Government transparency, the idea that government should be open about what it is doing with its citizens, has been around since the enlightenment when parliaments began to be more powerful than kings. We usually consider that governmental transparency is a part of good governance in a democracy. This is in part because we consider information to be a public good. Every citizen should have the ability to find out what their government is doing on their behalf. In theory this really should apply to everything the government does; from transparency in what the government does with rubbish, through how elections are fought and lobbying processes, right up to military. Clearly it would be unreasonable if national security were to be excluded where all the rest of government has to be more transparent.
Unfortunately there have always been snags when it comes to national security and transparency. Being transparent means letting everyone know about something, it is then clearly impossible to restrict knowledge simply to the citizens of one particular nation, so transparency means transparency with everyone else’s citizens too. In areas like rubbish collection this does not matter, but in national security it does. As a result the state often claims ‘national security’ as a reason for why something has to remain secret. This means that while the rest of government has been opening up as a result of freedom of information laws these laws tend to exempt information that “is required for the purpose of safeguarding national security” or if disclosure would prejudice defence or “the capability, effectiveness or security of any relevant forces.”
Yet it is becoming more difficult to keep secrets, to the point that it has been suggested that there will be no more secrets within 15 years. The internet changes this relationship fundamentally. It provides immense communication and data advantages that security services can take advantage of. But at the same time it means that others are likely to be able to obtain information the government wants to keep secret. Not engaging in transparency might therefore simply limit access to those who don’t have the knowledge and capabilities to engage in the hacking necessary to gain access to it. The internet has also changed the realm of whistleblowing. WikiLeaks has shown that information that the government considered to be part of its security interest can, and will, be leaked and often much of what is being considered secret cannot be justified on national security grounds.
This will not stop the state trying. Conflict in particular breeds secrecy and the latest conflict western democracies are involved in, the war on terrorism, is no different. There being some kind of enemy is exactly what the government needs to justify secrecy. The question then that this debate explores is how justified it is to not be transparent in the realm of security.
The most essential commodity within a state is trust. Trust is essential in all sorts of aspect of our lives; we trust that the paper money we have is actually worth more than a scrap of paper, that doctors performing surgery know what they are doing, that we won't be attacked in the street, and that the government is looking after our interests. In order to create that trust there needs to be transparency so that we know that our institutions are trustworthy. It is the ability to check the facts and the accountability that comes with transparency that creates trust. And this in turn is what makes them legitimate.
The need for trust applies just as much to security as any other walk of life. Citizens need to trust that the security services really are keeping them safe, are spending taxpayers’ money wisely, and are acting in a fashion that is a credit to the country. Unfortunately if there is not transparency there is no way of knowing if this is the case and so often the intelligence services have turned out to be an embarrassment. As has been the case with the CIA and it’s the use of torture following 9/11, for which there are still calls for transparency on past actions.
Trust goes two ways; the people have to trust that on some issues, such as security, the government is doing the right thing to protect them even when it cannot release all relevant information. But even if the military and security services do claim to be completely transparent then how is everyone to know that it really is being as transparent as they say? Unfortunately there are information asymmetry’s between members of the public and the government; the member of the public is unlikely to have the capability to find out if the government if hiding something from them. Other countries too are likely to be suspicious of ‘complete transparency’ and simply believe that this is cover for doing something more nefarious. Trust then cannot only about being transparent in everything.
The nation exits for its citizens; it depends on their consent to maintain order and to raise finances. The main purpose of the state is law and order, and national defence, both of which are covered by security. As an area that is so central to the role of the government it is vital that the stakeholders in that government, its citizens, know what it is the state is doing in their name for their security.
The Obama administration for example refuses to acknowledge that it is carrying out a campaign using drones while at the same time saying it is “the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.” If the US government is bombing another country then the US people have a right to know with much less ambiguity what exactly is being done, who is being hit, when and where. They also need to be informed of any possible consequences.
