Abusive Secrecy

Here are some statements from an op-ed published in February, 1989 in the Washington Post:

“It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.”

The author also referred to the famed Pentagon Papers case of the early 1970s, in which the Nixon administration had sought to enjoin press publication of a Defense Department-commissioned history of the Vietnam War. The op-ed author wrote: “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the [Papers’] publication. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.”

Who wrote this op-ed piece? None other than Erwin N. Griswold, former Solicitor General of the U.S. during the Nixon Administration, who argued the Pentagon Papers case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the White House.

Griswold’s words — not to mention his very example as a government servant who fought tooth and nail for secrecy only to acknowledge later that the fight was unjustified — resonate all too well today. Just this past week, we’ve seen the release of a classified document that was the subject of a major subpoena brouhaha until the government finally released the document and its innocuous nature became clear. Also released after twenty-five years was was the previously classified FBI file on John Lennon, revealing such shockers as the fact that “Lennon has encouraged the belief that he holds revolutionary views, not only by means of his formal interviews with Marxists, but by the content of some of his songs and other publications.”

Today, the NY Times op-ed page features a stunning piece by two former CIA employees, explaining that the CIA refuses to let them release an unredacted op-ed about Iran policy. The CIA concluded on its own that the piece contains no classified material, but explained to the former employees (who are subject to a pre-publication review agreement as ex-employees) that the agency “had to bow to the White House.” Because all of the redacted information apparently is in the public domain, the ex-employees have released the redacted op-ed along with citations to public sources that fill in the redaction gaps. The authors acknowledge that readers will have to review each of the citations “to make much sense of [the] Op-Ed article.” Needless to say, such a cumbersome read is far less likely to be effective, let alone to get read, than would a single, unredacted piece.

I don’t know of anyone who seriously suggests that the government must never keep secrets. Secret-keeping sometimes is a necessary evil to protect national security and other government functions. But abusive secrecy in the form of massive over-classification, unwarranted pre-publication restraints, etc. should not be tolerated in a system that is founded in large part on the free flow of ideas, an informed populace, and ultimately self-government. Nor MUST it be this way. Both Congress and the courts can play a much more active watch-keeper role over executive branch secrecy than they generally do. As I have written about here and here (and in a forthcoming piece on classification leaks and the First Amendment which I haven’t yet released) such a role is entirely consistent with, even demanded by, the checks and balances that are supposed to keep our system from devolving into tyranny.

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3 Responses

  1. I agree somewhat..for instance, wouldn’t we all love to know exactly what Sandy Berger took out of the Archives. I know people are trying to get the info but President Clinton has so far refused to declassify (which I understand is his prerogative for aawhile after leaving office). Still, I’ll be more impressed with this whole meme when the press starts naming sources so we can assess their reliability…’till then, the idea that our present system somehow hinders the NY Times from their sacred duty to malign all things conservative just isn’t registering here…

  2. John Armstrong says:

    The authors acknowledge that readers will have to review each of the citations “to make much sense of [the] Op-Ed article.” Needless to say, such a cumbersome read is far less likely to be effective, let alone to get read, than would a single, unredacted piece.

    The internet being what it is, I predict that within a day or so someone will have tracked down the sources, made a rough estimate of the original content of the redacted sections, put those summaries inline into the redacted text, and posted it online. Will there be a follow-up post with a link when you see it?

  3. steveH says:

    Our country isn’t founded upon self-government–which would be pur democracy–but representative democracy, in which the people choose other people to act as independent proxies in the voting process. It is naive for the average citizen to posit such an opinion, but it is disingenuous for an educated, scholarly chick to do the same. That is mistake #1.

    Mistake #2: the omnipotent ability to declare what is of national security importance and what is not. There are almost 200 recognized countries on this globe, populated by peoples who speak thousands of languages. Ethnicity and cultural differences not withstanding, can you trump the collective knowledge that is our intelligence networks? I mean, sure, there is plentiful CYA action, but can you ( or “we”) dictate what should be revealed to the public?