Is the Era of Government Secrets Over?

In our "Question of the Day" feature for this year's Ideas Special Report, our readers tackle some of the emerging issues that are defining our time.

The Ideas Report For governments, journalists, and activists around the world, 2011 may very well be the Year of Wikileaks. Since Julian Assange and his merry band of whistleblowers released a trove of documents from American intelligence agencies earlier this year, the impenetrable curtain of government secrecy that came with U.S. government's post-9/11 battle against terrorism seems significantly less impermeable than in years past. "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," writes Washington Post reporter Dana Priest in our July/August issue:

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.

With the emergence of non-state agents dedicated to government transparency -- from the disciplined Wikileaks to anarchic hackers of groups like Anonymous -- the capability of states to maintain veils of strategic opacity has become greatly weakened. But at what cost? "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," writes Priest. "After all, international relations based on secret-keeping--like relations between people who have something to hide--are inherently fragile."

Question of the Day: Do you think government institutions trending towards increased transparency? And is this necessarily a good thing?

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