Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shhh....this is secret

I’ve been described as a priest, a lawyer and a therapist all rolled into one. While it sounds like the start to one of those bar jokes, it’s a compliment and responsibility that I cherish.  It is critical to maintain trust in my role as a financial executive, consultant or board member...let alone as friend, family man and mentor.  I work hard personally and professionally to honor and guard the information I’ve been given. In today’s media world, where the speed of information is often more important than its accuracy, keeping a secret seems to be a quaint concept from a bygone era.

Fox TV’s “Glee” fired a regular extra a few weeks back for revealing spoilers. Every extra and crew member must now sign an all-encompassing confidentiality agreement. Reality Shows rely on the element of surprise for the audience and go to great lengths to keep the results secret. It builds suspense and heightens the appeal of the show.  Cast and Crew of Survivor agree to a $5 million penalty above any prize money if they disclose any detail of the show. On the Emmy winning Amazing Race eliminated teams are kept at a remote location so that people can’t figure out who lost. Their penalty is $10 million. For this genre of television an ancillary business has emerged: insurance companies are selling policies in the event of a leak, protecting the producers.

Cartoon from 2003 by Cam Cardow in "Ottowa Citizen"

Entertainment and politics are close cousins. In California we even cross breed the two, none more obvious than the recent tenure of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite being in the limelight as one of the world’s best known action stars and running and winning an unprecedented recall campaign for Governor, he was able to keep secret an out-of-wedlock child from his wife and the public for more than a decade. As salacious as the details are, the most striking fact to me is that this sort of information could remain private. Journalists covering show biz and political investigative reporters failed in finding this story. The most interesting point (that remains unclear amidst all of the various rumors) is how the secret was kept and, more importantly why the covenant was broken. What happened that resulted in the information finally being divulged? The reporter from the Los Angeles Times indicated in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources last week: somebody was finally ready to talk.

President Obama’s planning and execution of Operation Neptune Spear (the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden) was kept from key aides and the public for seven months. In Washington DC, a city whose lifeblood is information, the shock that bin Laden hadn’t been forgotten about after all was overshadowed that a plan of this scope and impact could be developed and implemented and not leaked.

Nearly immediately after President Obama made the announcement details of the operation emerged. The specifics were flying fast and furious - so many that the major cable TV networks were able within hours to develop animated recreations. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen have been especially vocal in the past week about their anger at the amount of information released.  Gates said: “In the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday — the next day.”  They've both called the release of information "dangerous."

American democracy demands and expects transparency. The “outrage” that the details are public is what’s outrageous. For seven months not a word, an inclination or an innuendo escaped the secure confines of the Situation Room. That's as it should be.  It changed when the mission was completed. Somebody made the strategic decision to share information. The administration proved it could keep things quiet when it wanted to so its complaint that the mission process is being discussed in public is disingenuous at best.

 
In a society that prides itself, and indeed defines itself on openness, we nonetheless relish our secrets. The amount of information that is classified is increasing. In 2010 there was a 40% increase in classified materials – 76.6 million documents.
From the Washington Post’s groundbreaking series of articles Top Secret America 
  • 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on security programs in about 10,000 locations. In the DC area they occupy 17 million square feet of space.
  • An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
The government has an absolute need to keep certain information from general dissemination. There is an obligation that what is kept from the public should be of extraordinary consequence, however, and not things that are uncomfortable, unpleasant or embarrasing. The explosion of secrets seems excessive. What is being hidden?  Restricting the flow of information breeds distrust, resentment and allows for a proliferation of conspiracy theories to have a life of their own.







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