Editorial: March 2011
In 2010, the year of the leak, a British company leaked some 750 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months. There were slimy oil balls washing up on most US shores. In July, WikiLeaks published some 92,000 U.S. military documents that shocked the world with the information that the war in Afghanistan was not going too well. In November, WikiLeaks published 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 US Embassies showing how US diplomats felt about every world leader. This was the largest unauthorised release of contemporary classified information in history. It contained thousands of documents marked secret; the release of any one of them, by the US government's definition, would cause "serious damage to national security." The leak forced a clampdown on intelligence sharing between agencies and new measures to control electronically stored secrets.
We had our share of leaks in the Adarsh Society, Commonwealth Games and Niira Radia tapes involving politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and lobbyists. The country is witnessing the ugly subversion of fair processes across several sectors. It is of a scale never heard of before. Longstanding reputations in the media have crashed. A serious breach of journalistic ethics, including truthfulness, authenticity, independence of judgment, and assessment of long-term public consequences, is involved. Big business houses and lobbyists with enormous resources are in the fray. The cosy relationship of journalists with political leaders and corporate bosses raises troubling questions. This has caused loss of credibility of the media. Need for a comprehensive code of conduct for journalists is acutely felt. A self-imposed code is the most effective, if only it is practised.
WikiLeaks was established by Julian Assange to become a secret-busting, whistle-blowing website involved in exposing the dark side of governments, ruffling the world's powerful and rich. When Assange unveiled WikiLeaks in December 2006, the idea was to serve as a drop box for anyone, anywhere, who disagreed with any organisation's activities or secrets, wherever they might be. It has succeeded in exposing the doublespeak of leaders. Assange's belief in the virtues of radical transparency has turned the diplomatic world upside down. He has shown that state secrets are harder to protect now than ever before.
WikiLeaks team says that what is made public is only the tip of the iceberg. According to them, a heavily encrypted file containing damaging material is awaiting release. Washington deployed its formidable power to prevent WikiLeaks from releasing cables that American embassies worldwide had sent to their headquarters. Unable to stem the release of the cables, efforts were made to at least temporarily incarcerate Assange. The US called him a hi-tech terrorist. He is now under house arrest. The effort seems to be to shoot the messenger.
The need for a certain degree of confidentiality and secrecy in government affairs is recognised. We have the Official Secrets Act for this purpose. But democracy demands transparency and openness, a condition that is necessary for people to repose faith in those commanding authority. Nothing is a better deterrent to all the bad practices of democratic politics than public exposure. But secrecy is often used to hide corruption and inefficiency of the system. Secrecy is strength, they think. Public interest should outweigh privacy concerns. It is time we also have Oaths of Transparency and Accountability.
The evolution of the Internet as well as rapid data storage and retrieval has made it possible to find and share information on an unimaginable scale. Assange says, "Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep governments honest." This caused governments to ask what is really secret and to assess how their behaviour should change in an age when supposedly private communications can be whizzed around the world at the stroke of a key.
Nowadays, the governments are calling more things secret when they are really not. For example, the number of new secrets, designated as such by the US government, has risen 75%, from 105,163 in 1996 to 183,224 in 2009. The number of documents created using those secrets has increased nearly 10 times, from 5,685,462 in 1996 to 54,651,765 in 2009. The number of people with access to this secret information has also grown. The Pentagon alone gave clearances to 630,000 people in 2008. As more individuals handle more secrets in more places around the world, it becomes harder to keep track of them. It also diminishes the credibility of the government's judgment about what should be secret. "When everything is classified, nothing is classified." The system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those who are interested in self-protection or self-promotion! It is necessary to review the criteria for classification of documents.
The Commission investigating the terrorist attacks of 9/11 found that "poor information sharing was the single greatest failure of the government in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks." In the aftermath of 9/11, intelligence sharing became an imperative. "Because almost everything was declared secret, not everything remained secret and there were no sanctions for disclosure."
