EchoDitto Blog

Wikileaks: Confronting History Before the Freedom of Information Act

Cross-posted on ReadWriteWeb!

The problem with working to change United States foreign policy is that you're never really sure what it's going on behind the curtain. By the time you have submitted a FOIA request and the government deems your information save, the present has passed into history. Which raises the question, will Wikileaks bring us the transparency we need to be able to understand the internal workings of US covert operations?

The world of "Top Secret America" has grown exponentially since 9/11, with over 263 organizations created or reorganized. Much is happening in this world that is not only hidden from us, but from itself. A dark and Kafkaesque bureaucracy devoted to protecting us lurks beneath our democratic process, and we need to know its shape in order to do accurate domestic and international policy.

The excavation of the doings of the CIA and FBI has had to wait years after the ability to do anything about it has long past. For instance, domestically, the Church Committee exposed the workings of COINTELPRO, the FBI's domestic program to disrupt the civil rights movement, which included a massive plan to discredit and undermine Dr. Martin Luther King. But this was released in 1975, and King died in 1968. We now know that FBI came down on the wrong side of history. Would radical governmental transparency have forced the FBI to respect MLK?

Internationally, the CIA has a long resume regarding the overthrow of foreign governments. They also funded and trained the Afghani mujahadeen, where a young Osama bin Laden is said to have received training. Again, history bears out the danger of the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" logic.

The CIA may or may not have been involved in looking the other way while their operatives, after delivering supplies and weapons to the Nicaraguan rightist rebels, the Contras, flew cocaine back to the gangs in LA ghettos to be made into crack. But whistleblower and Pulitzer-awarded journalist Gary Webb lost his job at the San Jose Mercury News and eventually committed suicide over his article "Dark Alliance," reporting on these connections. History is divided on the veracity of his claims, despite the firsthand testimony he collected into his book, so judge for yourself. But it goes to show you that being on the cutting edge of history can hurt. It's never easy to be a whistleblower like Assange.

What is certain is that the covert military's operations always operate under plausible deniability. For activists who see traces of the CIA's operations in international conflicts this can be frustrating. How, exactly, do the State Department and the CIA work together? Because we cannot know what is happening in the present, history is the study of the already obsolete. How can we affect change if we cannot see inside this dark machine?

But it is the connection between history and the present moment that is so often lacking. We can all become scholars of the CIA's historic role in shaping world events, but the real question is the now. What is the CIA doing right now?

The Bush administration reversed much of Clinton's openness initiatives, and the Obama administration, despite it's much-vaunted openness, has changed little, apparently. So knock away on the front door, but it's not going to open anytime soon.

The federal Freedom of Information Act gives members of the public access to information created by any public agency. While there are rules dictating how much time a public agency can take to fulfill a request (as well as how much money they can charge to do so), it sometimes takes years, thousands of dollars and even lawsuits before that information is disclosed.

Wikileaks provides us with the hope of a pre-FOIA FOIA. Information not requested and unexpected may continue to fall from the sky. Perhaps, from its pages, we will glean something of what the CIA and State Department are actually doing overseas.

If we are able to obtain this information through Wikileaks, we may be able to interact with the covert military operations that the US is undertaking as they are taking place. If so, we may be able to turn the tide of history.

Are we approaching an age where history will confront us as it is happening?

Wikileaks is problematic, as anyone knows, particularly for imperiling US operatives overseas through its lax document screening process. But, as This American Life reports on Iraq, the US needs little help abandoning or betraying its foreign operatives.

But blood spilled is never okay. Even one innocent death is not acceptable. But let's compare the CIA and Wikileaks. I cannot find record of a single death related to Wikileaks. On the other hand, the CIA has been pursing it's own agenda regardless of human life since its inception.

I ask, who watches the watchmen? In an age where an entire military-political machine is hidden below the surface, hidden from scrutiny, I hope that Wikileaks will cause our society pause to reflect on this as a danger to liberty and open the front door. And a few windows while we're at it, because the house needs some fresh air.