Ron Kirk,  the US Trade Ambassador, and  lead ACTA negotiator for the United States,  was given a grilling in the US Senate last week. His interlocutor was Senator Ron Wyden, who has been opposing Internet copyright enforcement measures in ACTA and in the Protect-IP Act. The exchange was the latest in a series of many between the two, and  it  makes  entertaining viewing.

The setting was a hearing of the United States Senate Finance committee. Senator Wyden was putting Ambassador Kirk  on the spot about transparency. In particular, he was asked about the lack of transparency in the USTR with respect to negotiations that impact on Internet freedom – ie copyright enforcement measures.

 The interrogation was actually not about ACTA, but it concerned instead a subsequent bi-lateral negotiation  that the US is running with a number of countries in the Pacific Rim, and known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

 Senator Wyden was concerned that academics and others who request to see draft texts are being  refused, and told they need security clearance before the texts can be released to them.

When Wyden pressed Kirk on transparency of the enforcement negotiations, Kirk made an astonishing admission.

 Wyden said “the public just feels shut out with respect to this debate about Internet freedom, competition and innovation.”  And he followed with this question:

 “I  want to get a sense of why the administration agreed to a process for these discussions that  doesn’t seem to be in line with the President’s commitment to transparency and open government. Give me your sense of how we got into this.”

 And this was the answer:

Well, Senator,  if I can go back to one of my guiding principles from when I  was mayor. I had the privilege to serve as the mayor of Dallas. When we were in a  situation like this, I would always tell my staff ‘the truth is an option..

 I did watch the webcast  twice and definitely heard that. 

I think that Ambassador Kirk may have been trying to make  the point that his staff should be truthful in what they tell the public. But that's not how it came across. The same statement  could also be interpreted to mean that the truth is not mandatory, i.e. they don't have to tell the truth. It  would appear to be one of those unfortunate gaffes, à la Donald Rumsfeld, that will outlive the speaker. 

 It's also possible that he was trying to suggest that his opponents were optionally selecting  the truth to present their own viewpoint in the best light.

 Ron Kirk  followed this comment by lashing out at opponents of ACTA and the other measures such as Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect-IP Act, as well as the TPP:

 “I think we have some credibility on this because when we were negotiating ACTA, many of the same voices that had legitimate concerns on PIPA put out a tremendous amount of misinformation over ACTA which was subsequently shown to be  not true.”

He finished up  with a tirade about how trade negotiators need secrecy because “no-one would ever sit at the table” with his staff again, if they thought that the texts were going to be made open.

The gaffe begs the question, if the  truth is an  option, what are the other options? And who for?  To turn  the tables on Mr Kirk, one could suggest that  trade negotiators can so easily hide the truth under their cloak of secrecy.  This  is probably closer to the real truth. And it is not optional.

You may re-publish my article under a Creative Commons licence, but you should cite my name and provide a link back to Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten, ACTA chief’s Senate gaffe: truth is an option 13 March   2012 . Commercial users - please contact me.