“The revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.” Franz Kafka [Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch, 1971]

Asking the government to be less bureaucratic is like asking a fish to be less wet. Yet, with the Obama administration’s 2009 promises to be more transparent (that is, less secretive) in its operations than its predecessors, many Americans believed that big changes were afoot. As the controversy over disclosures made through WikiLeaks has taught us, however, the nature of government — no matter who’s at the helm — appears to be conducive to obfuscation and red tape as a way to excuse and, perhaps, support its own inadequacies. The concept of an open government seems to ring true to the core of America’s foundation, but the reality is far removed from any practical enforcement of information not vitally essential to national security being as free as it could — and should — be.

Open Government and Other Myths of the Information Age
Photo by freeflyer09

In his article WikiLeaks and the Urge to Classify [The Net Effect, Index on Censorship, March 2011], The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s David Sobel points out that a political environment failing to be open sets itself up for others to force transparency by revealing classified information to the public — often by illegal means. Sobel writes: “There is no question that the security classification system is (to put it charitably) badly broken and that a vast amount of important, but innocuous, information is improperly withheld.” He goes on to say that “overuse of the ‘secret’ stamp can be counter-productive and actually weaken the protection of truly confidential information.” In other words, overvaluing mundane information and painting it with the brush of top secrecy is as good as crying “wolf!” to the masses. And while many of the masses will be placated by this smothering deluge of data with a vague notion that the government’s doing “what it must” to keep our country safe, some among them will take the challenge to rummage through this jungle of so-called top secrets and find out what really qualifies. In the ensuing search, it’s not hard to see how matters of true security come to light and become exposed; the so-called open government finds itself in a difficult position as it strives to rebox Pandora’s secrets in a way that doesn’t betray its obvious lack of transparency.

The Obama administration’s pledge to be more transparent is betrayed even further when different departments of this same government say one thing and then do another very contradictory thing. In a crowded room, you could spot the poor administration spokesperson whose job it would be to explain such foibles by the impressive size of his or her backpedaling muscles — except that official policy seems to be downplaying these kinds of events as if they never happened, so explanations are rarely forthcoming. A truly open government would seek a system of disclosure and feedback from its constituents instead of duplicitously trying to create an Internet kill switch while wagging a scolding finger at other governments for similarly repressive (but more successful) ambitions. In The Net Effect, Evgeny Morozov sums it up nicely: “When some representatives of the US government seek to remake the Internet to make it easier to spy on its users, while others complain about similar impulses in China or Iran, this makes the US government look extremely hypocritical.”