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 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Cost of a baby-stroller cleaning, with wheel detailing, at Tot Squad in New York City:

$119.99

Australian biologists trained monitor lizards not to eat cane toads.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today