Being a citizen does not come with a right to know everything that the state does. In much the same way being a shareholder does not mean you get to know absolutely everything every person in a business does. Instead you get the headlines and a summary, most of the time the how the business goes about getting the results is left to the management. Ultimately the state’s purpose is to protect its citizens and this comes before letting them know everything about how that is done.
Transparency is necessary in international relations. States need to know what each other are doing to assess their actions. Without any transparency the hole is filled by suspicion and threat inflation that can easily lead to miscalculation and even war.
The Cuban missile crisis is a clear example where a lack of transparency on either side about what they were willing to accept and what they were doing almost lead to nuclear war. It is notable that one of the responses to prevent a similar crisis was to install a hotline between the White House and Kremlin. A very small, but vital, step in terms of openness.
Today this is still a problem; China currently worries about the US ‘pivot’ towards Asia complaining it “has aroused a great deal of suspicion in China.” “A huge deficit of strategic trust lies at the bottom of all problems between China and the United States.” The result would be an inevitable arms race and possible conflict.
Transparency in situations of international tension is tricky; with complete transparency how do you engage in bluffing? The state that is completely transparent is tying one hand behind its back in international negotiations.
It is also wrong to assume that transparency will always reduce tensions. Sometimes two countries just have completely incompatible interests. In such instances complete transparency is simply going to set them on a collision course. It is then much better for there to be a bit less transparency so that both sides can fudge the issue and sign up to an agreement while interpreting it in different ways.
Transparency is fundamental in making sure that mistakes don’t happen, or when they do that they are found and corrected quickly with appropriate accountability. This applies as much, if not more, to the security apparatus than other walks of life. In security mistakes are much more likely to be a matter of life and death than in most other walks of life. They are also likely to be costly; something the military and national security apparatus is particularly known for. An audit of the Pentagon in 2011 found that the US Department of Defense wasted $70 billion over two years. This kind of waste can only be corrected if it is found out about, and for that transparency is necessary.
Transparency may mean that mistakes or problems are found faster, but it does not mean they are going to be corrected faster. Waste in the defense budget has been known about for years yet it still keeps coming up. Transparency shines a light on the problem but that is not helpful if it does not result in action to solve the problem.
Transparency is necessary to avoid public relations disasters; particularly in countries where the media has some freedom to investigate for themselves. It is clearly the best policy for the military to make sure all the information is released along with the reasons behind actions rather than having the media finding individual pieces of a whole and speculating to fill the gaps.
A good example would be a collision on 16th January 1966 between a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker while attempting to refuel that destroyed both planes. Accidents happen, and this one cost 11 lives, but could have been much worse as the B-52 had four nuclear bombs on board were not armed and did not detonate. In this case an initial lack of information rapidly turned into a public relations disaster that was stemmed by much more openness by the military and the US Ambassador in Spain. The release of the information reduces the room for the press to fill in the gaps with harmful speculation. In this case there was never much chance of national security implications or a break with Spain as the country was ruled by the dictator Franco, someone who would hardly pay attention to public opinion. But in a democracy a slow and closed response could seriously damage relations.
This is clearly not always the case. Often transparency means that the public becomes aware when there is little need for them to know. There had been previous nuclear accidents that had caused no damage, and had not been noticed, such as in Goldsboro, N.C. in 1961. If there had been a media frenzy fuelled by released information there would clearly have been much more of a public relations disaster than there was with no one noticing. Since there’re was no harm done there is little reason why such a media circus should have been encouraged. And even without media attention the incident lead to increase safeguards.
While something is secret it is clearly not a normal every day part of government, it is deniable and the assumption is that when it comes to light it has probably been wound up long ago. However making something transparent without winding it up can be a bad thing as it makes it normal which ultimately makes a bad policy much harder to end.
