Thursday, December 9, 2010

Secrets, Lies, Leaks and Cover-ups

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that a very close mutual friend was having an affair.  Our mutual friend had told her, but sworn her to secrecy.  Our friend’s wife was also a friend, although less close, and their relationship had seemed solid and happy.  My friend was so shocked she had to tell someone who knew them both.   She swore me to secrecy.   I, in turn, told a therapist . I felt she was safe, being bound by professional ethics to confidentiality, and, in any case, didn’t know any of these   people.   The therapist told me two things about secrets:
  1. The difference between something secret and something public is that the public finds out the information all at once whereas a secret is leaked one person at a time until most everyone knows, although the information has now been filtered and is probably quite changed from the original secret.
  2. A person or a family is only as sick as the secrets they keep. 
This week’s news has been dominated by the continuing release of 250,000 diplomatic cables through Wikileaks.  Many have debated whether Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is a criminal, a publishing hero,  a terrorist,  a defender of free speech,  or any number of other labels.  

As Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer aptly notes,
The official outrage is as synthetic as it is predictable, and what drives it is not fear for the lives of American diplomats and spies but concern for their careers. But how did a big, grown-up government like that of the United States blunder into the error of making all this ‘secret’ material so easily available?  It made the elementary mistake of thinking that electronic communications could really be kept secret, even when widely disseminated, if you just surround them with a sufficiently impressive clutter of passwords, security clearances and encryption. Any historian could have told them they were wrong. If it's written down, then it will come out sooner or later. In this case, it was sooner.
Dyer goes on to point out that the General Accounting Office in 1993 reported that 3 million people had the security clearance needed to get into the Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network).  Probably twice as many have that clearance today.  All it takes is one of those people to send the data to WikiLeaks, and the whole system is compromised.

I juxtapose the WikiLeaks story with two others:  Valerie Plame and Elizabeth Edwards, to try to see what a commons perspective might be on secrets, lies, leaks and cover-ups.   Valerie Plame was a CIA agent who had infiltrated an extensive network of weapons dealers who were operating illegally.  Her cover was blown by a leak by someone high in the Bush Administration to columnist Robert Novak.  Elizabeth Edwards, who died earlier this week, is best known for how she dealt with the cancer that ultimately killed her, and for how she dealt with the revelation of the infidelity of her husband, John Edwards and the elaborate cover-up he designed to keep that information from her.   

My reaction to each of these stories was very different:  I admit to having mixed feelings about WikiLeaks, thinking that diplomats probably do need some assurance that some things they say or offer are not always made public,  but still rooting for Assange and eagerly reading everything that is being revealed.  

On the other hand, I was completely outraged by Plame’s treatment, particularly when that was largely a punishment of her husband who himself was revealing secrets and lies of the Bush Administration.  Yet, in other time and place, I suppose it would be possible that Plame’s cover would be blown by WikiLeaks.

And I was sickened and saddened by John Edwards, who I liked a lot and I felt was one of the few politicians who truly spoke up for poor people.  I also liked his wife a great deal:  she was down to earth and she was a crusader for good in her own right.  Her last six years were dominated by cancer and by increasing revelations of not only her husband’s affair but his elaborate cover-up, including the child he fathered by Rielle Hunter and even his plans for marrying her once Elizabeth was dead.

These stories are very different, but in every case that which was secret is now public. So my therapist was right on the first count:  there are no real secrets—ultimately the truth, or some version of it, comes out.

But on the second count, that families are only a sick as the secrets they keep:  is this true of countries as well? 

In a commons-based society, the number of secrets would be drastically reduced.  Imperialism, genocide, greed and their siblings rely on deeds formed in back rooms and carried out in private with some “messaging” to assuage the public.  A worldview based on rough social equity, with policies and laws in place to insure it, relies on a lot of information being public and able to be understood and debated by as many people as possible.

But would there be any secrets?  Of course:  what we are getting someone for their birthday, the surprise party we plan to honor a long time employee, the neighborhood block club announcing to our most senior and disabled member that we will be painting her house and cleaning up her yard, something she has wanted for a long time but not been able to afford:  secrets that make everyone happy.   

In other words, in a commons society, secrets would give us joy, and the greatest joy would come from revealing them.

Our country has massive problems, and in this time approaching the Winter Solstice, where darkness begins to move into light, it bears pondering the role of secrets in creating and maintaining our societal sicknesses and what light do we need to shine on what?

1 comment:

Mazarine said...

I love that. A family is only as sick as the secrets we keep.

Let the USA's secrets come out then! It's better that we all know, and start this process of knowing, so we can work to undo the 8 years of Bushism!