The secret history of secrecy

The closing of the American government.

By John D. Podesta - Judd C. Legum
March 23, 2004 3:49AM (UTC)
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Every time our nation faces a threat to national security there is a powerful tension between the need to keep the people informed and the need to keep the enemy in the dark.

Such a threat presented itself on 9/11. Three thousand innocent people died and America's isolation as a continental power protected by two oceans ended. The ruthlessness of our enemies and our vulnerability to their unconventional weapons became frighteningly clear.


After 9/11, many have proposed the view that there is a natural conflict between secrecy and openness, a balancing act between civil liberties and national security. Under this theory, the decision must be how many of our democratic principles we should sacrifice for our security. When the choice is presented as one of survival of the nation against an abstract principle, the outcome is predetermined.

But history reveals the fallacy of this analysis. Excessive secrecy does not lead to improved national security. Time and again, just the opposite has proved true. Of course, there are secrets worth protecting, but a culture of secrecy has led to regrettable policy choices, wasted resources and a decline in public trust.

Despite this history, the Bush administration has ignored the lessons of the past and compounded our security problems by withholding vital information from the public. The result has been corrosive for democracy. Public access to government information is a fundamental prerequisite to a functioning democracy. A democratic system is based on the notion that government legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. To be meaningful that consent must be informed.


Instead of engaging in a futile effort to achieve "balance," we should identify those limited critical tasks that the government must keep secret, at least for a time. Operational plans, human intelligence source identities, and advanced weapon designs must continue to command the highest level of protection. Some information must be closely held to engage in effective diplomacy.

In 2002, however, the government created more than 23 million official secrets at a cost of $5.7 billion. Secrecy has become the rule under President Bush when it should be the exception. While Bush presents terrorism as a unique crisis, we have faced national security crises before.

The lesson of the world wars
On July 20, 1916, a group of German saboteurs blew up a large munitions dump on the New York Harbor, creating what the New York Times later described as "a colossal, ear-splitting, ground-shaking, glass-breaking explosion" that could be heard as far away as Maryland. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty. Thus, terrorism was an issue of great national concern nearly 90 years ago.


The attack on the New York Harbor and, more broadly, the beginning of the United States involvement in World War I marked the birth of the modern secrecy movement. During the first days of World War I, the Army implemented the first modern information-classification system. And just weeks after the United States entered the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it unlawful to disseminate information relating to the broad categories of "national defense" or "public defense."

In October 1917, Theodore Roosevelt expressed the prevalent attitude of the day: "The men who oppose the war; who fail to support the government in every measure which really tends to the efficient prosecution of the war; and above all who in any shape or way champion the cause and the actions of Germany, show themselves to be the Huns within our own gates and the allies of men whom our sons and brothers are crossing the ocean to fight."


Attorney General John Ashcroft, in an eerie echo of Roosevelt's comment, made it clear that the "Huns within" syndrome is alive and well. Testifying in support of the USA PATRIOT Act, a law which significantly expanded the ability of the government to act in secret, Ashcroft infamously said: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."

It has always been this combination of the fear of the enemy as well as the fear of disloyalty -- what Roosevelt referred to as the "Huns within" -- that has been the rationale for withholding government information from the American public. As apprehension of subversives rises, so does the scope of government secrecy.

The lesson of the Cold War
Secrecy became more formalized and pervasive during the Cold War. The Soviet Union heightened anxieties of external attack, domestic infiltration and espionage. Communists and "fellow travelers" became the new "Hun within."


As fears of the Communism increased, the executive branch expanded the role of the intelligence communities, continually placing more of the government's operations under a shroud of secrecy. Stunningly, by 1957, the epidemic of over-classification was acknowledged by the government. That year a presidential Commission on Government Security concluded that a "vast, intricate, confusing and costly complex of temporary, inadequate, uncoordinated programs and measures designed to protect secrets and installations vital to the defense of the National against agents of Soviet imperialism" had grown unrestrained. But the commission's advice to reduce and control that system went unheeded. That same system, although somewhat narrowed or expanded by succeeding presidents, underpins our classification system today.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 demonstrated the unfortunate consequences of increasing reliance on government decision making performed exclusively through secret channels. The aim of the limited invasion, planned and carried out in a narrow and covert channel, was intended to spark a popular revolt against Castro. Instead the failed mission set in motion a chain of events that led to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The year before the invasion, Lloyd Free, a Princeton University social scientist, conducted an extensive public-opinion survey in Cuba. The study revealed that at the time Cubans were quite optimistic about the future. Free unambiguously concluded that Cubans "are unlikely to shift their present overwhelming allegiance to Fidel Castro." Even though this public information was specifically given to the U.S. government, it was ignored. This is one of the most tragic consequences of the culture of secrecy: Crucial public information becomes devalued, easily disregarded or dismissed.


Nearly 40 years later the U.S. invasion of Iraq mirrors the problems associated with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Bush administration concluded that Iraq currently possessed weapons of mass destruction based on information that it was provided largely in secret, even though much of this information was self-serving, secondhand or otherwise unreliable. For example, the government relied heavily on information provided to it by Ahmed Chalabi, its favorite exile who hadn't been in Iraq for decades and had a strong self-interest in precipitating a U.S. invasion.

Meanwhile more objective and analytic public sources -- from the U.N. weapons inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency -- suggested that Iraq no longer had a nuclear program and was unlikely to have any significant WMD program. This information, dismissed by the president and his advisors, turned out to be correct.

The lesson of Vietnam and Watergate
The consequences of the bloated secrecy bureaucracy of the Cold War were revealed in the 1970s. The Pentagon Papers case of 1970, the Watergate hearings of 1973 and the Church Committee of 1975 exposed how secrecy could be used not to protect national security but to avoid responsibility, conceal illegalities and accumulate unaccountable power. The result was a legacy of failed policies, wasted tax dollars and a sharp decline in the public trust.

