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Classifying Boondoggles

In 2008, when congressional Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program or “TARP,” government officials said the minor details or potential flaws of the legislation weren’t as important as the overall necessity of fixing the financial crisis. In 2010, when some in Congress pushed for an audit of the Federal Reserve, suggesting it might be culpable in the financial crisis–even citing the Fed’s inability to account for $9 trillion in off-sheet balances–government officials said the minor details or potential flaws of the Fed were less important than maintaining its secrecy.

Despite the many examples of fraud and abuse that would occur through TARP, this year its champions declared a victory of sorts, saying that the legislation had saved the economy and that the bailed-out banks had mostly repaid their loans, driving taxpayers’ loss down to only about $25 billion. Yet, CNN reported this month: “The Federal Reserve made $9 trillion in overnight loans to major banks and Wall Street firms during the financial crisis… The amount of cash being pumped out to the financial giants was not previously disclosed.”

One need not be an economist to figure out that a secret $9 trillion loan to corporate America is no minor detail, and it seriously calls into question the political establishment’s TARP narrative. One also need not be an economist to understand why government officials would want to keep backroom deals of this magnitude shrouded in secrecy.

Whether the flaws of TARP, the Fed’s murky policies, or even unpopular legislation like Obamacare-with its hidden mandates, costs, taxes, fines and regulations-the questionable details of government action are often buried in mountains of paperwork or revealed in off-the-record brokering (remember 2009′s “Cornhusker kickback” during the healthcare debate?). Would Americans have been better off not knowing this information? Should these not-so-minor details have remained secret? For our protection and security?

It’s hard to imagine many Americans believing this. Yet, this is largely the logic behind the attacks on Wikileaks.

Like foreign policy, there is, no doubt, a certain degree of secrecy required in domestic government policy. The question remains–where does one draw the line between reasonable government secrecy and clandestine corruption? For example, do we need to know every intimate detail of a White House conversation between President Obama and Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell concerning particular legislation? Probably not. Do we need to know the significant details of that legislation, both major and minor, how they might affect us, and if our domestic policy reflects citizens’ interest and not special interests? Absolutely.

Likewise, do we need to know every intimate detail concerning our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military action in Pakistan or Yemen, or a possible war with Iran? Not to the extent that it legitimately makes it difficult or dangerous for our military to conduct its operations. But do we need to know the important details regarding the very justification or presumed reason for these military operations, both major and minor, and whether or not our foreign policy actually reflects America’s national interest, not special interests and certainly not merely the interests of other nations?

If they could get away with it, one could easily imagine politicians saying that keeping secret which banks received TARP funds was vital to protecting our financial security. Actually we don’t have to imagine it-the Fed did just that with $9 trillion in secret loans. If she could get away with it, it’s not hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi declaring during the healthcare debate that many of the details in Obamacare should remain secret because releasing them might bog down or impede the legislation’s passage, even saying that such secrecy was necessary because “lives were at stake.”

Concerning the attacks on Wikileaks, former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg told the BBC: “The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake. Actually, lives are at stake as a result of the silences and lies which a lot of these leaks reveal…”

Ellsberg should know. His 1971 release of The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret government document concerning the conflict in Vietnam, helped turn public opinion against the war. In 1996, The New York Times said that Ellsberg’s release “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”

In 1971, government officials said The Pentagon Papers put American lives at risk, that releasing such classified documents was a threat to our national security, and yet today, there is a general consensus that Ellsberg’s controversial actions were necessary, important and justified. Ellsberg told the BBC of the charges now made against Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange: “The same charges were made against the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid.”

What truly puts lives at stake: a foreign policy so shrouded in secrecy that wars are started based on flawed intelligence, disinformation or lies? Or reasonable public access to such information, particularly when knowing the details might prevent war? In retrospect, most Americans would not have supported the Vietnam War. Did Ellsberg put lives at risk with his disclosure-or save them? In retrospect, most Americans would not have supported the Iraq War. Could an organization such as Wikileaks, operating in 2001 and 2002, have saved countless lives by uncovering the flawed intelligence and deception, which led to that war? Might Wikileaks be saving lives today by doing the same concerning America’s ongoing, seemingly permanent occupations in the Middle East?

A wholesale condemnation of Wikileaks is to concede that the federal government should remain the sole arbiter of what should or should not remain secret concerning foreign policy; a power virtually no one would consider giving these same leaders domestically. It has been said in the past that politics stops at water’s edge. But for an America involved in two ongoing wars, troops stationed in 170 countries and 750 bases around the world, and an increasing proclivity to wage pre-emptive war, an abnormal foreign policy has now resulted in an abnormal politics. For decades, America’s “water’s edge” has no longer meant simply the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and this explosion of big government abroad has not-so-coincidentally coincided with an explosion in classified documents.

