Preach it, Brother!

Over at Foreign Policy magazine, an avatar of the establishment, has published an article calling for comprehensive and independents audits of state secrets:

The battle over the disclosure of the memo on the Russia investigation prepared by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes has been analyzed mostly in narrow partisan terms, but it has much larger significance for the health of American democracy. A key weakness of the U.S. democratic system, and indeed all democracies, is the paradox of secrecy: voters need to know what the government does in order to evaluate it but the government needs secrecy to effectively serve the public. As parties have polarized, the tensions inherent to that paradox have become increasingly impossible to ignore.

These tensions now demand some attempt at a resolution, even if any such answer will inevitably demand sacrifices from current stakeholders. The most plausible solution may be one that nobody in the political establishment has yet seriously contemplated — the creation of a system of public audits for government secrets.

Everyone knows that secrecy is a problem for democracy because voters cannot easily evaluate the government if the government acts in secret. This leads to endless calls for greater transparency, with the obligatory invocation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s memorable line that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” What this trite sentiment overlooks is that secrecy is also essential to democracy. No democracy can function unless the government is permitted to act in secret.


Hence the need for a public auditing system, one that requires the government from time to time to release batches of classified information to the public — and in real time, not decades later, as is the current practice. For this to work, all secret information at a given time — tax records, health records, military strategies, weapons systems, CIA analyses, FBI and IRS investigations — would need to be accessible. A citizens’ counsel could be created, with the authority to review that secret information, subpoena government officials to defend their classification choices, and disclose the information to the public if the officials fail to persuade.

While I disagree with the mechanism, I have been advocating for the incorporating Swedish principle of Offentlighetsprincipen (Openness) into the US constitution for years, it is not a bad start.

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