Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)

2. Nothing Stays Secret

Dana Priest,
Investigative reporter,
The Washington Post, and author of the forthcoming book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

The death of secrecy isn’t quite upon us, but we’ve seen ample evidence this past year to suggest that it’s probably fast approaching. As they have for the past few years, journalists unearthed an array of classified government subplots that had been designed to remain hidden from public view (topics covered included Afghan financial scandals, the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan, a national-security buildup in the U.S., etc.).

Of course, then along came WikiLeaks and its torrent of revelations. From the Web site of the shadowy Julian Assange sprang everything from Iraq War logs, to profiles of Guantánamo Bay prisoners, to the infamous cables sent from the American Embassy in Tunisia confirming widespread government corruption—once-secret missives credited with helping to spark revolution, which then spread from Tunis across the Middle East. Washington, for its part, condemned, then investigated, and now may try to haul to prison Assange and his cohorts—a response that proves how little our government understands the technological and social revolution happening all around it.

That’s not to say Washington isn’t itself ambling toward transparency. In the days after the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout, the Obama administration began handing out dozens of details about the daring mission. Notably, these included the name of the original source of the crucial intel, the disputed methods used in getting him to talk, and the nickname of the courier who guided the CIA to bin Laden. Just about everything that was used to take bin Laden down—telephone intercepts, then Black Hawk helicopters, then a pair of bullets to the head and chest—was laid bare.

The truth is, sources and methods like these are often the only true secrets in the vast and growing sea of classified non-secrets. The White House’s motives, of course, were easy to understand: President Obama wanted to show that his risk-taking had paid off—and who can blame him? All the same, Washington did want to keep some things under wraps. Pakistani intelligence officials, displeased by the covert American raid, outed the CIA station chief in Islamabad. This incident followed tensions earlier this year, when the Pakistani government called for a complete list of CIA employees and contractors in the country, and demanded to know even more. “We need to know who is in Pakistan doing what, and that the CIA won’t go behind our back,” one official insisted in anonymity to The Washington Post. Don’t be surprised if WikiLeaks or journalists manage to provide those answers soon. Forcing the U.S. government to give up its addiction to secrecy in foreign affairs might be a good thing in the long term, although painful in the short term. After all, international relations based on secret-keeping—like relations between people who have something to hide—are inherently fragile.

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