Facts Get In The Way of Everything

Slate has two recent articles that illustrate a growing fear of facts. The first looks at the Republican party generally and Mitt Romney specifically.

It’s tough times for facts in America. First Mitt Romney—interviewing for the position of president—declined to release his tax returns because, as he explained, the Obama team’s opposition research will “pick over it” and “distort and lie about them.” He isn’t actually claiming that his opponents will lie. He’s claiming he’s entitled to hide the truth because it could be used against him. As Jon Stewart put it, “You can’t release your returns, because if you do, the Democrats will be mean to you.” These are tax returns. Factual documents. No different than, say, a birth certificate. But the GOP’s argument that inconvenient facts can be withheld from public scrutiny simply because they can be used for mean purposes is a radical idea in a democracy. It has something of a legal pedigree as well.

Probably not coincidentally, last week Senate Republicans filibustered the DISCLOSE Act—a piece of legislation many of them once supported—again on the grounds that Democrats might someday use ugly facts against conservatives. The principal objection to the law is that nasty Democrats would like to know who big secret donors are in order to harass, boycott, and intimidate them. The law requires that unions, corporations, and nonprofit organizations report campaign-related spending over $10,000 within 24 hours, and to name donors who give more than $10,000 for political purposes. Even though eight of the nine justices considering McCain-Feingold in Citizens United believed that disclosure is integral to a functioning democracy, the idea that facts about donors are dangerous things is about the only argument Senate Republicans can muster. Last week even Justice Antonin Scalia told CNN’s Piers Morgan that “Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech, the better. That’s what the First Amendment is all about. So long as the people know where the speech is coming from.”

That’s a ringing defense of the need for disclosure, which Scalia has always supported.

Not to be outdone, the State Department just won a case about the secrecy behind the diplomatic cables Wikileaks released in 2010 and 2011.

The government, it appears, would like to pretend that never happened even though anyone who cared has taken a look, and their contents have been reported around the world. If you want to double check that they’re out in the public, you can do so here.

Back to Slate:

It sounds like something from Catch-22. A U.S. district court judge on Monday ruled that diplomatic cables published worldwide by WikiLeaks, the New York Times, the Guardian, et al., are actually still secret. Why? Because the government says they are secret…

…The government’s logic, and the judge’s, is—and I do not think I am exaggerating or distorting their arguments here—that just because something is public doesn’t mean it isn’t also secret. In this case, the cables are secret because they contain information that could be harmful if released. Never mind that they’ve already been released by WikiLeaks. They still could be harmful if released by the government.

The ruling seems to uphold a broader U.S. government philosophy that even when everyone knows the government is doing something—conducting drone strikes in Yemen, waterboarding prisoners in Guantanamo—the government can continue to pretend that it is not doing it, and the courts will back it up.

Related: See Glenn Greenwald’s article in today’s Salon about Dianne Fienstein, California Democrat and Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and her continued calls to prosecute those disclosing sensitive government information (eg. drone wars). In it he writes about how government is defining what is a permissible leak and who permissible leakers are (spoiler alert: themselves).

"In sum," Greenwald writes, “leaks of classified information are a heinous crime when done to embarrass or undermine those in power, but are noble and necessary when done to bolster them.”

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