Secrecy Under Scrutiny
March 12 to 18 is the second annual Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative backed by the news media and watchdog groups to spark dialogue on the importance of open government. At a time of increasingly frequent battles over access to government records, U.S. News sat down with Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, to discuss his relentless push for greater freedom of information. For 15 years, Aftergood has fought for open records and accountability in government. His online newsletter, Secrecy News, is required reading for those who follow national security policy in Washington, D.C. Interview excerpts:
America has a long tradition of a free press, lots of publicly available records, and a government that's wide open compared with most places. Why do we need a Sunshine Week?
The United States has the most open government in the world by far, but paradoxically it also has the most secretive government, in the sense that we are the most prodigious producers of new secrets. The pace of classification has escalated dramatically year after year and has now reached a record level--nearly 16 million new secrets annually.
Is that bad?
It's not inherently bad. Some of that is clearly due to the fact that we're in a heightened security environment after 9/11. But some of it is also due to this administration's apparent preference for conducting business behind closed doors. All kinds of records that used to be in the public domain are now off limits--on toxic waste, on government spending. The problem is that we are undermining our own political institutions, which are designed to deliberate over public policy openly. If we had had a full, searching discussion of the case for war against Iraq, we might have decided not to go to war. Having gone to war, we might have prepared more carefully than we did.
Is it just the feds? How are we doing at the state and local level?
In many cases it's even worse at the local level. A lot of localities have taken to heart the threat of terrorism and seem to believe that if the local city council does not meet behind closed doors, then the city public works project could be targeted next. Unfortunately, there is an exaggerated sense of fear that has become a driver of public policy.
But do I really need to know what my dog catcher or county assessor is up to?
Most Americans will never file a Freedom of Information Act request, and there's probably no reason why they should. But many will find themselves in a situation where they need to know the location and quantity of toxic materials buried in a dump near their children's playground. Or the quality of the water that's coming out of their kitchen tap. What are they going to do then? The key to that is open, accountable government.
The government seems increasingly willing to take journalists to court and demand to know who their sources are--and the courts are backing this approach. What are the implications?
The ability of the press to independently report on the activities of government is being restricted--by the threat of subpoenas and by a series of prosecutions in which the government claims a new right to control discussion of classified information. The upshot is that it is becoming harder and harder for the press to report on national security policy. It often seems that Congress knows no more about what's going on than what it reads in the paper. And if what is published in the paper is restricted, then Congress will know even less.
Why is there such a lack of oversight?
We are paying a price for one-party control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. Under any other arrangement, we would have a much more dynamic political process, with investigative hearings, subpoenas, and a much more probing form of oversight.
Sounds as if you're blaming this on the Republicans.
Not really. There are strong liberal and conservative arguments for reducing secrecy. Liberals tend to stress government accountability and responsiveness to public needs. Conservatives want to ensure that the government does not exceed its legitimate authority. Secrecy is at odds with both of those impulses.
What worries you the most?
What I'm concerned about is that we may lose sight of our own ideals as a society. We may lose the expectation of open, accountable government. We will simply assume that the most important political decisions are out of reach and beyond our ability to affect.
That's a scary thought.
I think that's the path we're headed towards. We are on our way to having our national policies determined by unnamed and unknown bureaucrats who sit behind closed doors and are inaccessible. Look, we don't want a copy of every record in government, but we should want every record in government to be available, unless there is a very good reason for withholding it. That is the goal we need to strive for. Secrecy aggravates the problem; openness can help resolve it.
This story appears in the March 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.