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Common Sense

To Tell the Truth

Maybe the government would earn more of our trust if it leveled with us more and invaded our privacy less.

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Damage control: Hillary Clinton talks to the media after the latest WikiLeaks disclosures.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Judging by the press accounts, Washington is still buzzing over WikiLeaks’ release of classified U.S. government information, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing outrage over the disclosures. Meanwhile, many media outlets seem to be practically mute on the subject, avoiding comment on whether WikiLeaks provided a public service or disservice.

Let me offer one man’s perspective on the controversy, from an apartment in Austin, Texas.

 

As I was sitting with my three grown sons over the post-Thanksgiving weekend watching football at their place (where they have lived together for nearly a year without a major fight, the place burning down, or the police showing up), my oldest son, who served in the Army for five years and was deployed in Iraq for nearly a year and half, turned to me and asked, “When as a country did we become a place where the government gets upset when its secrets are revealed but has no problem knowing all our secrets and invading our privacy?”

Hmm, interesting question.

In Washington’s polarized political environment, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on a few things: That the government, in the name of fighting terrorism, has the right to listen in on all of our phone conversations and read our e-mails, even if it has no compelling reason for doing so. That the government can use machines at the airport that basically conduct the equivalent of strip searches of every passenger. That the government, for as long as it wants, can withhold any information from the public that it decides is in the national interest and is classified. And that when someone reveals this information, they are reviled on all sides, with the press corps staying silent.

 
When did we decide that revealing the truth about the government is wrong?

I recall during the Clinton administration when Republicans expressed outrage over a White House health care task force holding “secret” meetings and not releasing the names of attendees or the topics of discussion. And then not many years later, Democrats expressing similar outrage at the Bush administration’s secrecy when it held private meetings related to energy policy. Now both sides have gotten together to attack WikiLeaks over the opposite situation: They are criticizing the Internet watchdog for openly releasing information related to how our government conducts foreign policy.

Everyone in Washington claims to support transparency and government openness during campaign season and when it’s popular to do so. They castigate the other side when it does things in secret and suggest that its intentions must be nefarious if it is unwilling to make its deliberations public. But when an organization discloses how our foreign policy is conducted, some of these same people claim that the release will endanger lives or threaten national security, or that the founder of WikiLeaks is a criminal.

When did we decide that we trust the government more than its citizens? And that revealing the truth about the government is wrong? And why is the media complicit in this? Did we not learn anything from the run-up to the Iraq war when no one asked hard questions about the justifications for the war and when we accepted statements from government officials without proper pushback?

 

My own sense is that we should err on the side of telling the truth, even when it’s inconvenient or when it makes our lives—or the business of government—more complicated. And that people who tell the truth should at the very least not be denigrated. That’s something I learned when I was young, and that I tried to impart to my three boys when they were growing up. As Albert Einstein is reported to have said long ago, “The search for truth implies a duty. One must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”

And shouldn’t news organizations be defending WikiLeaks and doing some soul-searching of their own about why  they aren’t devoting more resources to the search for the truth? Why is it that the National Enquirer and Internet blogs sometimes seem better than they are at finding out what’s really going on?

When we’re mired in a political environment where much of the public distrusts the federal government and despises both parties, maybe we should all reflect on what a former soldier, who put himself in harm’s way defending freedom, our way of life, and the Constitution—including the First Amendment—asked me in a living room in Austin during a football game.

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If we want to restore trust in our government, maybe we can start by telling the truth, keeping fewer secrets, and respecting the privacy of average citizens a little more. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please; you can never have both.”

This article appears in the December 4, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

DON'T MISS TODAY'S TOP STORIES

Chock full of usable information on today's issues."

Michael, Executive Director

Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."

Chuck, Graduate Student

The day's action in one quick read."

Stacy , Director of Communications

Great way to keep up with Washington"

Ray, Professor of Economics

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