. 37
( 53 .)


the reluctance of government-appointed inquiries to acknowledge the
culpability of senior of¬cials. On the other hand, there was a hope
that the story might be closed in another way: in the forthcoming
presidential election. “The electorate would make its own judgment,”
wrote Craig R. Whitney, an assistant managing editor of the New York
Times, in October 2004, “on what responsibility should be borne by
those who made the political and policy decisions that led, indirectly
or not, to the aberrations at Abu Ghraib.”10
As it turned out, hope that the electorate would make such a judg-
ment proved to be wildly misplaced. Polls showed that treatment of
detainees was a nonissue in the 2004 presidential campaign.11 Even
more telling were the three presidential debates, and one vice presi-
dential debate, held a month before Election Day. Each debate lasted
ninety minutes; in sum, then, there were six hours of argument on
the major issues confronting the United States. The transcripts of the
four debates contain over 60,000 words, roughly three-quarters of the

Blacked Out

length of this book. But here are words that do not appear at all:

Abu Ghraib

“Torture” appears once “ when President Bush, justifying his rush to
war, reminds us that Saddam Hussein “tortured his own people.”
“Abuse” appears once as well “ when Vice President Cheney tells us
that “lawsuit abuse is a serious problem in this country.”12
On November 2, 2004, President Bush was re-elected, this time
with a clear majority of the popular vote. Weeks after the election,
John Yoo “ the former deputy assistant attorney general who drafted
memoranda on the legality of interrogation methods “ told The New
Yorker: “The issue is dying out. The public has had its referendum.”13
Yoo™s comment in¬‚amed liberal opinion. Editors of the New York
Times called the statement “outrageous.”14 In the New York Review of
Books, Anthony Lewis challenged Yoo™s assumption that “an election
in which the torture issue was not discussed has legitimized President
Bush™s right to order its use.”15 Admittedly, the lawfulness of the gov-
ernment™s interrogation techniques “ or the question of whether the
human rights of detainees had been respected “ could not be settled by
majority vote. On the other hand, it was a Times editor, Charles Whit-
ney, who earlier suggested that the election would provide a moment
of reckoning on prisoner abuse. Moreover, the dif¬culty was not sim-
ply that voters had weighed the arguments and voted to endorse
(or at least tolerate) the Bush administration™s policy. As Lewis said,
the torture issue was not discussed.
Perhaps the frustration of liberal critics grew out of a failure
of narrative. The story line had proceeded along its normal course
and then unwound. There was no satisfying d´ nouement. “The worst
aspect of the Abu Ghraib scandal is this,” the Washington Post edi-
torialized a month after the election. “The system survived its public
exposure.”16 Senior of¬cials had not been held responsible. On the
contrary, some “ such as White House counsel Alberto Gonzales,
appointed as Attorney General “ had been rewarded. (“Is no one
accountable?” asked the Times™ Bob Herbert, similarly frustrated.17 )
Journalist Mark Danner put the issue directly:

The End of the Story?

At least since Watergate, Americans have come to take for granted
a certain story line of scandal, in which revelation is followed
by investigation, adjudication and expiation. Together, Congress
and the courts investigate high-level wrongdoing and place it in
a carefully constructed narrative, in which crimes are charted,
malfeasance is explicated and punishment is apportioned as the
¬nal step in the journey back to order, justice and propriety.
When Alberto Gonzales takes his seat before the Senate Judi-
ciary Committee today for hearings to con¬rm whether he will
become attorney general of the United States, Americans will bid
farewell to that comforting story line. . . . Though the revelations
of Abu Ghraib trans¬xed Americans for a time, in the matter of
torture not much changed. . . . The system of torture has, after all,
survived its disclosure. We have entered a new era; the traditional
story line in which scandal leads to investigation and investiga-
tion leads to punishment has been supplanted by something else.
Wrongdoing is still exposed; we gaze at the photographs and read
the documents, and then we listen to the president™s spokesman
“reiterate,” as he did last week, “the president™s determination that
the United States never engage in torture.” And there the story
ends. 18

