September 9, 2018

CHANG | Evaluate, Then Release

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The whole shebang of politically aberrant events happened this week from the protests at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing to a former President speaking out against the current commander in chief. In all this drama, the theme of secrecy tied together the New York Times Op-Ed written by an anonymous administration official and Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) grandstanding “Spartacus” moment during the Kavanaugh hearing.

What we learned highlighted the way we — students, journalists and politically-invested citizens — can bring to attention what governing institutions hide behind closed doors.

A senior official in the administration, vetted by the Times, scathingingly critiqued President Trump’s anti-establishment politics while assuring cooler heads were prevailing in the White House. The anonymous identity of the writer has set off a witch hunt in the White House (unfortunately, speculating the identity of the official is beyond the scope of our connections here at The Sun). The writer has also set off debate on whether Congress and Vice President Pence should pursue impeachment of President Trump through 25th Amendment procedures, which deal with a president’s fitness to serve.

As I was reading through the Times piece, I wasn’t entirely sure what the point was. The official’s references to the administrative bureaucracy that restrains presidents describes a long-standing status quo. I’m not normalizing the Trump presidency, since he’s certainly broken presidential precedent. But the control of the executive branch by thousands of public servants in the White House and in each executive agency isn’t exactly new. The president hardly has the time or capability to oversee every policy or logistical decision and correctly delegates these powers to his staff.

Yet the value of expository journalism like this op-ed strike me as a necessary check on governing institutions when divorced from its political fallout. The polarization of the Times Op-Ed has so far engendered a debate more about the legality of such an article than the actual content about the functioning of the current administration. When the hullabaloo dies down, the public probably better understands the “two-track” presidency and the development of the “deep state” — not the far-right deep state, but the deep state of educated politicos that produce policy on a daily basis. It’s certainly not the first time journalism has been used as such a check. Muckraking dates back to the early 20th century, and has become even more important in an era of “alternative facts.”

In another case of “transparency,” Senator Booker threatened on Thursday to release secret emails from Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s days as a staffer for President George W. Bush during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing for his Supreme Court nomination. Although Sen. Booker explained the “Spartacus” moment as a moment of civil disobedience, the emails had already been signed off for release. I’m more inclined to think of the threat as political grandstanding designed to excite the Democratic base. If we don’t see Sen. Booker’s ultimatum in a political light, the memos hopefully do aid the Judiciary Committee in deciding Kavanaugh’s suitability as a justice

In the coming days, we’ll see if the documents Sen. Booker released actually matter in the Kavanaugh hearing. In the coming years, we’ll see if the electorate will pressure Congress to structurally decrease the executive’s power, just as we saw a national outcry about domestic surveillance after Edward Snowden’s disclosure of NSA metadata collection procedures. In any case, increasing transparency through releasing what was previously confidential information has the effect of increasing the knowledge of the governed.

The benefits of accountability aren’t limited to national governments or transnational institutions. Just over a year ago, Mitch McBride ’17 handed over working group documents about newly-instituted financial aid practices to The Sun. Although he faced serious investigation and blowback from the judicial administrator’s office, McBride thought Cornellians should know about controversial decisions by the administration that could increase the debt burden for students and admit “more international students who do not need financial aid.” McBride wasn’t a dean or a employee of the university, but his actions illustrated the importance of involving civically-invested students in different task forces.

There’s plenty of information that should be public but too often slides under the radar, because students fear backlash or serious academic and social consequences. We may not be able to overcome these barriers, but we should work to open spaces for dialogue about sketchy underground practices. This isn’t a call to release every confidential document or to constantly write anonymous op-ed articles criticizing “from the inside.” There are practical reasons why security clearances matter and why we can’t comb through every piece of paper produced in an organization’s back office.

We need to be conscientious of non-disclosure agreements and contracts before speaking out. But after evaluating, we ultimately have a responsibility to thoughtfully contribute to our institutional spaces.

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.