The Heralded Age: The Transition to Government Transparency

Prior to WWII, the United States was locked in a period of isolationism in an effort to remove themselves from events in Europe, as well as the world. The government shrouded their dealings and projects in secrecy, discreetly shipping and massing arms for an inevitable war. Those in Washington that had knowledge of secret meetings or projects for foreign aid feared a negative reaction from their populace should their secrets be exposed. Secrecy became the word of law following the events of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent decision on behalf of the United States to declare war. Propaganda posters warned of foreign spies and agents intent upon dismantling the fabric of the government and steal valuable infrastructure correspondences and war documents. Indeed, the events and general state of affairs for the United States prior, during and following WWII mark a high point in the age of government secrecy.

The threat of communism and treason loomed over the United States in the years to follow WWII. The Soviet Empire had proved to be a rival on the global stage and as such, the United States operated on a high level of security. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin led the charge against domestic reports of communist leanings amongst the populace, often urging citizens to report their neighbors and friends. Meanwhile, the government was in the midst of an arms race with the Soviets, funding a multitude of projects, all deemed classified.

In 1971, the New York Times was restrained from publication following the release of several articles from the Pentagon Papers, a classified document regarding United States’ relations with Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The government attempted to quell the paper and ensure that they could not proceed with publication and filed an injunction. The trial eventually came to the Supreme Court, who ruled that the publishers acted within their rights and the government was not in any immediate danger from the publication of the articles. This was a major blow to the system behind classification, as well as a signal of the end of the age of secrecy.

The development and proliferation of computer networks and global communication systems during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the creation of the Internet, what is now proving to be the biggest boon to the age of government secrecy. Whereas news outlets and journalists were once responsible for delivering information and news to the populace, the Internet has allowed for any user to pass information or investigate a story. WikiLeaks, the infamous leak service that released nearly half a million diplomat and foreign relations cables, heralded the age of transparency; the watched have become the watchers. Many leak sites now exist, some devoted solely to national governments, others to local affairs. The United States plays a key role in influencing how other countries will adapt and transition to transparency — will the government allow for openness in its policy process or will the progression to transparency be hard fought?

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