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The Bush Administration’s Suffocating Secrecy

Even as the war in Iraq unfolded, President Bush signed an executive order Tuesday establishing a new policy on national security secrecy. The new secrecy policy had been awaited with anticipation, or dread, because it redefines what government information will be made available to the public and what will be withheld.

The new Bush policy is less onerous than the administration’s critics had feared, but it is nonetheless far short of what is needed to clear the air in an administration that is all too addicted to keeping secrets.

Why does all this matter? Simply put, information is the oxygen of democracy. Without robust, reliable access to government information, members of the public cannot function intelligently as citizens, cannot meaningfully participate in the policy process and cannot adequately evaluate the performance of their elected representatives or hold the government institutions accountable.

It is true that there are good reasons for keeping some types of national security information secret, even if doing so deviates from the democratic ideal. Secrecy is essential to certain aspects of military action, intelligence and diplomacy. No one favors the release of design details of weapons of mass destruction, or disclosure of the identities of confidential intelligence sources, or premature publication of military operational plans.

The difficulty, though, is that secrecy can also serve less defensible purposes. It can be used to frustrate congressional oversight or to shield vulnerable programs from public controversy. It can cover up malfeasance or embarrassment. Or it can simply serve to reinforce the tendency, common to all bureaucracies, to hoard information.

Today, lawmakers say they often encounter refusals to comply with congressional requests for information. “An iron veil is descending over the executive branch,” complained Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana in 2001 after the Bush administration rebuffed some of his inquiries into Justice Department investigations of organized crime.

The barriers to information access are increasingly numerous and diverse. Census data, information about the role of industry in the vice president’s Energy Task Force, and budget estimates for the war on Iraq are just a few of the topics on which battles for access have lately been fought.

Of course, in many cases there are two sides to the story, as in disputes over disclosures of inventories of toxic materials, for example. Opponents of disclosure argue that indiscriminate release of information could expose security vulnerabilities. Environmentalists counter that disclosure is a prerequisite to correcting the vulnerability.

But in other cases, the secrecy is mindless, arbitrary and unwarranted. For example, although the Central Intelligence Agency declassified the intelligence budget totals in 1997 and 1998 — under pressure of litigation — the agency today says that the same information from 1947 and 1948 must remain classified and would damage national security if disclosed. This extreme case illustrates the bad faith that pervades much of the secrecy system today. (A lawsuit opposing the CIA’s claim is pending under the Freedom of Information Act.)

The Bush administration’s new secrecy policy includes some provisions that may exacerbate the secrecy problem. The policy makes it easier for officials to reclassify information that has already been declassified. It defers the effective date of declassification for millions of documents that are deemed historically valuable. And it will tend to encourage classification by eliminating the instruction to classifiers, included in the Clinton administration order, which directed them, “When in doubt, do not classify.”

Nevertheless, many observers view the new secrecy policy with relief because, given the administration’s reputation for secretiveness, it is not as aggressive as they had feared.

“Keep in mind that this is the Bush administration we’re talking about, it’s post-9/11, and we’re about to go to war,” one agency official said in early March. “It could be a lot worse.”

As a matter of fact, the new policy preserves several key elements of the Clinton administration policy which had significantly bolstered the declassification process.

Specifically, the Bush policy ratifies the “automatic declassification” of most 25-year-old historical documents, a practice that has yielded nearly a billion pages of declassified records during the last seven years. And it reauthorizes an interagency classification review panel that has endorsed declassification in 80% of the cases that were presented to it by frustrated requesters. These are significant bureaucratic innovations that have now been strengthened by being endorsed by both Republican and Democratic presidents.

Unfortunately, the new Bush policy offers no such creativity when it comes to controlling the creation of newly classified secrets.

By way of context, it should be acknowledged that the United States has by far the most open government in the world. No other country produces anything like the avalanche of data that the American government disgorges daily.

The United States, however, also has the most secretive government in the world in the sense that no other country generates as many new secrets as quickly as we do. This paradox makes sense given that our military and intelligence budgets dwarf that of any other country. Nonetheless, the secrecy of this government is undeniably growing.

In just its first year in office, the Bush administration created an astonishing 33 million new secrets, according to the federal Information Security Oversight Office. This was a 44% increase over the last year of the Clinton administration. Furthermore, whereas the Clinton administration held public hearings before adopting its secrecy policy in 1995, Bush officials see no need for such a step today.

So to describe the Bush administration as “secretive” is more than a rhetorical jibe; it is an empirical fact. In the current state of military conflict, moreover, this secrecy is bound to grow.

But, one might ask, isn’t it better to err on the side of secrecy? Given the reality of the terrorist threat to Americans, isn’t an increase in secrecy justified across the board? The dispassionate answer is no, because secrecy and security are not the same thing.

In fact, unbridled secrecy can actually threaten security. A congressional investigation of events leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks found last year that CIA and National Security Agency reports regarding the terrorist threat to the United States were so highly classified that they were not even made available to FBI agents in the field who might have been able to act on them.

In short, there is no good substitute for an intelligent secrecy policy that distinguishes between legitimate national security secrecy, which serves the public interest, and spurious secrecy, which suffocates democracy. The new Bush policy does not meet that test.

Steven Aftergood is director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

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