The use of drones by the CIA may turn out to be an example of this. At the moment we are told almost nothing about drones, not even how many strikes there are or how many are killed. There have however been recent suggestions that the drone program could be transferred to the Department of Defence. This would then make the targeted killing that is carried out seem a normal part of military conflict, somehting it clearly is not. And the public reacts differently to covert and military action; already more Americans support military drones doing targeted killing (75%) than CIA ones (65%).
Drones are an unusual example (though not unique) because they are a new form of warfare over which there are few clear rules and norms. This means that making it transparent will create new norms. However in the vast majority of covert operations if made public they would clearly be illegal and would have to be ended. Drones are also unusual in that the public sees few downsides to the killing, this means there would be less public pressure than in most such operations.
Where there is international competition transparency can be a problem if there is not transparency on both sides as one side is essentially giving its opponent an advantage. This is ultimately why countries keep national security secrets; they are in competition with other nations and the best way to ensure an advantage over those states is to keep capabilities secret. One side having information while the other does not allows the actor that has the information to act differently in response to that knowledge. Keeping things secret can therefore provide an advantage when making a decision, as the one with most information is most likely to react best. Currently there is information asymmetry between the United States and China to the point where some analysts consider that the United States provides more authoritative information on China’s military than China itself does.
Transparency clearly does not have to extend to things like technical specifications of weapons. Such information would be a clear benefit to a competitor allowing them to build their own while being of little help in terms of transparency as most people could not understand it. On the other hand knowing what a weapons system does simply prevents misunderstanding and misjudgement.
The role of the security services is in part to deal with some very dangerous ideas and events. But the point is to deal with them in such a way that does not cause public disorder or even panic. We clearly don’t want every report detailing specific threats to be made public, especially if it is reporting something that could be devastating but there is a low risk of it actually occurring. If such information is taken the wrong way it can potentially cause panic, either over nothing, or else in such a way that it damages any possible response to the crisis. Unfortunately the media and the public often misunderstand risk. For example preventing terrorism has been regularly cited in polls as being the Americans top foreign policy goal with more than 80% thinking it very important in Gallup polls for over a decade even when the chance of being killed by terrorism in Western countries is very low. If the public misunderstands the risk the response is unlikely to be proportionate and can be akin to yelling fire in a packed theatre.
While it is not (usually) a security, but rather a public health issue, pandemics make a good example. The question of how much information to release is only slightly different than in security; officials want to release enough information that everyone is informed, but not so much that there is panic whenever there is an unusual death. In 2009 the WHO declared swine flu to be a pandemic despite it being a relatively mild virus that did not cause many deaths, so causing an unnecessary scare and stockpiling of drugs.
The public is rational and can make its own assessment of risk. The best course in such cases is transparency and education. If all relevant information is released, along with analysis as to the risk presented by the threat, then the public can be best informed about what kind of threats they need to be prepared for. Terrorism has been blown out of proportion because they are single deadly incidents that are simple to report and have a good narrative to provide 24/7 coverage that the public will lap up. As a result there has been much more media coverage than other threats. It can then be no surprise that the public overestimate the threat posed by terrorism as the public are told what risks are relevant by the amount of media coverage.
 Singer, Eleanor, and Endreny, Phyllis Mildred, Reporting on Risk: How the Mass Media Portray Accidents, Diseases, Disasters and Other Hazards, Russell Sage Foundation, 1993
The idea that transparency is good assumes that the people watching the government be transparent are likely to provide a moderating influence on policy. This is not always the case. Instead transparency can lead to more conflict.
First a nationalist population may force the government into taking more action than it wants. One obvious way to quiet such sentiment is to show that the country is not ready for war; something that may not be possible if being transparent. Instead if it is transparent that the military could win then there is nothing to stop a march to war. It then becomes possible for multiple interest groups to form into coalitions each with differing reasons for conflict trading off with each other resulting in overstretch and conflict.