Had the story line actually lost its power? Some explanations
could be brought forward to rebut Danner™s case. Perhaps, as some
observers suggested, voters did not adequately appreciate facts crit-
ical to the story “ such as the innocence of many abused detainees,
or the complicity of senior civilian of¬cials in approving tactics that
voters were prepared to condemn.19 From this point of view, the story
failed due to its incompleteness: All of its essential elements were not
in place. Or perhaps this was an illustration of a divergence in values
between a liberal elite and a more conservative electorate. When talk-
ing to pollsters, voters may have exaggerated their actual opposition
to abuse or torture. (There is a plausible argument that hypocrisy on
torture is the best policy.20 ) The fact that voters did not react to this
story might not have meant that they had become immune to any
story built on the traditional elements of abuse, expos´ , outrage, and
On the other hand, perhaps Danner is right, and the story line
has lost its power. The root problem might not be an ideological
divergence between voters and elites, but a growing sense of discon-
nection between voters of all political stripes and the institutions of

Blacked Out

government. Evidence of public detachment from the political pro-
cess is substantial. According to National Election Study data, only
one out of six Americans believes that government pays “a good
deal” of attention to what people think when it decides what to do “
half the proportion of forty years ago.21 In a national poll conducted
by the Maxwell School of Syracuse University shortly before the
2004 election, over half of respondents said that “government is
generally too complicated for most people to understand.” A sim-
ilar proportion of respondents said they did not trust government
For citizens who hold such views, the business of government may
have degenerated into what Douglas Kellner has called a “politics of
spectacle” “ something that may be watched, and even viewed with
disgust, but nonetheless regarded as a series of events with which
the individual citizen is not directly involved.23 Lacking a sense of
involvement, citizens may also lack a sense of shared responsibil-
ity for correcting misconduct in the political sphere. The feeling of
complicity that spurs citizens into action may be absent. “We are all
torturers now,” Mark Danner wrote in January 200524 “ but this may
be exactly where Danner gets it wrong. The disconnected citizen may
not feel responsibility for what he sees going on inside the circus
ring. And this may lead to the discom¬ting prospect of a world in
which transparency is achieved but the prospect of reform remains
distant nonetheless.
Public disaffection with the political process is a complex phe-
nomenon that is driven by many factors “ including the reality that
political in¬‚uence is unfairly distributed and elected of¬cials often
have abused power. However, we must also consider the troubling
possibility that the rhetoric of antisecrecy campaigners may feed this
sense of disconnection. I do not mean “rhetoric” in its pejorative
sense. Rather, I mean a kind of public argumentation that empha-
sizes the persistence and growth of government secrecy, and that
attributes secretiveness to the base motives of political leaders “ that
is, that characterizes secrecy as the product of sel¬sh of¬cials deter-
mined to hide compromising facts. The rhetoric of secrecy has inten-
si¬ed over the last two decades, for reasons I have already explained
in some depth. One is that the antisecrecy movement is larger than
ever before. Another is that there is a more extensive set of disclo-
sure laws that routinely generate con¬‚icts that give prominence to

The End of the Story?

