The government must have its secrets

I feel about government secrecy much the way I did at the outset of the War on Terror, with the provision that like many other people, I was more inclined to err on the side of security in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Conversely, I have a hard time squaring Barack Obama’s Super Surveillance State with either his campaign rhetoric or post-Abbotabad “Mission Accomplished” triumphalism.  

The current crisis puts us in the uncomfortable position of criticizing the foolish junior senator from Illinois for growing up in a hurry, once he started getting those White House security briefings.  But one thing we absolutely should criticize is the way he conducted that evolution quietly, without apologizing to George Bush or explaining to the legion of low-information Obama faithful that Bush was right all along.  Obama wanted to have his cake and conduct extensive surveillance on it too.  The result is a baffled personality cult that can’t reconcile the President’s policies with all that crap he fed them during the campaign.  They’ll make all necessary allowances for him, of course, but we shouldn’t let them get away with pretending they weren’t shrill critics of far less intrusive security policies under Obama’s predecessor.  Lately Obama has been making noises about how he welcomes the opportunity to have a “national conversation” about privacy and security.  That’s offensive, cowardly nonsense.  He could, and should, have initiated that conversation on his own, a long time ago.

Part of that conversation is the tension between individual right to privacy, the citizen’s desire for government transparency, and the government’s need to keep some secrets.  All three are valid concerns.  We don’t expect to pop up without warning on the government’s anti-terror radar screen, as the communications data for countless millions of Americans are analyzed.  We have some right to expect privacy, although I believe the understandable desire for anonymity is incompatible with Obama-style super-government.  The Mommy State must know what all her child-citizens are doing, in order to manage their lives.

And yes, even the most transparent government must keep some secrets.  To cite one example, we really wouldn’t want the authorities divulging information that would scuttle a criminal trial, or make hot pursuit of criminal suspects impossible.  We simply cannot compete in the global espionage theater, against anyone from terrorists to “legit” geo-political adversaries, if America’s intelligence operations are rendered dangerously transparent, but everyone else gets to remain opaque.

One of the latest additions to the Administration’s scandal cloud is the revelation that Medicare program changes were passed around to hundreds of government employees, who may have leaked the info to well-connected private-sector contacts, in the manner of an “insider trading” case.  Some information held by the government must be kept tightly under wraps, at least for a little while.

But when the imbalance between government’s surveillance of us, and its refusal to answer our questions, becomes too great, we are correct to feel that the situation has grown out of control.  President Obama was not categorically incorrect to say that we must place some degree of trust in the government.  That would be true even under the smallest government of the brightest libertarian dreams.  But Obama has proven his government cannot be trusted, and really no Administration can reasonably expect the degree of faith that his model of government demands.