Thursday, June 23, 2011

Impossible Conundrum: State Secrets and Journalism

Intelligence Squared is out with its newest debate, asking the question: should freedom of the press extend to state secrets? This is one of these impossible "gray-area" questions that has no empirical answer because it deals with a tricky philosophical trade-off. Of course governments (and businesses, for that matter) need some level of secrecy to operate effectively. But clearly decisions regarding what stays secret should not be made solely by the organization in question, because their individual incentives (social status, turf, etc.) might not line up with what's best for society. It's a complex question with a lot of dimensions--perfect for this format.

The debate gets pretty spicy near the end, but never loses its intellectual heft. Enjoy:


  1. Have you read the news this year? Wikileaks, massive intellectual theft by our Chinese friends, hacked traffic signs, and most recently, stolen U.S. border patrol training documents, etc etc etc.

    There are no more secrets, Will, except for Steve Jobs' health records. The world is totally better off without state secrets anywhere.

  2. Anonymous above has an astoundingly simple view of the nature of secrets.
    1) You don't know what you don't know. So you obviously have no idea how much of the government iceburg is hidden from you. So making conclusive remarks on what you think you know is meaningless.
    2) How is the Chinese government having data equivalent to it not being a "secret"? It's sure as hell secret from me.
    3) Most hacks and IP thefts have been against civilian, not government targets.
    4) By us being better off without state secrets, do you mean next-gen weapon specs should be given to China? That we should tell them about our diplomatic plans with Taiwan for the next 20 years?

    I'm not saying we have a perfect system. But to state there are no secrets because somebody "hacked" a 30 year old road sign is nuts. And to say emphatically that state secrets are always bad when there is good reason for secrecy in many cases is equally nuts.

    But most of all, don't accuse Will of not having read the news. That's the craziest accusation of all.