Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wikileaks v FOIA

The Wikileaks story has made me think a bit about the Freedom of Information Act. This law, signed by Lyndon Baines Johnson on September 6, 1966 (officially Public Law 89-554, 80 Stat. 383; Amended 1996, 2002, 2007), was intended to make information about activities of the US government available to the American public--who as citizens and taxpayers are responsible for the federal government. The principle was simple. However, in practice, over time, more and more loopholes have been added to the law through legislation, regulation, executive and administrative decisions, and court rulings--to the point where, due to fees allowed for search, review, and duplication by government agencies, it has become almost prohibitive for individual citizens to request information. Instead, a series of preferences has emerged over time that has privileged various sectors of society--such as newspapers, television stations, universities, non-profit organizations and the like--which have been exempted from certain charges.

These privileges resulted, no doubt, from well-intended attempt to reduce the burden of answering requests from thousands of American citizens, to give "bang for the buck" to the law. The idea would be that such institutional players would be best situated to disseminate information to the American public.

However, since the law was written, advances in technology have shifted the nature of information dissemination. As the Wikileaks controversy reveals, news organizations such as the New York Times offered to collaborate with the US government to suppress information. That is, they served not only as disseminators, but also as filters, editors, indeed censors of information.

On the other hand, the Wikileaks website provided universal, immmediate, instantaneous and total dissemination. Thus, the mainline news organizations provided an inferior medium of dissemination to Wikileaks.

This only has to do with the question of dissemination. However, dissemination is a key problem that is considered under FOIA when granting categorical preferences and fee reductions.

Secondly, the "data dump" on Wikileaks permitted thousands of interested readers all over the world to comb through the data looking for keywords of interest to them--in the aggregate, small numbers add up to big numbers. Thus, in combination with distributed computer processing, the data mining possibilities of an internet post by a lone individual on Wikileaks are much greater than a release to an established newspaper or media company.

More interesting is that the Wikileaks release demonstrates that US Government information is already available in electronic form. Clearly, automated computer programs could scan data for keywords to classify and/or de-classify the information on a regular basis. Such routine declassification--which might include excision of specific information "too hot to handle" while allowing more general material to be distributed--could be automatically posted on government websites.

A daily release of routine information, much like a daily press conference, removes much of the drama and "gotcha!" from information. It would allow sober citizens to evaluate what is going on--perhaps with computer matrices of their own devising that might actually help win the war that the US has been losing since 9/11 (Islamist extremism has metastasized, spreading around the globe, "on a roll," due in large measure to America's failure to catch Bin Laden "dead or alive", the express war aim stated by President George W. Bush, and reiterated by President Obama).

Such sharing of information would probably help mobilize the American citizenry, creating pressure to win--rather than the current situation, where a "Top Secret America" (to quote the Washington Post) keeps ordinary citizens in the dark, yet demands trillions of tax dollars for projects of dubious efficacy, legality, or prudence. The resulting enrichment and corruption of Washington decision-makers actually serves the interests of America's enemies. America grows weaker and poorer, the stock market and housing market collapse, America's adversaries strike with impunity--and still no one is held to account, because the American public has been kept in the dark.

It has become a cliche to quote Justice Brandeis's observation that "sunshine is the best disinfectant." But it does not make it less true.

The first rule of war, to know one's enemy, cannot be practiced in the dark. The key problem, now as always, is for the American public to be able to "identify friend, or foe?" Americans don't know the answer to that question in Iraq, or Afghanistan. Indeed, due to a flawed strategy that shrank from properly identifying allies and enemies (despite public rhetoric of "with us, or against us"), Americans have been literally kept in the dark by political and military leaders.

The Wikileaks controversy could provide a welcome change, by reminding American leaders that the public's right to know is not an obstacle to victory--but a prerequisite for it. What is needed is honest debate about the struggle America faces, based on honest information.

Let's hope the Wikileaks story doesn't go away, but is the beginning of a flow of new information that will enable America to chart the right course in the years to come...based not on ideology, wishful thinking, "conflict resolution," "reconciliation," "power sharing," or blaming allies. The 90,000 documents have been a gift to the American people, that could serve as a catalyst for a realignment of political and economic forces in such a way as to clear the decks.

Let us hope that there is someone in America with the common sense, and leadership, to grasp this opportunity for what it represents...