Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Posted at 6:22 PM ET, 01/13/2011

The secret about secrets

By Ezra Klein

Matt Yglesias reflects on the media's obsession with government secrets:

In a world drowning with information, it’s remarkably easy to get too caught up in the idea of finding out secrets. Just think of all the banal, publicly available factual information that’s relevant to foreign policy and that most of us can’t rattle off the top of our heads. What’s the age structure of the population of Egypt? Is the Christian population growing faster or slower than average? Because of differential birth rates or differential emigration rates? Does Okun’s law hold up there like in Canada, or has it broken down like in the United States?

It's true that most of us can't rattle off that information. But a lot of the people who can rattle off that information work in the government -- either in the executive branch, in the Congress, or in the bureaucracy. I've never spoken to Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. But look at his background: "Previous positions included a senior fellowship at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (1985–1987), senior analyst at RAND Corporation (1989–1993), Director of Policy Planning (1994–1996), and Deputy National Security Advisor (1997–2001). He also served on the Project on National Security Reform's Guiding Coalition. He was also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution."

Those aren't the sort of shadowy, globe-trotting positions that leave you with a lot of secrets. They are the sort of positions that leave you with a lot of reports about the relationship between age structure and volatility in Middle Eastern nations. The people who get chosen for these jobs, in other words, don't always know a lot of secrets. But they know a lot of facts. When they get into government, they suddenly have a large apparatus beneath them designed to integrate and analyze even more facts. They become like fact machines.

Reporters like secrets because that's sort of the raison d'etre of reporting: Getting new information into the world. Secrets are the things that you really need reporters to find out. But a lot of the secrets that end up getting attention -- so-and-so said such-and-such about this-and-that -- tend to be embarrassing rather than revelatory. And the relevant policy players aren't thinking about those secrets when they make the relevant policy decisions. They're thinking about age structures in Egypt. Thinking about age structures in Egypt is, after all, why they were hired for the job in the first place.

By Ezra Klein  | January 13, 2011; 6:22 PM ET
 
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Discomfort with comfort
Next: Reconciliation

Comments

In his book "Imperial Hubris" about Bush's Afghan war Michael Scheuer talked about how the high value placed on "secret" intel made Rumsfeld et al. completely ignore the vast amount of information available from public sources, like books, articles etc. So they didn't know the most basic things about the country and made all sorts of avoidable errors. Same thing of course happened in the Iraq War. They didn't, as he said, "check the checkables."

This is an error that is repeated not only by gov't (all gov'ts--just read a book on the CIA like "Legacy of Ashes" to see just how blind they were flying almost all of the time from the end of WWII through the Iraq War) but reporters and others as well.

Posted by: Mimikatz | January 13, 2011 6:57 PM | Report abuse

--*When they get into government, they suddenly have a large apparatus beneath them designed to integrate and analyze even more facts. They become like fact machines.*--

That's Klein's love song to the bureaucracy, and Klein is as blind as any lover ever was.

How many years can it take for the Department of State to process an immigration visa? Klein?

How many years does it take for those "fact machines" to approve a new drug? Or even provide a table of crime statistics?

Over at the FAA, how many years for hard working "fact machines" to get a new computer system up and running?

It's very likely that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg could have spent the last two decades making donuts in Klein's donut shop and international relations wouldn't have suffered one iota and the national debt would be exactly his salary plus bennies less.

Posted by: msoja | January 13, 2011 10:54 PM | Report abuse

The Obama/Pelosi Regime certainly has many secrets. Admittedly, many "of the secrets that end up getting attention -- so-and-so said such-and-such about this-and-that -- tend to be embarrassing rather than revelatory". So let's consider only the revelatory secrets.

Leaving aside for the moment the PPACA cost data which the Obama/Pelosi Regime wishes to keep secret, let's consider only an EPA secret -- a secret revealed by Ezra Klein back on 22-Apr-2010. Back then, an EPA intern decried the eating of meat as an "official position of the United States Environmental Protection Agency." So, how much did this EPA anti-meat effort cost? It should be easy for a transparent administration to report the cost -- even easier to report merely the name of the EPA intern's supervisor! [See OGIS case 10-0307.]

Ah... but I suppose it's change we can believe in -- change that honestly and deliberately robs the public of fact in favor of partisan political gain.

Posted by: rmgregory | January 14, 2011 12:04 AM | Report abuse

"Reporters like secrets because that's sort of the raison d'etre of reporting: Getting new information into the world. Secrets are the things that you really need reporters to find out."

No, no, NO!

Secrets are ONE OF the things you really need reporters to find out.

But it seems to me that a number of other reportorial tasks come first.

First comes making sure the reader knows what 'everybody' already knows. Chances are that the reporter's 'everybody' is a hell of a lot more informed than the actual 'everybody,' and the latter group needs to be brought up to speed on the basics. The reader can't understand the new revelations in today's news without some context.

Second comes your standard-issue reporting of the new developments in an issue that are happening in plain sight.

Third is Izzy Stone-style reporting, where the reporter digs through all the relevant government documents that are available to the public but that the public never sees or hears about, figures out what's important, and reports on it.

(By the way, I had expected to see an explosion of this sort of reporting in the blogosphere by now, since most of this stuff is online. Anybody with some time on his or her hands could pick a corner of the bureaucracy, read everything that it produces, and report on it. But I have been disappointed here.)

Only fourth is the business of digging up genuine secrets. And until you've done the other three, you don't even know which secrets are important anyway.

Posted by: rt42 | January 14, 2011 12:11 PM | Report abuse

No worries on real secrets getting out since reporters think like journalists and never like analysts. Their eyes are never on the same ball.

Posted by: sjbrown1 | January 14, 2011 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company