Secondly when there is a rapidly changing balance of power then transparency for the rising power may not be a good thing. Instead as Deng Xiaoping advised they should “Hide your strength, bide your time”. Showing in the open how your military is expanding may simply force action from the current dominant power. Transparency, combined with domestic media worrying about the other’s build up can make the other side seem more and more of a threat that must be dealt with before it can get any more powerful. It is quite a common international relations theory that one way or another relative power and the quest for hegemony is the cause for war, transparency simply encourages this. William C. Wohlforth points out when studying the cause of the First World War that it is perception of relative power that matters. Germany’s leaders believed it had to strike before it out of time as a result of Russia rapidly industrialising. Transparency unfortunately reduces the ability of the government to manage perception.
 Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire, Cornell University Press, 1991, p.17
Coalitions can form behind expansionist policies regardless of whether there is transparency. If there is no transparency then it is simply an invitation for these groups to overestimate the strength of their own state compared to their opponents. Where there is transparency the figures will at least be available to counter their arguments. It should not be surprising that interest groups do not have as much influence in creating expansionist policy in democracies.
Transparency showing when a state is to be eclipsed is a greater concern but a lack of transparency in such a case is just as bad. No transparency will simply encourage the fears of the state that is to be eclipsed that the rising state is hostile and not to be trusted.
 Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire, Cornell University Press, 1991, p.18
Transparency is all very well when it comes to how much is being spent on a new tank, aircraft, or generals houses, but it is very different when it comes to operations. Transparency in operations can endanger lives. With intelligence services transparency would risk the lives of informants; it is similar with the case of interpreters for US forces in Iraq who were targeted after they were told they could not wear masks because they are considered to be traitors.
In military operations being open about almost anything could be a benefit to the opposition. Most obviously things like the timing and numbers involved in operations need to be kept under wraps but all sorts of information could be damaging in one way or another. Simply because a state is not involved in a full scale war does not mean it can open up on these operations. This is why the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen in response to WikiLeaks said “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing… But the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”
Clearly transparency in real time might cause some problems allowing the disruption of ongoing operations. However most of the time information could be released very shortly afterwards rather than being considered secret for 25-30 years. A much shorter timeframe is needed if the transparency is to have any meaning or impact upon policy. In the case of WikiLeaks most of the information was already a couple of years old and WikiLeaks said it made sure that there was no information that could endanger lives released.
We should also remember that a lack of transparency can also endanger lives; this might be the case if it leads to purchases of equipment of shoddy equipment without the proper oversight to ensure everything works as it should. For example many countries purchased bomb detectors that are made out of novelty golf ball finders, just plastic, that do not work from a Briton looking to make a fast buck. It has for example been used to attempt to find car bombs in Iraq. A little transparency in testing and procurement could have gone a long way in protecting those who have to use the equipment.
AFP, ‘Iraq still using phony bomb detectors at checkpoints’, globalpost, 3 May 2013, http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130503/iraq-still-using-phony-bomb-detectors-at-checkpoints
Allison, Graham, and Blackwill, Robert D., ‘Will China Ever Be No.1?’, YakeGlobal, 20 February 2013, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/will-china-ever-be-no-1
Ankersmit, Laurens, ‘The Irony of the international relations exception in the transparency regulation’, European Law Blog, 20 March 2013, http://europeanlawblog.eu/?p=1625