A personal experience may throw some light on how the system operates. An accident took place on March 28, 1979 in the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, USA. Daily detailed updates of the events taking place at the reactor were sent by telex by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to me, as the person dealing with such matters in the country. This information was copied to all the concerned senior officials in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The Government also constituted a Committee to study the accident in detail and recommend measures to be incorporated in our reactors to prevent recurrence of such accidents. NRC used to give a brief summary of the events at TMI as news releases to the Press daily. A few months later, my office started receiving envelopes marked 'Secret' from different Indian Embassies. The envelopes contained only newspaper cuttings regarding the TMI accident. The Embassies sent them to the Ministry of External Affairs by diplomatic bag; they were routed to the DAE and then to me. Of course, it took some months for this 'Secret' to reach the concerned person!
Are these events of concern to the common man? Fairness, transparency and accountability are what the common man expects. It is necessary to find a balance between keeping secret what should be kept secret, making transparent what should be transparent and doing it all such that effective governance is augmented. This is particularly so in churches and Christian organisations. Members of these organisations are not privy to the registration documents and the regular goings on. They are kept ignorant of the way these organisations are administered; they are instructed, ‘we pray, you pay.’ Members have the right to know the truth. Secrecy does not rhyme with the sacred.
The Word of God says, "The secret things belong to the Lord, our God: but those which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law" (Deut.29:29). Certain matters of eternal significance belong to God alone, while others are revealed to men. The law was given during the Old Testament days for the obedience of man, and if the kingdom is sought in this way, everything else needful will be added. But man could not obey the requirements of the law. God has now given us the Holy Spirit to help us meet the requirements of the law.
Recognising the limitations of the people, and their inability to understand all the ways of God, He enunciated this great principle of life. It is of far reaching application and of perpetual importance. To the mind of man, in all life, there are secret things which cannot be explained. These things are not veiled to God; He knows them. There are many things revealed to man. If man will obey them, he will be brought into right relation with the secret things, progressively apprehending them. Man finds his way into strength by practising this law of life. Life in its wholeness begins with the fear of God, and brings that fear to bear upon all the other facts, by walking in His commandments. When man finds God, he also finds the joy and fullness of life in every aspect. To him, life becomes a song and gladness; it becomes full and glorious.
Jesus warned His disciples against doing righteous acts to be seen of men. He applied that warning in the matters of alms, prayer and fasting (Matt.6). For divine approval, we should remember that God sees in secret (Matt.6:4). He looks at the attitude of the heart. Jesus admonished His followers not to trumpet their works of charity. One test of a man's consecration is whether he is willing to do something for God, regardless of who gets the credit. Nothing can be hidden from the eyes of eternal purity. He knows why we give, pray or fast. Unless we are ever conscious of the watching eyes of God, we deceive ourselves. The Pharisees loved to advertise their giving (Mk.12:38-40). How people today love to tell others how much they have given! If this is their motive for giving, then they have received their reward-the praise of people. But they will have no reward from the heavenly Father. We cannot deceive Him. "God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or bad" (Eccl.12:13). "All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4:13). Don’t be deceived.
What David did in secret is recorded in the Word of God. To those who do not read the Bible, the story was told by Hollywood. What he thought was a palace secret is now exposed to the whole world. God told him, "You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel" (2Sam.12:12). Jesus said, "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs" (Lk.12:2-3). "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num.32:23). How careful we ought to be!
It is always a matter of great consolation to know that God has promised, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5). But we should not lose sight of the fact that His constant company results in His awareness of all our actions.
It is good to know that He sees in secret, and understands when men misunderstand. This great confidence has enabled men and women over the centuries to endure terrible suffering with courage and cheerfulness. The certainty that our Father sees in secret is a sanctuary to which we can retire at all times, for correction, encouragement and comfort. This knowledge will help us to be careful, and provide inspiration and strength to our lives, under all circumstances. May God give us all the ability to distinguish between the two, and to be transparent and accountable always.