8. Government Secrecy Makes a Mockery of Democracy

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: Issues In Science and Technology, 307 Massachusetts Avenue, NE Washington, DC 20002, Date: Summer 1992, Title: “The Perils of Government Secrecy,” Author: Steven Aftergood

SYNOPSIS: In 1991 some 6,500 U.S. gov­ernment employees classified 7,107,017 documents, an average of more than 19,000 documents per day. Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, DC, says our information policy is in disarray, with widespread over­-classification and an inefficient and costly information system. Further, the classified files are overflowing with records of policy decisions, historical and budget docu­ments, and reams of environmental data that could not possibly compromise our national security. Some examples:

Secret historical documents: As of last year, the oldest classified military docu­ment in the National Archives was dated April 15, 1917, and concerns U.S. troop movements in Europe during World War I. National Security Directives (NSD): These secret presidential directives with­hold basic policy documents concerning space, telecommunications, counter-nar­cotics, etc., from Congress as well as the public. Until May 1992, not a single Bush administration NSD had ever been made public; at that time, President Bush, under pressure, partially declassified his direc­tive concerning U.S. policy on Iraq.

The Black Budget: About 15 percent of the Defense Department’s budget for weapons acquisition has been classified in recent years, keeping the cost of a pro­gram, its purpose, even its existence a secret from Congress. Often the excessive secrecy leads to abuse involving program failures, cost overruns and fraud.

Secret environmental impact data: The Department of Energy has withheld data on the health effects of its nuclear weapons production facilities. No matter how potentially dangerous a proposed project may be to the public, information about its hazards can be concealed.

Intelligence information: There are more than a dozen intelligence agencies within the government, including the Na­tional Reconnaissance Office (NRO), re­sponsible for satellite reconnaissance. Ironically, the very name and existence of the NRO are classified. Further, the com­bined budget for these agencies is secret because it is felt that official disclosure of such a number, estimated to be about $30 billion a year, would jeopardize American agents or sensitive technologies. Con­cerned with an ever-increasing criticism of its secrecy, the CIA last year prepared a report on how the agency might achieve greater openness — and then classified the report.

While governments require some degree of secrecy, it was only with the start of the Cold War that it went beyond mili­tary information and became an institu­tionalized part of the U.S. bureaucracy. In 1951, President Truman established a clas­sification system that included civilian as well as military agencies. The system has been revised a number of times since and reached a peak of openness under the Carter administration. This trend toward openness was reversed by President Reagan, who, in 1983, issued an executive order that said, in essence, when in doubt, classify. And if there is a question of what level of classification, the higher level is to be adopted. Now the system is totally out of control.

As Aftergood concludes, “Openness in government is not a threat to national security … it is the foundation of the nation’s political way of life and the source of much of its strength.”

SSU Censored Researcher: Kimberly S Anderson

 COMMENTS: The millions of documents now being classified annually, as author Steven Aftergood points out, can be traced to Friday, March 11, 1983, when President Ronald Reagan issued an executive order to “stem the flow of leaks of classified government information.”

At the time, Anthony Lewis, colum­nist with the New York Times, warned that this was “the most dangerous executive order in many years: dangerous to the American system of democratic control over public policy. It is also, so far, danger­ously misunderstood.”

Aftergood offers some further points: “Considering its importance in deter­mining the boundaries of permitted public knowledge, the government secrecy sys­tem has not been closely scrutinized or even widely recognized.

“Even when the news media report the eruption of scandals such as Iraqgate, they have rarely stopped to examine the structural factors that make such scandals possible. One of these factors is certainly the arbitrary exercise of classification au­thority, which all too often allows political misconduct to be concealed in the name of national security.

“Wider exposure of the systemic abuse of government secrecy would fi­nally make it politically possible to reform the secrecy system and to challenge it when warranted. Government officials quite naturally tend to conceal informa­tion they deem sensitive. It is incumbent on an informed electorate to assert its right to know and to demand government ac­countability. The necessary first step is to acknowledge the problem.

“It is hard to say that anyone benefits by ignoring the explosive growth of gov­ernment secrecy, except of course those who have secrets they wish to maintain. But if there is in fact a core body of informa­tion that truly must be protected in the interests of national security, as I believe, then that information too may become less secure when classification authority is invoked for bureaucratic or political ad­vantage, and the credibility of the classifi­cation system declines.

“It is easier to say who is harmed by ignoring secrecy, and that is almost every­one, to some degree. Excessive secrecy has not only become a hindrance in sci­ence and technology, it has infected much of government information policy, frustrat­ing public debate on a range of crucial subjects from foreign policy to the envi­ronment, and subverting the operation of our political institutions.”

Aftergood also has a tip for the Clinton administration:

“Since the national security classifica­tion system is based on Executive Order, not statutory law, it can be unilaterally altered by the president. One may hope that the Clinton administration will finally see fit to reverse at least some of the abuses of the Cold War secrecy system, and especially the excesses of the Reagan/ Bush years.”