The Pentagon Papers contained a 40-year history of the United States-Vietnam relations. While it held no information useful to America's adversaries, it did reveal numerous occasions where government officials lied to the press and the public. The Pentagon Papers were leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, one of their authors, and Nixon went to court to enjoin their publication.


Justice Potter Stewart, concurring in the decision to reject Nixon's appeal for an injunction, wrote "the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry -- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government."

The most notorious example of the consequences of government secrecy is the Watergate scandal. The investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed that Nixon had used the shroud of secrecy as a cudgel to target his political opponents, employing government resources to steal files and conduct illegal surveillance.

But it wasn't just one man's paranoia that made Watergate possible. The vast culture of secrecy, developed within government over decades, allowed Nixon to think he could get away with his machinations. Bob Woodward summed it up best: "Watergate is not one thing. It's a mindset."

In 1975 the Church Committee launched the first ever independent review of the CIA. The committee dramatically exposed that the intelligence community had secretly conducted a host of illegal and outrageous activities. Among other startling revelations, the Church Committee found that the CIA had secretly administered LSD to unwitting human subjects, conducted extensive surveillance of American antiwar protesters, and engaged in numerous assassination and coup attempts of foreign leaders. In essence, the CIA -- funded by taxpayers -- operated as a separate, lawless, unaccountable government.


Committee chairman Frank Church, following the completion of his work, remarked: "The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. Means are important, as ends. Crisis makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make men free. But each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength which makes us free, is lessened."

These comments are especially relevant in our current struggle with terrorism. We must be victorious. But we can only be truly victorious if we tackle the problem in a way that is consistent with our values.

The lesson of the Clinton years
While conventional wisdom holds that there is very little difference between administrations on the question of secrecy, the Clinton/Gore administration did take the problem of over-classification seriously and took a number of significant steps to make more information available to the public.

Those actions included the declassification in bulk of approximately 45 million pages of World War II and Vietnam War era documents -- nearly 15 percent of the National Archives' holdings of classified materials; the overhead imageries from the Corona, Argon and Lanyard intelligence satellite missions were declassified -- historic documents of great value to scholars, as well as to the natural resource and environmental communities; and most significantly, Executive Order 12958, which set tough standards for classifying documents and led to the unprecedented effort to declassify millions of pages from our nation's diplomatic and national security history.


Since the executive order was signed, more than 930 million pages of historically valuable records have been declassified, with the prospect of many hundreds of millions more pages in the next few years. In contrast, only 188 million pages were declassified in the previous 15 years.

The lesson of the George W. Bush administration
Today, the Bush administration has used the very real threat of al-Qaida to justify the sort of excessive government secrecy that has served the country so poorly in the past. And they have achieved the same unfortunate results -- disastrous policy choices, cronyism and a further decline in public trust.

In a struggle that predates 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney has spent three years blocking the efforts of Congress, the Government Accounting Office and public interest groups to acquire information about his energy task force, including the names of energy company lobbyists who attended task force meetings and how much those sessions cost the government. One of those cases will shortly be heard before the Supreme Court.

It is a telling sign that the use of government secrecy, which originated on the battlefield as a way to secure a tactical advantage over an opponent, has now degenerated into a method for Dick Cheney to secretly negotiate tax giveaways to energy corporations like Enron and its CEO Ken Lay.

But, without a doubt, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 exponentially expanded the administration's commitment to government secrecy.

In October 2001, Ashcroft radically altered the Justice Department's interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, urging all government agencies to withhold any document if there was any possible legal rationale to keep it secret. In so doing, the attorney general reversed former Attorney General Janet Reno's guidance and the fundamental principle behind FOIA -- open government and the presumption of disclosure.

On March 20, 2002, Andrew Card, my successor as chief of staff to the president, issued a memo that encouraged agencies to consider removing "sensitive but unclassified information" from the public domain. In the wake of this decision more than 6,000 public documents were removed from government Web sites.

Among the information no longer available: EPA risk management plans, which provide important information about the dangers of chemical accidents -- including emergency response plans. These documents were removed even after the FBI admitted there was no unique terrorist threat from their release.

But has more secrecy made us safer? In fact, just as it has done in the past, the excessive secrecy of the last three years has in many ways made us more vulnerable.

Are we more secure trying to conceal the fact that any one of the 123 chemical plants around the country could endanger a million or more people if attacked?

Or are we better off informing the public so that they can demand that the risk of terrorist incidents or catastrophic accidents be reduced at those plants?

Are we more secure trying to conceal that U.S. customs inspectors are only able to examine 1 to 2 percent of the shipping containers entering the United States?

Or are we better off informing the public so that they can demand that the inspection process be improved by identifying vulnerable loading docks and tracking the movement and condition of each container from the point of origin to its destination?

We should think about these questions in an historical context. Over the last century our nation has become a superpower. We have achieved our success by creating a system of government premised not on secrecy but on accountability, openness, ingenuity and debate.

In the face of these changes, we can choose to turn inward -- but we do so at our own peril. There are solutions to the complex problems of the new century, solutions that will make all of us safer and more secure. But they won't be solved by a small closed group of insiders. The problems of democracy can only be solved by all of us, working together, challenging each other and holding each other accountable.

That way, when we win the fight, we will still have an America that is worth fighting for.

John D. Podesta

John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and educational institute in Washington, DC. Judd C. Legum is Deputy Research Director. More information can be found on the Center'swebsite.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by John Podesta on March 10, 2004 at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

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