Who's Responsible? We Might Never Know

"We shouldn't forget, though, that when it comes to secrecy, transparency, like sunlight, is only a figure of speech -- one that disappears the closer you look at it."
- "Dead of Exposure," by Leon Wieseltier

"So do not fall for the palaces of light. Light reveals and light conceals."
- "In Defense of Secrecy," by Noah Feldman

Today at TNR Leon Wieseltier has a fabulous essay mulling the limits of that oft-lauded, yet little understood, principle of transparency. While in these dark and gloomy days of credit default swaps and thousand-page stimulus packages we might want to peek as deeply inside the "black box" of Washington as possible, Wieseltier argues, we will find that we can peek only so far. Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid's promises of "unprecented" and "historic" levels of transparency for the financial bailout and the stimulus package are then more self-serving than beneficent. Transparency can be as secretive as it's opposite.

Noah Feldman made a similar argument in the New York Times Magazine in February, claiming that, while refreshing, openness and transparency are rather impractical. Feldman advises that "there are many circumstances in which secrets are critical."

While I think both pieces are valuable ruminations on the limitations - or superficiality or expedience - of the Obama administration's promises of transparency, I think both mistake the problem that needs to be addressed and mistake, dare I beat a dead horse, the legacy of the Bush administration.

Indeed, what President Bush did that was so wrong - and what certain of President Obama's actions have demonstrated as well - is to deprive the public of an opportunity for responsibility. When Alexander Hamilton wrote of responsibility in the Federalist Papers - the word was used for the first time in the debates of the 1787 Constitutional Convention - he was not concerned with secrecy or openness per se, but the capacity of the public to hold the executive branch to account for its actions. "Responsibility," he wrote, "is of two kinds - to censure and to punishment." He continued, discussing why a plural executive would be inappropriate for the new government:

It is evident from these considerations, that the plurality of the Executive tends to deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power, first, the restraints of public opinion...and, second, the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons they trust, in order either to their removal from office or to their actual punishment in cases which admit of it.

The mistakes or missteps of President Bush lie not merely in his administration's lack of transparency, but in its disregard for the establishment of goals. The uncertainty and the opportunity to discover misconduct that Hamilton identifies do not rely on knowing more - or even, as Wieseltier beautifully writes, knowing something intimately - but on stating clearly and "early on" what goals are hoped to be achieved.

The unwillingness of President Bush to "define victory" in Iraq is perhaps the best example of this. But Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel, devoted the oversight group's entire first report not just to a discussion of the need for more transparency, but to pleading with the Treasury Department to state clearly what it hoped to accomplish from its capital infusions, loan guarantees, and lending facilities.

The point is that transparency and openness are rather incidental. They might be mere expressions of vanity, as Wieseltier argues, or facts of life, as Feldman would have it. The political question, though, is less about the hidden facts and much more about our leaders - particularly our executive - articulating why they have done what they have done. Only then can we vigorously pursue the facts to find out if they deserve, as Hamilton would put it, censure or punishment.