Friday, August 26, 2011

“[under the law] just because something is in the public domain doesn’t mean it’s been officially released or declassified by the U.S. government.”

That's what a CIA spokeswoman, Jennifer Youngblood, is quoted as saying by the NY Times, in a story about the redactions made by the CIA to a book about 9/11 by written by a former FBI agent.
The agent, Ali H. Soufan, argues in the book that the C.I.A. missed a chance to derail the 2001 plot by withholding from the F.B.I. information about two future 9/11 hijackers living in San Diego, according to several people who have read the manuscript. And he gives a detailed, firsthand account of the C.I.A.’s move toward brutal treatment in its interrogations, saying the harsh methods used on the agency’s first important captive, Abu Zubaydah, were unnecessary and counterproductive.
The article suggests that the C.I.A.'s redactions are more about either avoiding embarrassment or trying to control how the history of 9/11 is told than national security.  The CIA spokeswoman, of course, denies this:
“The suggestion that the Central Intelligence Agency has requested redactions on this publication because it doesn’t like the content is ridiculous. The C.I.A.’s pre-publication review process looks solely at the issue of whether information is classified.”
We saw this issue earlier when it came out that federal employees, who are not allowed to read classified information they aren't cleared to read, were not allowed to read any of the wikileaks cables, even though the material was in the public domain.

As I often try to point out here, everything is related, and today, there was an article in the ADN by Judith Kleinfeld titled "Thought the Cure for Most Blunders."  In it she cites an example from psychologist Madeline Van Heckeof's book, Blind Spot, about going to the driveup ATM window and proudly pointing out to a young foreign visitor in the car, that the US is sensitive to the handicapped - they have Braille on the ATM machine.  The young guest laughs and asks,  "How many blind people drive?"

Van Heckeof, as related by Kleinfeld, goes on to explain that
Most of the time our minds work pretty well. But sometimes smart people do stupid things, she points out. We have a systematic set of "blind spots" in our minds like the blind spots in our cars.
I strongly believe that people have, what you could call, blind spots.  And we shouldn't have blind spots when looking at stories about blind spots.  Just like anti-tax zealots who ridicule scientific studies funded by the US government by taking things totally out of context, I shouldn't do the same thing here.

It does seem silly to have braille on a drive through ATM, until you think that when they make the machines, they probably don't distinguish between the keys on walk-up and drive-through machines.  So they just put the braille on all of them.  Should they make different keys for drive-through machines? Maybe not so ridiculous in the long run.  

But that doesn't mean we don't have blind spots.  Part of this blog's goal is to get people to see such blindspots.

So, what about hiding classified material?  I'm less tolerant about this, but I can think of reasons why the C.I.A.  would want to suppress material, even if it's already publicly available.
  1. While it might be available in the public domain, it might not be available where someone was likely to find it.  A new book will make it more accessible to more people.  
  2. A book could take a lot of different pieces of information available in different places in the public domain and put them all together - such as how to build a bomb.  Fewer people would be able to figure it all out if the book didn't come out.
  3. All of us who have made mistakes, surely, would like to prevent others from explaining how stupid we were, if we could. 
  4. As suggested in the article, there may be an attempt to control the information that is used to write history and information that contradicts one's beliefs.  In this case, the article suggests that Soufan's account contradicts, among other things, Cheney's assertions that torture was necessary to get information.
While there are times when points 1 and 2 might be legitimate, my bias tends to favor errors of openness over errors of secrecy.  It just seems openness, in the long run, is better for a democracy than secrecy.  If one uses the possibility of something bad happening, one could justify making everything secret. 

The 3rd reason, while a natural inclination for all humans, isn't justifiable for government officials in a democracy.  The information has to get out and then people can form their conclusions about performance and accountability.

The same logic fits for the 4th point.  Suppressing information is no way to find the truth.

So, check out your own blind spots.  And gently help others, including me, see theirs. 

1 comment:

  1. Following that, I've also found that most times I gain insight into someone else's motivation, even destructive ones, if facts are known. As small evidence, I watched a beautiful silent film last night "A Cottage on Dartmoor" (1929) that took me from the unintentional criminality of its protagonist to a profound scene of redemption in the last 3 minutes. I would have had no way to believe the characters' redemption without the story's flashback.

    It was seeing the backstory of their lives that made that ending scene powerful and so fully human. And I pause to think of how many times I just don't get it for walking by.


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