El País Editor: When Democracy’s Rules Are Flouted, Democracy Is Put at Risk

The Editor of Spain’s El Pais, Javier Moreno, has an interesting piece explaining why he published the Wikileak cables. He points to the same thing I pointed to–American efforts to squelch torture investigations in Spain and Germany–to explain the importance of the cables, though he also adds US efforts to prevent Spanish banks from doing business with Iran, even while Iran had not violated international law. These disclosures are important, Moreno argues, because they show the degree to which the US refuses to abide by the legal procedures in other countries, which in turn represents a danger to democracy.

A democracy comprises diverse elements: institutions and rules; free and fair elections; independent judges and a free press, among others. At the bottom of all this there are legal procedures. When these are flouted, all the rest is put at risk.

We have come to accept the difference between the government that we elect every five years, and the military, bureaucratic, and diplomatic apparatus that it is sustained by, but that all too often it fails to control. The WikiLeaks cables have confirmed this beyond any doubt.

But his second point–that the permanent bureaucracy manages to ignore the law regardless of what the elected officials of either party do–raises another important question: whether that permanent bureaucracy delivers what it promises–ostensibly in exchange for secrecy–instead.

Political classes on both sides of the Atlantic convey a simple message that is tailored to their advantage: trust us, don’t try to reveal our secrets; in exchange, we offer you security.

But just how much security do they really offer in exchange for this moral blackmail? Little or none, since we face the sad paradox that this is the same political elite that was incapable of properly supervising the international financial system, whose implosion triggered the biggest crisis since 1929, ruining entire countries and condemning millions of workers to unemployment and poverty. These are the same people responsible for the deteriorating quality of life of their populations, the uncertain future of the euro, the lack of a viable European project and the global governance crisis that has gripped the world in recent years, and which elites in Washington and Brussels are not oblivious to. I doubt that keeping embassy secrets under wraps is any kind of guarantee of better diplomacy or that such an approach offers us better answers to the problems we face.

The incompetence of Western governments, and their inability to deal with the economic crisis, climate change, corruption, or the illegal war in Iraq and other countries has been eloquently exposed in recent years. Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we also know that our leaders are all too aware of their shameful fallibility, and that it is only thanks to the inertia of the machinery of power that they have been able to fulfill their democratic responsibility and answer to the electorate.

The whole point of democracy is to ensure better decision-making by subjecting ideas and policies to debate and transparency. I’m none too sanguine about the seriousness with which voters take their job. But so many of the decisions getting us in trouble are those made by the permanent bureaucracy, in secret.

And when those decisions prove to be wrong or dangerous or illegal, the permanent bureaucracy secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) breaks the rules that exist for the rest of us–like rule of law.

Constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams may not care about all this. But it is vitally important the citizens of democracy have the opportunity to see this.  It is vitally important to demonstrate that all that secrecy the permanent bureaucracy likes to claim leads to good governance not only leads, instead, to rank incompetence, but also to the decay of our democracy itself.

  1. tjbs says:

    Where would we be if, in the last decade, we had followed an iron clad dedication to the simple document, our constitution.

    No Bush Gore, no Patriot act, No AUMF and no retro immunity for the telecom corps, no Roberts/Alito subvert perverts and no invasions and occupations.

    This is where Torture opens the door to random Murder and without justice follows Treason and the acceptance of jungle law.

  2. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for covering this, EW! It is something for us to be lectured by Franco’s heirs on the niceties of Democracy, no? Maybe if Spain can turn it around in a generation, then we can, too?

    Bob in AZ

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Many thanks for bringing these and your observations to a wider audience. This pervasive secrecy serves not just to protect the permanent bureaucracy and its sometime political masters from the consequences of their incompetence. That secrecy threatens democracy itself. Now that’s not news to the permanent bureaucracy and its politicians; it’s what they want.

  4. PeasantParty says:

    The men behind the curtain of Oz are being exposed. Marcy, you are so eloquent with these words they should be plastered everywhere!

    “The whole point of democracy is to ensure better decision-making by subjecting ideas and policies to debate and transparency. I’m none too sanguine about the seriousness with which voters take their job. But so many of the decisions getting us in trouble are those made by the permanent bureaucracy, in secret.”

    The secret is because they do not want to share the decision making with the people, nor do they want us to see their incredible failures.

  5. bgrothus says:

    “It is vitally important to demonstrate that all that secrecy the permanent bureaucracy likes to claim leads to good governance not only leads, instead, to rank incompetence, but also to the decay of our democracy itself.”

