06 December 2010

National Security in a Democracy: Who gets to decide?

The latest WikiLeaks revelation has provoked fresh fury from the usual sources who claim that the fugitive site's publication of a list of foreign sites deemed critical to American security in a confidential 2009 survey is no more than an invitation to terrorists to attack those sites. This particular revelation strikes me as something that citizens ought to know. The information that the U.S. establishment considers so many foreign sites essential to national security, the national economy or even to public health should shock people, even if you consider the fact an inevitable outcome of globalized interdependence. It raises the natural question of whether Americans should allow our well-being to be so vulnerably dependent on foreign sites, and practically begs the question of who gets to decide the first question. Critics of WikiLeaks have been so concerned with denying information to enemies that the question of Americans' right to know these things, and their right to have a say in defining national security, have hardly been addressed. It seems to be taken almost for granted that a representative democracy, in which authority is delegated to elected officials and their appointed agents, comes with an implicit surrender of the average citizen's right to the same information his representatives receive. Since we did away quite early with the idea that citizens have a right to instruct their representatives, elections are followed by deference to elected officials' discretion. Since we have neither the duty nor the right to instruct them, we are presumed not to need the information they need to make the informed decisions that are theirs exclusively to make. As government has grown in size and complexity, citizens and politicians alike are more inclined to presume that the latter have special expertise, the lack of which disqualifies ordinary people from interpreting sensitive information correctly. We might draw the wrong conclusions, after all, or hold politicians, generals, etc. to simplistic moral standards. Government grows inevitably more complex as society grows more civilized, but that complexity and the expertise required to manage it shouldn't obscure the distinction between implementing and setting policy, or between policy and priorities. It should still be up to the American people to define national security for themselves and to set priorities for national security policy, but the inertia of institutional entanglements, as well as the self-interest of institutions and their personnel, obstruct the people's will. It may be claimed that voters set national-security priorities at election time, but the Obama administration has belied that belief and betrayed the believers. Elections are determined by advertising, not information. Now information has emerged, and while critics may claim that the information is dangerously decontextualized, the claim should force them to inform the public by stating the context clearly and frankly. Instead, we are told to resent the messengers and warned that information is dangerous in the wrong hands, including our own. This isn't exactly news. Since the time of the Roman Republic, if not earlier, empire has been recognized as a menace to representative government and electoral democracy. Change "empire" to "hegemony" and you see the threat in operation today. Laws probably have been broken to deliver documents to WikiLeaks -- but is that really the worst thing we've learned lately?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That has been a concern of mine for a number of years now. How do we know that something is being secured for "national security" and not simply to hide some embarrassing or, worse yet, wrongdoing on the part of the government.

We are asked to trust the foxes with the hens. I think it is time we rethink the way our government works and, if necessary, create a new constitution that prohibits such secrecy.