Information poverty in democratic states

By Ameen Izzadeen
Every State has secrets. A state keeps certain happenings, dealings, moves, countermoves, inventions, discoveries and plans secret because it believes its survival will be at risk if they become public. In other words, national security issues prompt a state to maintain secrets. But in some countries, state secrecy is a political weapon to hide crimes of dictators. Even in some democratic states, the doctrine of state secrecy is invoked to prevent the people from knowing the immoral statecraft which they resort to in serving capitalism, plundering other state’s resources, maintaining their global dominance and keeping the world in a state of war.
Many democracies have enacted official secrets laws to maintain national security – but it is also true that the very laws are also made use of to keep their citizens in the dark.
In the United States, state secrets are classified according to the sensitivity of the matter concerned. It has three levels of classification: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Each level of classification indicates an increasing degree of sensitivity. The information sensitivity doctrine is defined as the control of access to information or knowledge that might result in loss of an advantage or level of security if disclosed to others who might have low or unknown trustability or undesirable intentions.
Apart from the documents thus classified, a US citizen has full access to all unclassified public documents in terms of the First Amendment. In certain instances, public protests have led to a classified document being declassified. In some cases, even presidents and top officials have been accused of leaking classified information to the media to gain political mileage or vilify opponents.
Against this backdrop, a new book released this week has become a best seller in the US, beating even E.L. James’ sex novel Fifty Shades of Grey that had been a best seller for the past five months or so. This shows how information hungry the people in the US are. Yes, their government is secretive at the cost of the citizen’s information poverty.
The Pentagon is crying itself hoarse that Navy SEAL Matt Bissonette had revealed state secrets in the book ‘No Easy Day’. Under the pseudonym Mark Owen, he gives a first-hand account of the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2 last year. The book contradicts the account which the Barack Obama administration dished out to the media.
Bissonette’s accounts confirm the hitherto-dismissed eyewitness accounts of some Pakistanis who lived in a house opposite the three-storey Abbottabad hideout of bin Laden.
But what irks the Pentagon most was the SEAL turned story teller’s description of how bin Laden was killed. He says a fellow SEAL going up a flight of stairs shot an unarmed bin Laden as he peered through the doorway of his third floor living quarters.
“We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots. BOP. BOP. The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about ten feet in front of him. The man disappeared into the dark room,” Bissonette says adding that he was the second man to step inside the room and find a man lying on the ground, flanked by bin Laden’s two wailing wives.
Published excerpts of the book say the point man’s shots had entered the right side of bin Laden’s head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes he was still twitching and convulsing. Bissonette and his teammate, named ‘Tom’ in the book, then fired a series of rounds into his chest to ensure he was dead. Examining the body, the pair became convinced they had killed bin Laden.”
The Pentagon on Tuesday said what Bissonette had revealed or claimed in the book construed classified information as the details could provide the enemy with dangerous insights into the country’s secretive operations.
According to the official version of the killing, the SEALs shot bin Laden as he resisted arrest and was going to grab a weapon. Whichever version is correct, the secrecy surrounding the raid and the contradictions in the various accounts only add to one’s doubts. The refusal of the Obama administration to release the photographic evidence of the raid has provoked conspiracy theories about bin Laden’s death. Some say he was long dead and some say he is still alive. Perhaps, considering the Orwellian nature of state affairs, even Bissonette’s book could be part of a Pentagon game, because it only confirms that the US had killed bin Laden. To those cynics who would believe the official story only if the undoctored photographs of the raid were shown, Bissonette seems to say, ‘read my book’.
As the controversy rages on over the book and bin Laden’s death, the question arises whether official secrets acts are in conformity with democracy.
In a democracy, it is the leaders appointed by the people who decide what construes a secret or who have the prerogative to reveal or hide a secret. However, conflict arises if the people want the secret revealed while the leaders decide against it. One such case was the USS Liberty incident in 1967. Successive US Presidents, under Israeli pressure, have refused to take the lid of secrecy off the Israeli attack on the US warship. Subsequent investigations and interviews given by Israeli pilots show that Israel knew it was a US warship. The official US-Israeli version was that it was an accident, but the survivors of the attack in which 34 US sailors were killed and more than 170 wounded, say it was a deliberate attack and the US government colluded with Israel to cover up the case.
Retired Capt. Ward Boston, a former Navy attorney who helped lead the military investigation of the incident in a signed affidavit released at a news conference some years ago insisted that the then President Lyndon Johnson and his Defence Secretary Robert McNamara ordered that the inquiry conclude that the incident was an accident.
Haven’t the Americans people the right to know what exactly happened in this incident? It is said that the US has also classified as top secrets Israel’s role in the 9/11 attacks. Why? Who killed President John F. Kennedy? Are UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) real or fake? Is AIDS part of a US germ warfare?
But the state won’t reveal. It wants to keep its citizens in the dark. The secretive nature of the modern state makes one to ask the Orwellian question: Is the enemy real? Isn’t the state’s self-assumed right to define what construes a state secret a violation of the social contract? Social contract theorists say human beings lived in a state of nature as individuals and began to organise themselves into a society, because they thought living together in harmony would be mutually beneficial. This led to the formation of the state with each individual giving up some of his or her natural rights for the good of all. In this social contract, both the individual and the state have duties and responsibilities. If the state fails in its duties, the individual retains the right to rebel or remove the state.
The social contract demands that there should be transparency. The higher the degree of transparency in governance is, the stronger the democracy will be. The more secretive a state becomes, the less democratic it will be. But the witch-hunt on WikiLeaks chief Julien Assange indicates that the state has usurped the citizen’s right to know – a right which man did not surrender to the state when the social contract was entered into.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on September 7, 2012)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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