    What you said, Marcy. Thank you.

  6. solerso says:

    “The whole point of democracy is to ensure better decision-making by subjecting ideas and policies to debate and transparency.”

    Is that the whole point of Democracy? I thought the whole point of Democracy is the right to govern being derived only from the consent of the governed. Better decision making is nice if it works out that way, but its a side issue compared to the massive moral imperative that Democracies are open, and ruled by laws and may only be sanctioned by the people.

    • PJEvans says:

      Isn’t better decision making what it’s all about?
      You can’t make good decisions without correct information – even if it’s incomplete.
      If the government hides the information you need, that’s not going to help you make better decisions.

    • donbacon says:

      You’re correct. We don’t need better deciders, we need no deciders. Obama’s people have just told us, for example, that it doesn’t matter that the American people want out of Afghanistan. They will decide what’s in the public interest. The public aren’t qualified to determine what’s in their own interest.

      “No man is wise enough to be another man’s master. Each man’s as good as the next — if not a damn sight better.” — Edward Abbey

  7. skdadl says:

    Such a superb statement from Moreno. I almost cried when I read that because it is such a contrast to what we’ve seen/read/heard from the editors of some of the other four majors who published the first batch of the diplomatic cables.

    How many corporate media sources anywhere have been serious enough to stick to the topic? All credit to CBS News for the splendid list they published yesterday — with links all over the place even! Meanwhile, the NYT continues to duck and weave about WL, I guess out of fear of senators, and some Guardian editors cope with personal problems by writing pulp fiction.

    It’s true that the cables dealing with Spain were among the most obviously interesting, so El Pais had lots to work with. But they really rose to the challenge.

  8. eCAHNomics says:

    The best book I’ve ever read on the spook industry is The Second Oldest Profession. The reason is because he points out why it almost never works, which is the point that’s relevant to this discussion: secrecy. Secrecy has all kinds of subversive effects: hiding incompetence; every failure becomes an excuse for more resource (“the reason we failed is because we don’t have enough employees, enough equipment, etc.); and several other equally important ones I can’t remember right now as it’s been years since I read the book.

    In addition, there is no mechanism for overseeing the spook agencies. The U.S. ones can keep it from congressional oversight committees by just not telling, for example. There is no “market” mechanism that might root out the problems thru competition, since the spooks have the monopoly.

    Sound familiar?

    • Sebastos says:

      Secrecy has all kinds of subversive effects

      Yes, and your observations on the spook agencies are well taken. But the most fundamental problem is private, not public, secrecy – the trade secrecy of the business corporation, which makes it easy to hide all manner of secret illegal activities as well. Until we abolish capitalist business corporations and trade secrecy, we are going to have all the evil consequences of secrecy, regardless of any reforms undertaken in the government’s use of secrecy.

      As the film Sneakers put it, there are just TOO MANY SECRETS – and most of them are private, not public.

    • eCAHNomics says:

      Nice to have the list; thanks for the link.

      However, there’s very little on the list that would surprise someone paying attention.

      And, the revelations have had NO consequences for the PTB.

  9. Fractal says:

    Some mighty deep thoughts to kick off the new year. Where else but at Fire Dog Lake? Thank you Marcy and Happy New Year.

  10. MadDog says:

    The government’s “Permanent Bureaucracy” is one of my all-time peeviest of pet peeves.

    As I’ve said on occasion here before, we voters elect folks to manage the government, but as has been the case throughout our history, even human history, is that it is the “Permanent Bureaucracy” who actually composes the “the government” and who generally ends up managing those who are elected.

    It is a rare elected individual that has a mastery of the skills necessary to direct or redirect, for good or ill, the vast permanent bureaucracy of government.

    Regardless of your or my views of the ethicality of the previous Bush/Cheney regime, one cannot doubt the efficacy of their ability to direct and redirect our permanent bureaucracy of government.

    This post of EW’s is a fine illumination of just that.

    Yes, the political appointees of the Bush/Cheney regime are now generally gone, but the effect of 8 long years of their direction and redirection of the permanent bureaucracy of the US government are still with us today and likely to continue to be with us for a long time to come.

    As with any organization, the folks who ensure all the myriad of wheels are greased, that all the thousands of oars are pulled in the same direction, that the organizational multitude sings with one voice, are the unsung heroes of organizational impetus, Middle Management.

    It is this Middle Management legacy of the Bush/Cheney regime that so infects our permanent bureaucracy today.

    Eight long years of that Bush/Cheney regime where the ones most likely to get promoted were those who drank the Bush/Cheney regime Kool-Aid and spouted the Bush/Cheney regime lines.