Cheng, Maria, ‘WHO’s response to swine flu pandemic flawed’, Phys.org, 10 May 2011, http://phys.org/news/2011-03-response-swine-flu-pandemic-flawed.html
Engelhardt, Tom, ‘Casualties from Terrorism Are Minor Compared to Other Threats’, Gale Opposing Viewpoints, 2011, http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/ViewpointsDetailsPage/ViewpointsDetailsWindow?displayGroupName=Viewpoints&zid=8f44aeb1e99bdbd757584142fa0e3b0e&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CEJ3010741218&userGroupName=rpdemo&jsid=c9885c55906a1aac34a8bb21d7e6b3bc
Erickson, Andrew S., ‘Pentagon Report Reveals Chinese Military Developments’, The Diplomat, 8 May 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/08/back-on-track-pentagon-report-reveals-chinese-military-development Freedom of Information Act 2000, 2000 Chapter 36, legislation.gov.uk, 30 November 2000, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36
Frohwein, Ashley, ‘Embassy Moscow: A Diplomatic Perspective of the Cuban Missile Crisis’, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, 7 May 2013, https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/globalsecuritystudiesreview/2013/05/07/embassy-moscow-a-diplomatic-perspective-of-the-cuban-missile-crisis/
Honigsbaum, Mark, ‘The coronavirus conundrum: when to press the panic button’, guardian.co.uk, 14 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/14/coronavirus-conundrum-panic-button-sars
Jaffe, Greg, and Partlow, Joshua, ‘Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen: WikiLeaks release endangers troops, Afghans’, Washington Post, 30 July 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072904900.html
Jones, Jeffrey M., ‘Americans Say Preventing Terrorism Top Foreign Policy Goal’, Gallup Politics, 20 February 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/160628/americans-say-preventing-terrorism-top-foreign-policy-goal.aspx
Kaplan, Robert D., ‘Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things)’, The Atlantic, 20 December 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/why-john-j-mearsheimer-is-right-about-some-things/308839/2/
Kaufman, Brett, ‘In Court Today: Fighting the CIA’s Secrecy Claims on Drones’, ACLU, 20 September 2012, http://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/court-today-fighting-cias-secrecy-claims-drones
Londoño, Ernesto, ‘U.S. Ban on Masks Upsets Iraqui Interpreters’, Washington Post, 17 November 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/16/AR2008111602040.html?nav=rss_world
National Security Forum, No More Secrets, American Bar Association, March 2011, http://www.virginia.edu/cnsl/pdf/no-more-secrets.pdf
Schneier, Bruce, ‘Transparency and Accountability Don’t Hurt Security – They’re Crucial to It’, The Atlantic, 8 May 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/05/transparency-and-accountability-dont-hurt-security-theyre-crucial-to-it/275662/
Schweizer, Peter, ‘Crony Capitalism Creeps Into the Defense Budget’, The Daily Beast, 22 May 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/22/crony-capitalism-creeps-into-the-defense-budget.html
Singer, Eleanor, and Endreny, Phyllis Mildred, Reporting on Risk: How the Mass Media Portray Accidents, Diseases, Disasters and Other Hazards, Russell Sage Foundation, 1993, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=rfwyIIGQpsEC
Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire, Cornell University Press, 1991
Stiglitz, Joseph, ‘Transparency in Government’, in Roumeen Islam, The right to tell: the roll of the mass media in economic development, World Bank Publications, 2002, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=56punueI7G0C
Stiles, David, ‘A Fusion Bomb over Andalucia: U.S. Information Policy and the 1966 Palomares Incident’, Journal of War Studies, Vol.8, No.1, Winter 2006, pp.49-67, http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~hpcws/jcws.2006.8.1..pdf
Traub, James, ‘Out With It’, Foreign Policy, 10 May 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/10/dirty_secrets_CIA_war_on_terror
Waxman, Matthew, ‘Going Clear’, Foreign Policy, 20 March 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/03/20/going_clear
Wohlforth, William C., ‘The Perception of Power: Russia in the Pre-1914 Balance’, World Politics, Vol.39, No.3, (April 1987), pp.353-381, http://www3.nccu.edu.tw/~lorenzo/wohlwforth%20perceptions%20of%20power%20russia.pdf
Yafei, He, ‘The Trust Deficit’, Foreign Policy, 13 May 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/13/how_china_sees_the_us_pivot_to_asia
Zenko, Micah, ‘U.S. Public Opinion on Drone Strikes’, Council on Foreign Relations, 18 March 2013, http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2013/03/18/u-s-public-opinion-on-drone-strikes/