governmental obduracy over the release of information. And there is
no doubt that the problem of excessive secrecy has worsened recently.
Of¬cial resistance to transparency requirements has stiffened, and
the structure of government has changed “ through privatization, the
elaboration of security networks, the rise of supranational bodies “
in ways that undercut disclosure requirements.
The intensi¬ed rhetoric of secrecy has had an impact on American
public opinion. The conviction that there is too much governmental
secrecy is now ¬rmly entrenched. In a 2005 survey, a large majority
of Americans said that they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned
about government secrecy. Such secrecy, said the poll™s respondents,
threatened to “undermine the functioning of good government.”25
But what do Americans do with this professed concern over gov-
ernmental secrecy? We might expect that it would serve as a spur
to political action. However, as another New York Times editorialist
observed on the eve of the 2004 vote, the “ominous” trend toward
increased secrecy garnered “only a trivial level of attention” during
the presidential campaign.26
Unfortunately, we can also imagine an alternative and bleaker sce-
nario, in which complaints about secrecy are deployed by citizens to
rationalize their disengagement from the political process, or their
tolerance of noxious policies. How, after all, can citizens be expected
to participate actively in politics, if critical information is being with-
held from them? How can they share responsibility for the actions
of their leaders if they have incomplete knowledge of those actions?
The beliefs that government leaders cannot be trusted, that there is
too much government secrecy, that government is too complicated to
be readily understood “ all of these may combine to form a powerful
ethic of detachment, which leads to (and justi¬es) a failure to engage
actively in political affairs or to insist vigorously on the accountability
of political leaders. Worse still, the ethic of detachment may hold sway
even when enough critical facts about speci¬c problems are in the
public domain. We may complain about excessive secrecy, and oth-
ers may accept the reasonableness of our complaints about secrecy,
even when “ with regard to speci¬c issues “ there actually is enough
information at hand to form an opinion about the justness of a polit-
ical leader™s conduct. We may watch all of the political spectacle, and
still use the rhetoric of secrecy to justify our decision to do nothing
more than watch.

Blacked Out

Abu Ghraib, and the broader question of the treatment of
detainees, became one of the main fronts in the campaign against
secrecy during the ¬rst term of the George W. Bush administration.
But much of the truth eventually came out “ if not enough to ¬rmly
¬x accountability, then certainly enough for a duty of further inquiry
to be activated. In the longer run, the signi¬cance of Abu Ghraib may
also lie in the extent to which we overestimated the catalytic effect
of exposure. We can condemn the executive branch for its obstinacy
and the Congress and the media for their timidity; but having done
this we can still also challenge the quiescence of the American public.
The struggle to advance transparency is important, and it is far
from over. In some respects it is more complicated than ever before.
But transparency by itself is not enough. The United States has per-
haps the most comprehensive set of transparency rules in the world,
a vigorous and free media, and an educated and enfranchised popula-
tion. But even in conditions such as these, we cannot assume that the
revelation of injustice will lead automatically to a remedy for injus-
tice. Do we have a right to information? Certainly. But we also have
a responsibility to act on it.


1. The glass case
1. “Today we are all in a glass house, because today everything is seen, every-
thing is read and everything is heard.”
2. This account of the Kelwara meeting draws on my own notes as well as:
Richard Calland, Transparency in the Pro¬t-Making World: The Case for
the Right to Know (Cape Town: Open Democracy Advice Centre, 2004),
Rama Lakshmi, “Opening Files, Indians Find Scams,” Washington Post,
March 9, 2004, A17.
3. A Hero Honda is a popular Indian motorcycle maker; Maruti, a car man-
4. Roy, a remarkable and highly regarded activist, described her philoso-
phy in a recent lecture: Aruna Roy, Dan Sanders Peace and Justice Lecture
(Mumbai, India: 2004). See also Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, Fighting for
the Right to Know in India (Devdungri, Rajasthan: Mazdoor Kisan Shakti
Sangathan, 2003). The MKSS™s campaign also led to the adoption of dis-
closure rules in Rajasthan™s Panchayat Raj Act.
5. Assam, Delhi, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh,
Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu. India™s central government
adopted a similar law in 2002, but by 2004 it had not yet gone into force.
Activists pressed the Congress government elected in May 2004 to pass a
strengthened version of the law. A revised Right to Information Act was
adopted by the Indian Parliament in May 2005, scheduled to go into effect
in September 2005.
6. More information about Parivartan can be found on its website,
7. Chetan Chauhan, “Act Prises Open Of¬cial Registers for Public,” Hin-
dustan Times, October 9, 2004. Satark Nagrik Sangathan™s website is
8. India Today, “57 Ways to Make India a Better Place,” August 23, 2004, 22.
9. Indian Express, “You Have the Right To Know How She Misuses Her Car,”
February 26, 2004.

Notes to Pages 4“6


. 37
( 53 .)