secrecy

Anyone even mildly familiar with the world of contemporary foreign and security policy making will realise just how banal the WikiLeaks leaks are. Sure, they have the ability to titillate us, give us some mordant quote by an ambassador or some sordid detail of a transaction, but there are really no true secrets. Did we not know that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the Pakistan Army are the real powers in Pakistan, or that Islamabad’s psychotic obsession with India is so intense that it will not fully cooperate in the war against the Taliban and that Cold Start could be a dangerously escalatory doctrine? It did not take leaked cables to tell us that China was not for the expansion of the UN Security Council and that Saudi Arabia was paranoid about Iran.
Information technology has begun rewriting the rules of what constitutes a secret. It did not take Anne Patterson’s leaked cable to her bosses to tell us that Pakistan was expanding its nuclear arsenal rapidly. This had been detailed in a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) using satellite imagery in May 2009.
Yet, the imprimatur of a government gives the information a confirmatory context. There was a time when documents would be selectively made available to a newspaper, today we have a “bit-torrent” of information. The Supreme Court may get the authenticated versions of some 5,000 conversations, but all of them are floating around in hundreds of CDs for all those who care to seek them. 
The WikiLeaks project is, of course, difficult to classify. Its aim is not to create a revolution, expose corruption or promote pacifism. It has taken an unthinkingly naïve approach towards attacking the very concept of secrecy and, in the process, not only exposed wrongdoing and chicanery, but also endangered people by revealing their names as agents of the US, and invaded the privacy of many others unconnected to US policy goals or its own motivations.
In that sense it represents the chaotic edge of a movement that seeks to enhance the transparency of government functioning in the developed democracies of the western world. This is an acknowledgement that the people have the right to control their governments’ policies by having the right information at their command. As the Federation of American Scientists has pointed out, in May the government for the first time revealed the current size of the US nuclear weapons arsenal (5113 weapons). Later in September, again for the first time, the US government gave out figures for its intelligence budget— $80.1 billion for 2010. In the years before, intelligence bosses insisted that the figures had to be secret, because giving away the numbers would compromise intelligence gathering methods.
There are, of course, other uses of secrecy. These are more familiar to us here in India. They are to protect the reputation of individuals or to shield the corrupt. Both have been in evidence recently. Last month, the veteran journalist Inder Malhotra published two letters from Jawaharlal Nehru to the US President, pleading for an air umbrella of US combat aircraft to prosecute the war against China in 1962. The existence of the letters was known and its summary was available. But the letters themselves were not declassified. Most of the documents of the Kennedy era relating to South Asia were declassified and published in Volume IX of the Foreign Relations of the United States back in the mid-1990s. But the entry relating to the letters stated that these two letters were being withheld from declassification because even the government of India had not declassified them.
Of course, the government of India does not declassify anything. But in the case of Nehru or Indira Gandhi, they are extra-careful. The only explanation is that they want to ensure that the iconic image of these two leaders is not in any way besmirched. Obviously a letter from the arch-priest of non-alignment begging the US President for not just military aid, but a military alliance, would not play well for a generation of officials who have a possessive thing about the concept.
As for secrecy to shield the corrupt, we see it almost every day. Virtually no information relating to a controversial deal is put in the public domain. Veteran parliament watchers will tell you that the bureaucracy has honed the practice of revealing nothing in response to questions posed in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.  India has taken a giant step to end the cult of official secrecy by adopting the Right to Information Act, but the efforts of the Babu Empire to strike back and undermine the Act are evident. We had the case of a Chief Justice of India who resisted the idea of making public the assets of the judiciary and who felt that his office had to be outside the purview of the RTI.
Among the bigger limitations of the RTI is the wholesale exemption it provides to  the national security establishment from its ambit. Talk to any intelligence official or bureaucrat, and they will tell you why certain information must be kept away from the people of the country. The armed forces, for example, claim that information about charges of human rights violations or corruption will “lower the morale”, never quite wanting to respond to the  question as to whether morale gets lowered or raised if wrong-doing is exposed.
But as the WikiLeaks documents on Iran, Afghanistan and now the State Department reveal, there is nothing in the practice of good governance that needs the kind of blanket secrecy that the government of India insists on.
At the heart of secrecy is the issue as to what is a secret? For obvious reasons, this is easier to define in the military/national security context, rather than the civilian one. Of course, private companies will say that their R&D, production plans and marketing strategies must also be seen as secrets. Governments will argue that information on import and acquisition plans must be secret as well since access to privileged information can be profitable. But while both have a case, the government must be judged on a different scale, since it represents all the people, and information that it has in a sense belongs to them. So far, unfortunately, the aim has been to provide public information selectively to a few who are then able to turn handsome profits from it.
In the national security context, too, it is clear that we need much sharper focus on defining what is secret and otherwise. In the era of Google Earth, banning photography of airports on grounds of secrecy is patently stupid. Capabilities are easy to figure out, but intentions are the real secret. And even here, there is a time frame. We all know that both India and Pakistan have plans to attack each other in the event of war. Given the geography, you can determine with a fair degree of accuracy the places where attacks can be launched and the capabilities the other side can bring to bear. The plans have been there since the 1950s, but what would be a great secret is, say, a plan for an attack in the next month or week.
Even while accepting that the link between capabilities and intention is a complex one, it is clear that all secrets are time-bound. The capabilities of a particular piece of equipment or a plan, or an assessment, has a particular shelf-life; there are no eternal secrets. If the concept of secrets is dynamic, there is a greater likelihood that they will remain truly secret. But those who sit on information and see it as something static, will find that it is soon devalued, or snatched away from them by the high-tech nihilists of the internet world.
Mail Today December 2, 2010

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