Government should not be given carte blanche on any policy–foreign or domestic.

Wikileaks’ purpose is to prove it.

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The Conservative Case for WikiLeaks

Lovers necessarily keep or share secrets. Being in a healthy relationship means achieving a certain level of intimacy, where shared knowledge of each others’ weaknesses and insecurities is protected by a bond of mutual trust. Sometimes lovers might do devilish things that outsiders wouldn’t understand, or shouldn’t be privy to, and this is fine. But by and large, what they do is simply no one else’s business.

But imagine that the man in the relationship kept it a secret that he had other women on the side, kids, a criminal record, venereal disease, and basically betrayed his lover in every way imaginable, unbeknownst to her?

Now imagine a third party felt it was their moral duty to reveal it?

No one questions that governments must maintain a certain level of secrecy, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told Time that “Secrecy is important for many things … [but it] shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses.” The entire premise of Assange’s whistleblower organization is this: To what degree is government secrecy justified? And when particular secrets could be damaging to the other partner in the United States government’s relationship — the American people — should these secrets be revealed in the name of protecting the public?

How often does our government use “national security” simply as an excuse to cover up questionable dealings? Reports Time: “in the past few years, governments have designated so much information secret that you wonder whether they intend the time of day to be classified. The number of new secrets designated as such by the U.S. government has risen 75% … . At the same time, the number of documents and other communications created using those secrets has skyrocketed nearly 10 times…”

To say that government must keep secrets is not to say that all government secrets must be kept.

As admitted even by Pentagon officials and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, none of WikiLeaks’ revelations do anything to compromise national security or endanger American lives — but they have wreaked havoc on political life in Washington, D.C. Americans are not supposed to know, for example, that their government bullied and threatened individuals and other governments that might have undermined the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009. The federal government attempting to squelch anyone who might undermine global-warming dogma? Do WikiLeaks’ conservative critics believe revealing this is a “national security” risk?

Americans are not supposed to know, apparently, that behind the scenes Saudi Arabia has been encouraging the U.S. to take military action against Iran. But if we end up going to war with Iran shouldn’t it be in America’s national interest, and not simply as a subcontractor for another country? Asks Fox News’ Judith Miller: “Why should Americans not know that Arab states, often at the top level, have been urging Washington to take military or other drastic action against Iran, while they publicly oppose such action?”

And when did conservatives become so protective of Hillary Clinton? What happened to the days of the “Stop Hillary Express,” when right-wing talk radio portrayed the former first lady as Satan and theorized about all the devious ways in which, if in power, she might conspire to bring down the country? When WikiLeaks revealed that Secretary of State Clinton tried to obtain DNA, fingerprints, credit-card numbers, and other private information belonging to United Nations officials, we learned that Clinton’s style was every bit as mafia-esque as her conservative critics once warned. Yet conservatives now attack WikiLeaks for revealing what they once feared. It should also be remembered that the same conservatives now calling for Assange’s head either ignored or were sympathetic to Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame allegedly at the Bush administration’s behest — a revelation arguably far riskier to our national security than anything ever released by WikiLeaks.

But the worst hypocrisy throughout this controversy has been in conservatives reflexively defending the government and attacking WikiLeaks. Since when have conservatives believed that Washington should be able to shroud any action it likes in secrecy and that revealing government’s nefarious deeds is tantamount to treason? Isn’t it government officials who might secretly work for corporate, ideological or transnational interests — and against the national interest — who are betraying their country?

Interestingly, Wikileaks’ founder espouses the traditionally conservative, Jeffersonian view that America’s constitutional structure limits and lessens government corruption. Reported Time: “Assange appears to believe that the U.S. has not become ‘a much-worse-behaved superpower’ because its federalism, ‘this strength of the states,’ has been a drag on the combination of the burgeoning power of the central government and a presidency that can expand its influence only by way of foreign affairs.”

Decentralizing government power, limiting it, and challenging it was the Founders’ intent and these have always been core conservative principles. Conservatives should prefer an explosion of whistleblower groups like WikiLeaks to a federal government powerful enough to take them down. Government officials who now attack WikLleaks don’t fear national endangerment, they fear personal embarrassment. And while scores of conservatives have long promised to undermine or challenge the current monstrosity in Washington, D.C., it is now an organization not recognizably conservative that best undermines the political establishment and challenges its very foundations.

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Catch Jack in the New TAC

Jack’s TAC TV podcasts will resume within a week. In the meantime, catch his first-hand report on the Rand Paul campaign in the January issue of The American Conservative, on sale now. Wondering about Rand’s meeting with Bill Kristol? Jack reveals what that was all about — and much more.

Be sure not to miss an issue of TAC by subscribing. The magazine makes a great Christmas gift as well.

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