Thursday, August 05, 2004

Shining A Light On Secrecy - The 9-11 Commission

Steven Aftergood (of the Federation of American Scientists) is meditating on the arcane (and some say insane) levels of secrecy we embrace, and whether it really shouldn't be just the opposite - with the presumption being on transparency and the freedom of information:

The 9/11 Commission put it simply: The U.S. intelligence community is becoming increasingly complex and secretive - which can cost lives. Transforming the intelligence community's culture of secrecy into a culture of sharing should begin with transparency in the overall intelligence budget.

Current security policies nurture over-classification and excessive compartmentalization of information among agencies. By highlighting this problem in its final report, the Commission has created a new opportunity to reverse the ever-expanding controls on public access to government information and to rethink the impediments to information sharing within government, helping to make this nation safer.

For example, the U.S. intelligence services learned in the 1990s that al Qaeda had plans to hijack airplanes, and reported those plans in the President's Daily Brief (PDB).  However, this information was not shared widely with other government agencies, let alone Congress or the American public. Sharing the contents of this PDB with a wider group might have brought about permanent changes in domestic airport and airline security procedures.

Aftergood goes on to explain that secrecy can be justified in very specific situations, but in a disturbing number of cases is made secret for other reasons, either of political self-interest, ignorance or hubris.  In a few cases, it even seems, as in the investigation of Abu Ghraib, that information was made classified seemingly for the purpose of hiding illegal activities - which is expressly forbidden under U.S. law regarding classification of information.

The consequences of this overemphasis on secrecy are many, including financial and operational, by one estimate costing $7.5 billion a year taking into account all costs.

The commission traced the root of the problem to an inappropriate reliance on the so-called "need to know" principle, which limits access to classified information to those who have a demonstrated "need to know" the information to perform their official duties.

This approach assumes it is possible to know, in advance, who will need to use the information. Such a system implicitly assumes that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits of wider sharing. According to the commission, those Cold War assumptions are no longer appropriate: "The culture of agencies feeling they own the information they gathered at taxpayer expense must be replaced by a culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to [share] the information - to repay the taxpayers' investment by making that information available."

To begin this cultural transformation, the commission proposed a very specific action, which will also serve as a test of policymakers' intentions: "To combat the secrecy and complexity we have described, the overall amounts of money being appropriated for national intelligence and to its component agencies should no longer be kept secret."

This is an astute recommendation, since the amounts of intelligence agency budgets are not only intrinsically important for public policy, they are also an icon of unchecked secrecy that the CIA has gone to great lengths to withhold from the public (even implausibly claiming that historical budget figures from 50 years ago are still sensitive today).

In light of this presumption of secrecy, the compelling evidence of cronyism and corruption, and the deteriorating fabric of American political discourse into competing conspiracy theories (fed by incomplete information), I go a step further than Aftergood, and for the past year have been advocating a constitutional amendment regarding the Freedom of Information, Transparency, and Accountability - to strengthen, expand and put explicitly into the Constitution the Freedom of Information Act, and to make a clear and compelling public statement of our values and desire to see America come together again.

For more on government secrecy, visit the Project on Government Secrecy.