No Comment — October 7, 2011, 2:12 pm

Secrecy: Making America Dumber and Less Democratic?

On Wednesday, Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times:

Speaking hours after the world learned that a C.I.A. drone strike had killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, President Obama could still not say the words “drone” or “C.I.A.” That’s classified.

Instead, in an appearance at a Virginia military base just before midday Friday, the president said that Mr. Awlaki, the American cleric who had joined Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, “was killed” and that this “significant milestone” was “a tribute to our intelligence community.” The president’s careful language was the latest reflection of a growing phenomenon: information that is public but classified.

The passage demonstrates well how classification undercuts meaningful public discussion of vital national-security issues. The CIA’s drone war in Pakistan and Yemen is being talked about around the world; in Pakistan, details about strikes are reported more promptly and deeply than in the United States. Only in the U.S. is the public subjected to stilted, bizarrely passive statements from officials about matters that are common knowledge. The reason: here, the CIA drone program is “covert action.” Officially acknowledging its existence could be grounds for a criminal prosecution.

To take another example, this past weekend the Washington Post disclosed that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), notorious most recently for its series of opinions purporting to authorize torture and warrantless surveillance, had issued a secret memorandum telling President Obama he had the authority, under the right circumstances, to authorize the extrajudicial killing of al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. The existence of the memo became known several days after al-Awlaki was killed in the strike that President Obama couldn’t bring himself to describe accurately. Obama, recall, entered office pledging that his government wouldn’t craft legal policy in secret, and burnished this pledge by publishing a slew of unctuous OLC memoranda dealing with torture and warrantless surveillance, among other issues. So what do we make of the al-Awlaki memo? With him dead, all rationale for withholding it evaporated, but the document, which lays the legal foundations for a military program of growing significance, remains inexplicably secret — leaving policy experts to guess at the Administration’s principles from the bits and pieces leaked by its surrogates.

One final example: the plight of career foreign-service officer Peter Van Buren, who found himself subjected to intense interrogation by federal agents after writing a blog post that linked to a site where State Department cables released by WikiLeaks had been published. It was a new extension of the U.S. government’s wacky policy of denying its employees the right to see and read documents that everyone else in the world can see and read (including the enemies from whom the papers were apparently to be kept secret). The strategy represents a perfect inversion of the purpose of secrecy policies: now only U.S. government officials — the very people who might be called upon to explain or defend sensitive documents — are forbidden to read them. The idea that being uninformed better arms diplomats for public diplomacy is truly novel.

These incidents all point to cascading problems with zealous and increasingly irrational classification policies. The claim that they keep the country safe is wearing thin. The alternative explanation is more compelling: they exist to build the power and exclusivity of America’s unelected national-security elites. And they serve to keep the public ignorant, to shield indefensible and poorly conceived policies from public discussion, and to prevent oversight by Congress and independent rulings by the courts.

New York University’s Brennan Center has just published a report making a series of modest suggestions for counteracting overclassification:

  • Periodic audits by the Inspector General of relevant agencies to identify classification mistakes

  • Modest rewards to “whistleblowers” who report classification abuses

  • Possible suspension or loss of classification rights for civil servants found to seriously abuse the classification process.

The report’s co-author, Elizabeth Goitein, told me she was optimistic that the Obama Administration would take at least some steps to limit the proliferation of classified information. But she recognized that broader secrecy reform remains unlikely, especially since most judges and members of Congress tend to accept executive-branch claims of secrecy without question. Goitein specifically challenged the Justice Department’s decision to keep the al-Awlaki memorandum secret:

The withholding of the legal basis for targeting al-Awlaki is inappropriate for two reasons. First, the world already knows that the U.S. killed al-Awlaki; how could it possibly harm national security to disclose why the Justice Department believes the killing was legal? Second, unless rejected by the President or superseded by a court ruling, OLC’s legal interpretations are binding on the executive branch. Undisclosed OLC opinions are therefore a kind of “secret law,” something that has no place in a democracy.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Average number of new microwave food products introduced every day In 1987:

2

Cocaine addicts prefer $500 in cash now to $1,000 worth of cocaine later.

Scientists in the Galápagos Islands credited an endangered giant tortoise named Diego with saving his species by fathering more than 800 offspring.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today