Opinion: OMB’s WikiLeaks policy ‘absurd’

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

The spreading WikiLeaks drama has now ensnared every federal worker. In the wake of the latest release of diplomatic messages, the Office of Management and Budget has instructed federal employees to not read the material.

The rationale? Even though they are leaked, the messages are still classified.

Does this strategy make sense?


Author, blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis told Federal News Radio the one word answer is “no.”

“On its face,” said Jarvis, “this order is just absurd.” Once knowledge is out there, he said, it’s out there and you can’t put it back in the bottle. “And that’s what this directive reveals as an attitude is a desire to put things back in bottles.”

While much of the discussion has been about what Wikileaks has leaked, Jarvis said there are larger questions for the federal government to examine.

Look at the larger question here about kind of an architecture of transparency that’s created here. Whether it’s about WikiLeaks or somebody else. No secret is safe. Now in a sense, that’s always been true. Someone could always know something and pass it on. The Internet merely makes it faster and broader, that’s all. But it also means you don’t have to Xerox documents to share them. It means you can get volume, you can pass them on, you can have the anonymity, there’s all kinds of things. So what I think the government is doing is an understandable reflex of trying to clamp down, but they should be doing exactly the opposite. The Obama Administration said, “We were going to be the transparent administration.” Well telling us who comes through the West Wing is a gimmick. It’s not transparency.

Now that the government is being confronted by what transparency is, and can be, Jarvis said he sees the WikiLeaks disclosures as a possible learning experience. “We have to deal with the fact of transparency,” he said. “We have to deal with the fact that things are going to get out there and change how we operate, and I think for the good in great measure.”

Not everything in the documents is negative in his opinion. For example, “Many of the State Department cables showed a good organization that does good work.”

Jarvis suggested what he called a “link-a-thon” to the documents on behalf of federal employees and put them everywhere “where you can’t avoid them just to show the absurdity” of the OMB policy.

“I do want to protest the absurdity of this order and I think that it’s in perfectly reasonable structure of a country that believe in free speech for the federal employees themselves to protest and say ‘Come on. This is just ridiculous.'”

We’re going so maniacal about privacy these days that I think we potentially risk losing the benefits of the connections that the Internet and publicness make. So I think there’s an opportunity here to rethink what transparent government is. This is the time we said we’re going to do it; well, how much of what was put out was indeed harmful? How much showed government to the good? How much should not have been classified secret? Those are the questions I think we really need to ask at this point and not go through this silly charade.

But that’s not the worst of it, said Jarvis. He said he’s concerned it will be hard to avoid a chilling effect in government.

“My fear of this episode is that government will become less transparent and we’ll put less in writing and you’ll get more phone calls and fewer e-mails for the fear of that. And again, it’s an understandable reaction but I think that both government and history would both suffer.”

Secrecy is essential for some of the government’s work, and Jarvis said he’s “not suggesting for a second that we should not have secrecy. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t the need for confidentiality in communication. There is. The problem, in great measure, is that government went overboard. It defaulted to secrecy and I think that government should default to transparency and be secret by necessity and we’re not there.”

The solution, said Jarvis, lies in changing the paradigm.

“If we had a credible system of secrecy and a credible of confidentiality in communication and if we had a default to transparency, then if someone like WikiLeaks came along and leaked something, we would all clearly know that that person was doing something wrong.”

Even without sweeping changes, Jarvis told Federal News Radio it should be glaringly apparent to the administration that, sometimes, shifts happen. “What WikiLeaks shows us is that you lose control and you’d better deal with that. You’d better figure out how to deal with that. And trying to clamp down and regain control is futile in this age.”

The internet, said Jarvis, has changed life forever. “The knee jerk reaction we saw to WikiLeaks is to clamp down and issue absolutely inane orders like the one we’re discussing this morning to say ‘don’t look at it, it’s not there.’ I’m just so disappointed in the intellectual vacuity of that. It’s just stupid. There’s no other word for it.”

Jeff Jarvis is the author of “What Would Google Do?” and blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. He is an associate professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.