Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Why there should be no complete declassification

What many people don't realise is that even the most prominent of liberal theorists did not advocate for complete declassification or full transparency of government documents. Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham recognise that democracies had reson to keep security-relevant secrets from public even though transparency and publicity were the foundational principles of a functioning democracy. The capacity for secrecy by states is something activists or historians often try to skim over, because it makes their work more difficult.

Why is there is need for some state secrecy? The case of Snowden leaks is a prime example of how things can go very wrong when information is not properly declassified before it is released to the public. While I do not deny the good of declassification, releasing information lock stock and barrel can potentially harm those who have helped state agencies keep peace and order. It can also prove to be very embarrassing and contentious for bilateral state relations when frank analysis is taken in bad faith. Other times, especially in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore, unadulterated declassification can result in the opening of old wounds along primordial lines. 

Hence, while historians and activists call for declassification, and I agree there should be more, we should remember that the USA often declassify their information but with plenty of censorship, so much so that some do not make sense at all. Similarly, the Brits do not release all their documents under the Freedom of Information Act; they have a variety of exemptions including those that will prejudice defence, security forces, international relations, economic interests, law enforcement, safety of individual etc.

Last, but not least, we should be more concern with how we approach new sources of evidence. Is one so eager to re-write history and seek out the contrarian? Is one writing to further a current and present agenda? After all, we shall find what we seek.

No comments:

Post a Comment