Secrecy and Transparency

top secret

From Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News:

Although people have been complaining about abuse of the national security classification system for decades, such complaints have rarely been translated into real policy changes.

More than half a century ago, a Defense Department advisory committee warned that “Overclassification has reached serious proportions.”  But despite innumerable attempts at corrective action over the years by official commissions, legislators, public interest groups and others, similar or identical complaints echo today.  What is even more interesting and instructive, however, is that a few of those attempts did not fail.  Instead, they led to specific, identifiable reductions in official secrecy, at least on a limited scale.

For example, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) that was created in 1995 has consistently overturned the classification of information in the majority of documents presented for its review.  And the Fundamental Classification Policy Review that was performed by the Department of Energy in 1995 eliminated dozens of obsolete classification categories following a detailed review of agency classification guides.  These and just a few other exceptional efforts demonstrate that even deeply entrenched secrecy practices can be overcome under certain conditions.

Aftergood’s recent paper Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works has just been published in the Yale Law Review’s Spring 2009 edition (warning, pdf).

Yesterday Richard Lyon over at the Orange wrote about how Obama is threatening to veto legislation that would expand the “Gang of 8” to 40:

The problem as Democrats have described it is that the gang members are sworn to secrecy, making it impossible for any to mount legislative resistance to a White House policy or conduct effective oversight. That’s the reason they said they were helpless when confronting former President Bush on torture, surveillance and the rest in the aftermath 9/11.

House Dems want to expand that briefing to more than 40 members. A bit unwieldy perhaps, but Obama’s threatening a veto

I’m not sure expanding the Gang of 8 to 40 members is the answer to the Obama Administration’s disturbing trend of government secrecy.  And of course it would do little when it comes to the issue of torture and holding those who have authorized torture accountable for their actions — which would require releasing documents and photos that are now classified.

As I commented in the thread:

I also think the problem was that no one had the political courage to break the law when they knew what was being done, and accepted the consequences of doing so, even if it meant going to jail.  Whether it’s 4 or 40, there may be times when doing the right thing won’t be so easy.

I also think what is considered “sensitive” information has morphed horribly these past few decades and particularly in the past 8 years.  Steven Aftergood has written extensively about this.

The bottom line, for me, is that I no longer trust our government when it comes to “state secrets” and national security.  Obama is going to have to deal with that mistrust — there can be no business as usual after the vast abuses that have been committed by our intelligence agencies, etc., in the past decades and particularly the last 8 years.

To assume that government officials can talk about classified information the way they used to and still have credibility is to assume way too much, imo, especially given the fact that the Obama Administration has not held anyone accountable for the many crimes that have been committed and remain classified.

It’s that bottom line I’m speaking of here in this essay.  The words “national security” have been so debased in the past eight years, the secrecy continuing even to environmental and energy decisions, that it isn’t enough to use them any more without  restoring their credibility in a meaningful way.

Transparency, as Aftergood’s paper makes clear, is not easy in an unwieldy bureaucracy.  But it is also not impossible.  Until we have that transparency, the Obama Administration — and Congress — shouldn’t be surprised when we greet their actions on secrecy with the utmost skepticism.

5 comments

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  1. … is a hero of mine.  All through the Bush years he worked indefatigably to expose the truth of the most secretive Administration in recent history.

    Let’s hope we can reverse this trend.

    • Edger on July 9, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    What classification category do Obama’s reasons for standing for the rule of law only when it suits him, and his reasons for not prosecuting confessed torturers, fall into?

    • Alma on July 9, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Not much time on the computer with summer here and relatives up visiting.  Yes, I’m whinning and bitching.  😉

    I think this is very important.  I haven’t had time to read the pdf and links yet, but I think it behooves us to try methods that have worked before, since we don’t seem to be making a lot of progress with what we’ve been doing.

    Hope you are doing good darlin’.

    • pico on July 10, 2009 at 12:51 am

    is this line:

    That’s the reason they said they were helpless when confronting former President Bush on torture, surveillance and the rest in the aftermath 9/11.

    That is such transparent (heh) bullshit.  I like anything that leads to greater government transparency, but 1. as you pointed out, this does little to address transparency effectively, and 2. it’s more about covering the asses of those in Congress who failed to act on torture, surveillance, etc.  Pelosi is still trying to cover her own massive failure, and this is just a cosmetic band-aid on an already gaping wound.  

    Ugh.  Sorry.  Just very frustrating.

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