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Obama And The Limits Of Transparency

Noah Feldman is a fertile and careful writer, but his latest piece for the New York Times Magazine is too clever by half. "In Defense of Secrecy" rests on the driest of strawmen: After setting up a dichotomy between the secrecy fetish of the Bush Administration and Obama's tack toward transparency, he writes, "The effective operation of even the most democratic government requires secrecy and surprise as well as transparency and predictability."

But Bush's critics never argued that all government secrecy was bad. Feldman offers up diplomacy as an example where opacity, if not outright secrecy, is a necessary tool: "Neither side would take the risks necessary for real engagement as long as it's high-risk efforts could be exposed to denunciation and ridicule if it failed." Forgive me if I missed the calls for Bush to televise his North Korea talks on YouTube.

Rather, the brief against Bush was his--and Cheney's--penchant for excessive and unpredictable government secrecy, grounded in their specious belief that the executive branch had no obligation to share any information with the public, even the number of people working for the vice president. It's reasonable to prevent the public from snooping around the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory, pressing random buttons and poking under the beds; it's unreasonable to force Google to blur the satellite photo of the building on its Google Earth program. But Feldman assumes most people don't see the difference.

"Recognizing these limits [to government transparency] may seem a bit cynical," Feldman concludes, as if apologizing for his defense of such an outre position. But again, I'm not sure a single reasonable American would find predictable, justified secrecy to be anything but a necessary, even welcome, part of doing government business. All we ask is that secrecy make sense.

--Clay Risen