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Last Week's Hearst-New York Times Column

(Writers note: Per the arrangement with the syndicators, these columns appear here a week after their newspaper release)


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WASHINGTON _ Let's hear it for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her continuing campaign for what she calls ``the freedom to connect.’’ There she was again, this time at D.C.'s George Washington University, castigating regimes that try to ``clamp down on Internet freedom.’’

Clinton argued that ``the scale should always be tipped in favor of openness.’’ You listening, Iran? You listening, Burma? You listening, United States?

Unfortunately, in an awkward bit of timing, prosecutors for the U.S. government were in a federal courthouse just a few miles away in Alexandria, Va., trying to convince a judge they should have access to Twitter communications in their zealous pursuit of WikiLeaks.

The government wants the Twitter accounts of three people linked to the WikiLeaks probe _ screen names, mailing addresses, telephone numbers, credit card and bank account information and internet protocol addresses.

In this country, the official scales apparently tip away from transparency when it causes inconvenient embarrassment.

Many who used to hide behind opaque screens are now finding the new openness overwhelming. That goes for those not only in public positions, but their chroniclers in the private sector as well.

The rush to be on top of developments in Egypt by journalists as well as intelligence operatives became a self-feeding frenzy of miscalculations, which were then breathlessly passed on to the world by correspondents citing the likes of ``knowledgeable sources.’’

Turns out all these knowledgeable sources didn't know jack. They were frequently relying on the news organizations. A big case in point was testimony before the House Intelligence Committee by CIA Director Leon Panetta, that ``There's a strong likelihood that Hosni Mubarak may step down in Egypt tonight.’’

The TV networks, along with print and internet sites, took that as official confirmation of their breaking stories that a departure was, in fact, going to happen later that day. The problem, as we now know, is that Panetta was simply echoing what he had heard from the media.


It was another circular firing squad where the order was ``Ready, Fire, Aim.’’ By the time the smoke cleared we found we had all shot ourselves in the foot. Yes, Mubarak did step down the following day, but not before we all got a reminder that ``First, Fast and Sometimes Factual’’ isn't good enough.

The problem is, none of us seems to have a full comprehension of this new world disorder of information flying in all directions.

It's not that the concept is unexpected, considering that it was predicted at least as far back as the pre-internet 1960s, by the likes of Marshall McLuhan, who described an unsettled ``Global Village’’ racing with ``electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion.’’

It's an implosion we're witnessing thanks to the immediate live images of reality that no longer can be hidden or even delayed. Secrecy becomes impossible for those in power, and at the same time access to all the information can be hazardous for the news media that have trouble keeping up.

It can also cause an over-reaction from governments that try to protect their turf by hiding it from view. In the Twitter-WikiLeaks case, defense lawyers warned of ``snooping’’ as an assault on those who have a right to expect privacy in their conversations.

Secretary of State Clinton insisted that the Wikileaks case and her advocacy for cyber-openness are not inconsistent because the Wikileaks matter ``began with an act of theft’’ and that some official communications must be walled off because it ``...gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.’’

Unfortunately, that has always been an excuse for shielding us from knowing about work that should have been done otherwise. Technology has brought us a new era of accountability. Despite the best efforts of those trying to protect their turf, they can't any longer in what Clinton calls ``a landscape that is complex and combustible.’’

Indeed it is, for better and worse, too much so for its secrets to be contained.


Correction: While commenting in this space on the White House lunch hosted by President Obama for House Republican leaders, I quoted Speaker John Boehner describing it as a "robust conversation". Actually, those were the words of Majority Whip Eric Cantor standing next to him. I regret the error.


(E-mail: Bob(at)hearstdc.com; on the Web: www.bobfranken.tv


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