Tue, Dec 07, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The battle against secrecy has a rich history of struggle

By Martin Kettle  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Why WikiLeaks? Or, why these leaked documents and not other ones, and why these documents now? The answers may seem obvious. Because we can. Because they’re there. Because we want to. Because it is in the public interest, or at least of interest to the public, even though that’s not the same thing.

All these are parts of the larger answer, but they aren’t the full explanation. To say these leaks can only be understood in the context of technology that enables such masses of material to be passed around the world on a memory stick is of course true. To say they are a product of an online culture in which openness and transparency are articles of faith (though not in China) and that it intersects with an older media culture which believes that what can be published should be published (though not in China) is true too. But this is about politics and history too.

Unjust wars always beget a fervor among opponents for disclosure. Older people in the US make the comparison with the battle between former US president Richard Nixon and the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war. However, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delved back much further this week.

“How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not,” he quoted. “To me it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.”

Thus spoke then-US president John Adams more than 200 years ago.

However, the long contest between secrecy and openness is not unique to the US. The UK also has a rich history of argument on the subject. Britain boasts a long tradition of mainly left-wing radicals (though some right-wing ones too) who believe British foreign policy is a conspiracy against the public interest and mainly conservative defenders of the status quo (and a few radicals) who insist that it is the very opposite.

Few people nowadays recall much about David Urquhart, the 19th-century member of parliament (MP) who became convinced the British governing class in general, and the long serving foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, in particular, were in the pay of Russia. Urquhart was not merely opposed to what British diplomats did. He also believed their betrayals could be found and exposed in the messages and documents they wrote to one another. He believed “the basis of diplomacy is secrecy.” His solution to diplomacy was openness. In the 1840s, he launched the Association for the Study of National and International Affairs, which he subtitled Committee for the Investigation of Diplomatic Documents. Urquhart would have been in hog heaven today.

By far the most important upsurge of anxiety about the making of foreign policy and in favor of greater openness came around just after World War I. E.D. Morel is as little known today as Urquhart, but Morel’s Union of Democratic Control (UDC) picked up where Urquhart had left off and became far more influential. Its great enemy was the “secret diplomacy” that it believed had caused the catastrophic war. It wanted all treaties and foreign policy undertakings to require parliamentary sanctions. It called for a council of nations whose dealings would all take place in public. It enthusiastically supported former US president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the first of which demanded “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.”

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