Photo | Courtesy of the ROM

Has the shift towards government secrecy altered our society in irrevocable ways?

On November 15th, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) held their eleventh annual Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture. Every year, this event brings powerful voices to the ROM to present provocative and engaging ideas. This year, Jameel Jaffer, Executive Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, delivered a lecture that was both thought-provoking and relevant. His lecture, entitled “Going Dark,” explored the phenomenon of government secrecy in terms of what it means for us both as a society and as individuals.

Since 9/11, democratic governments have become increasingly secretive due to the impulse to ensure national security against real or perceived threats. Fifteen years ago, a group of lawyers under the Bush administration wrote legal documents known as the Torture Memos, which permitted interrogators to use torture methods against prisoners suspected of terrorism.

They wrote that these prisoners were not entitled to the protection granted from the conventions against torture that the United States had signed and ratified because they “didn’t apply outside US territory.” They rationalised that this same law criminalising torture only applied to extreme methods that resulted in injuries as severe as organ failure, or death. They contended that, “the President had the authority as commander-in-chief, to order interrogators to use methods that would otherwise be illegal.”

Jaffer stated that this administration overlooked several aspects of the law and that they distorted the meanings of common terms, twisting them to suit their own needs: “Over a period of five years, American interrogators tortured hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in black sites in Asia, and in Eastern Europe.”

These Torture Memos were eventually litigated under the Freedom of Information Act, a process in which Jaffer played a significant role. In the spring of 2004, photos of abused prisoners held in Abu Ghraib along with details of the secret Torture Memos were published by major news outlets and, therefore, made available to the public. The Bush administration was soon forced to shut down these sites and face the legal repercussions of their actions.

“Since 9/11, secrecy has been the handmaiden of abuse,” said Jaffer. He noted that it was only after groups of journalists and human rights activists revealed the deaths of innocent people, and after Edward Snowden exposed information in regard to mass surveillance agencies, that the government felt compelled to make any changes.

Jaffer recognised that there are instances where national secrecy is legitimate and necessary, but remarked, “time and again, overbroad secrecy shielded official decisions that were misguided, or corrupt, or even unlawful. The costs of overbroad secrecy are actually much greater than is generally appreciated. The functions of official secrecy are often different than is generally understood and the distorting effects of official secrecy on public discourse, on the rule of law, and on democratic culture are more profound than we often realise.”

Jaffer noted that government secrecy is anti-democratic, because it withholds information that the public needs in order to understand government policy and to hold government officials accountable for the decisions they make. He related this issue to drone warfare and targeted killings.

One consequence of all the secrecy was that “public debate about the drone campaign focused to an unusual degree on policy makers rather than policy.” On this issue, he remarked, “secrecy made it difficult to debate the standards governing the kill lists or the accuracy of the government’s drones or the persuasiveness of its legal theories.” He noted that the American public supported this programme, not due to an intimate knowledge of its legal parameters, its effectiveness, or its consequences, but rather because President Obama had “asked for their support as a good and honourable man surrounded by good and honourable men and women.”

Many people are involved with handling and classifying these top-secret documents. Jaffer stated, “In 2014, 2276 officials had ‘original classification authority,’ meaning that the President had delegated to them the authority to designate new official secrets. A far greater number—more than 1.5 million officials and contractors—possess ‘top-secret security clearance,’ meaning that the government had deemed them eligible to access materials classified at the highest levels. And a still greater number, 3.6 million—on top of the 1.5 million who enjoy top-secret clearance—possess security clearance at a lower level. If those numbers are difficult to evaluate without points of reference, consider this: the United States has about 20 times as many people with security clearance as it has primary care physicians. It has about six times as many people with top secret security clearance—again, the most restricted clearance level—as it has taxi drivers.”

While the government continues to learn more about its everyday civilians, people become increasingly shrouded in national secrecy. On the term “Going Dark,” however, Jaffer noted that it is in fact better applied to citizens than it is to the government.

“Some secrets are kept from us,” he said, “but some we keep from ourselves. We just don’t want to know. If we knew the full story of what had happened in the detention centres, perhaps we’d feel more obliged to do something about it […] Secrecy, like drone warfare, increases the distance between us and the violence inflicted in our names […] Official secrecy relieves us of this moral burden. After all, who would hold us morally responsible for torture we didn’t know was being inflicted? Who would hold us morally responsible for drone strikes we didn’t know were being carried out?”

“It would have been an honour to give this lecture under any circumstances,” noted Jaffer, “but it probably doesn’t need to be said that events of the last week have given this event new relevance.”

He concluded the lecture with this remark regarding the recent results of the 2016 American Presidential Election: “The president-elect has said he wants to resurrect the torture policies, expand the drone campaign, and repopulate Guantanamo. In that context, transparency—or at least, demanding transparency—is a political necessity. But it’s a moral necessity, too. We have the right to demand openness, but maybe we have the obligation to demand it, too. And perhaps that’s especially crucial to remember now, as a new administration—seemingly committed to the dark side—takes office.”