12/02/2010 07:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shadow Elite : WikiLeaks, FOIA and the Cultural Life of Government Secrecy

The latest document dump once again has put WikiLeaks in a rather unpredictable situation. As much as they may be intending to release documents in order to take "lying, corrupt and murderous leadership" to task, the fuller effect of the leak is far from clear. Pundits and commentators argue whether the release is specifically harmful to national security or good for transparent democracy, but government secrecy experts like Steven Aftergood recognize that, as much as anything, the WikiLeaks project is an assault on the very system of government secrecy, a system that has "exceeded rational boundaries." Others like Slate's Anne Applebaum say WikiLeaks has inadvertently struck a blow to "frank speech," adding, "[d]on't expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets." This complex and ironic predicament is nothing new in the cultural life of government secrecy: efforts to both conceal and reveal government activities have often come with unintended consequences.

Stretching back many decades now, government secrecy has kept emerging in pop culture -- through storylines and characters -- in ways that impact public perceptions of what government does and how it operates. These stories even have their secrecy villains, from Nixon to Bush, and their transparency heroes, from Ellsberg, to Woodward and Bernstein, to now, most recently, WikiLeaks. Time and again, these stories strike upon similar themes: certain government activities are consistently held secret, often for good reason, but also, at times, to cover up actual wrongdoing.

One of the most well-recognized instances of government secrecy in pop culture has been the redacted document, scribbled over with the government's black marker. And yet the irony is that redaction is not, as many might believe, part of a censorship law designed to increase secrecy, but a bureaucratic innovation designed to actually increase transparency.

When passed in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) originally had no use for black markers. Because it was so full of loopholes, advocacy groups in the early 1970's, like Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, proposed amendments to the law to make it more effective. The public's outrage about Watergate helped propel these proposed amendments into law, part of a historical cycle of apparent increased government transparency wedged between periods of more accepted secrecy. One of the loopholes federal agencies had been taking advantage of was refusing to release a document if just one small part of the document -- even one sentence in a lengthy report -- was deemed secret. A 1974 amendment demanded that FOIA officers "redact" those portions of a document that the government deemed secret and release the rest of the document, assuming that the non-redacted segments still provided meaningful content. For decades, bureaucrats accomplished this task with a black marker, though today redaction is more often drawn on a computer.

Despite its actual history, black marker redaction has taken on a life of its own as a powerful symbol of overbearing government secrecy and state censorship. Today, it is a commonly employed design motif, seen in such disparate places as a book cover for Shahriar Mandanipour's 2009 novel Censoring An Iranian Love Story and Brian de Palma's 2007 film Redacted. Not uncommon in the pages of major newspapers, redacted documents remind us of the government's paternalistic capacity to lord its knowledge over us. No wonder then that one of literature's most famous critiques of governmental absurdity, Catch-22, would prominently feature a scene with its anti-hero Yossarian wielding a black marker to redact soldiers' letters home, thus exposing the essential ridiculousness of government secrecy:

Death to all modifiers, [Yossarian] declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal.

What Joseph Heller recognized that government bureaucrats cannot seem to wrap their heads around is that government secrecy is never simply like a faucet, which would let information flow or not. When we become aware of government secrecy -- as we do through redaction -- this also tends to raise our consciousness about the exercise of power and especially the potential abuse of that power. Black marker redaction doesn't stop communication. It is an invitation for suspicion, skepticism and paranoid interpretation. The word may be gone, but a form and trace remains. We become aware that we cannot know something that we want to know--and that gets us wanting to know why we can't know. And this is actually a very healthy kind of paranoia for a democratic society to have.

The situation I'm outlining might remind some readers of the complex words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, responding to reports that there was no evidence of a link between terrorists and Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq back in 2002. As he put it:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don't know.

While black marker redaction thankfully gives the public some sense of our known unknowns about government activities, what is truly disconcerting should be a fourth category of "unknown knowns." These are the facts that the government knows, but the public is completely unaware of, because no hint of their presence ever gets communicated to us, even indirectly.

And this kind of secrecy casts a shadow on the transformation of governance in recent decades that Janine Wedel explores in her book Shadow Elite. She notes that 75 percent of the federal workforce is now made up of government contractors who range from low-level workers to the very heights of power. That includes people like a Treasury Department "contractor" who was reportedly a key player in nearly every aspect of the 2008 financial bailout. Whose interests was he representing? That may never become clear. And unfortunately, transparency laws like FOIA often fail to cover the full scope of private contractors' activities, because the "trade secrets" of private companies are largely exempt from disclosure.

And what about U.S.-paid contractors who outnumber U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, and, in Iraq, make up nearly half of the combined contractor and military personnel workforce? Again, some of their activities would be difficult to uncover through FOIA -- either because of exemptions, informal refusals to comply with FOIA on the part of private contractors or a lack of awareness among FOIA requestors that such documents, or even such contractors, exist in the first place. And in many cases, the influence of unofficial, unaccountable power brokers may go completely undocumented, with their actions known only to themselves and a handful of others. This would render FOIA irrelevant. How do you expose government secrets that go undocumented? Even WikiLeaks might be stumped on that "unknown known".