    One can change the political appointee heads of these government organizations, but unless those political appointees have that mastery of those skills necessary to direct or redirect the permanent bureaucracy (most unlikely as it is a rare, rare skill), the permanent bureaucracy directs or redirects them.

    The results are advice and policy choices that reflect the likes and dislikes, the ethics (or not), the blindered view (conscious or unconscious) of that permanent bureaucracy rather than that of the titular “heads” of these government organizations.

    So instead of getting honest, independent, thorough, and ethical advice and policies from our permanent bureaucracy, we get that indigestible swill as amply described in the Wikileaks cables from our Embassies in Spain and Germany.

    Advice and policies that are “blindered” by permanent bureaucracy promotions and advancement under that Bush/Cheney regime where adherence to their ideology was the only road to upward permanent bureaucracy mobility.

    So instead of getting advice and policies from the permanent bureaucracy of the US government that says “this is illegal, unethical or just plain fookin’ stupid wrong!”, we instead get ideological and blindered choices that look like this:

    Choice A: We must be right, so off with their heads!

    Choice B: We must be right, so off with their heads and piss on ’em!

    Choice C: We must be right, so off with their heads, piss on ’em, and shit on their graves!

  11. FreddyMoraca says:

    From the same editorial:

    I no longer think that commentators such as John Naughton were exaggerating when they compared the Karzai regime in Afghanistan with the corrupt and incompetent puppet government that the United States put in place in South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. By the same token, Washington and NATO are seemingly becoming increasingly mired in a campaign bearing uncomfortable parallels with the war in Vietnam.

    The devastating Nam=Afpak equation surely explains why Ellsberg jumped to defend Manning and Assange. Only difference is, now we have the smell of depleted uranium in the morning…

  12. CTuttle says:

    The ‘meritocracy’ of any viable bureaucracy here in the US, has been on the decline since the Ray-Gun daze…! Largely expedited during Shrub’s Brain era, particularly with all his turd blossom specials firmly embedded…! 8-(

    Bad day for the Big Ten(+) today, eh…? ;-)

  13. Neil says:


    Since 24 September 2010, the FBI has served at least 24 grand jury subpoenas on students and activists in a secret investigation that many have called a witch hunt. We call upon Attorney General Eric Holder and United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to respect the civil rights and free speech of all those who support the Palestinian struggle for freedom by immediately withdrawing grand jury subpoenas which threaten the First Amendment rights of students and activists around the country. src

    What’s the standard for obtaining a subpoena for a witness to appear at a Federal Grand Jury?

    • CTuttle says:

      Apparently, an extremely low bar for one member of the ADL’s latest, ‘top ten’ hit hate list…! It’s tragic how far the ADL has sunk with their latest hasbara…! 8-(

  14. orionATL says:

    skadadl @14thanks for making this list available.

    what is very distressing to me in the effort by
    both u.s. gov’t and u.s. corporate media to paint wikileaks and its leader, assange, as bad, bad people,

    is that behind the organization “wikileaks”

    are hundreds of courageous INDIVIDUALS who have taken tremendous personal risk

    and sent written material from their organizations

    because they have a personal belief that some behavior of their organization is imminently harmful to society, unfair, unjust, corrupt, misleading, etc.

    the efforts of these courageous individuals needs to be respected and protected by the u.s. gov’t,

    but the u.s. govt response has not been to respect the courage and concern of these numerous persons of conscience,

    but to disrupt the activities of and to prosecute

    the one organization, wikileaks, that can give voice to their moral outrage and their courage.

    this is deeply shameful conduct for a president of the united states and his “dept of justice”.


  15. JohnLopresti says:

    The Spanish version of the commentary from Moreno, apparently, is there, evidently having appeared in several editions of El País ~December 18 or 19. The news entity site has a pretty good searchengine.

    Re BobS*s observation concerning the dictatorship epoch, there was a strong democracy-oriented element in the populace, although it was a difficult topic to address as the aging regime obviously had no sequel other than a modern elected parliamentary system. Although events which produced the undemocratic government rooted in a civil war in that country, the latter days of that regime had some resemblance to the mood in the US under Ike, or in many other nations and times in which people relied on war figures for postwar leadership. I suspect it remains a difficult topic even though 60+ years in the past in Spain*s history; the wide support for Garzón*s reinstatement recently illustrated that the generations, indeed, have changed; and the legacy mostly is a new look which owes little to the postbellum forms of governance there. Rather, a democratic spirit reemerged.