Alarms Are Starting to Go Off

State secrets: Government officials making it harder and harder to hold them accountable
Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 7:13 AM EST
“Democracies die behind closed doors.”

If that’s the case, democracy in America is in dire need of CPR.

Since President Bush took office, greater secrecy in government has been the norm, and it often involves matters that have nothing to do with national security.

The Presidential Powers Act, which was enacted in 1978, requires that almost all presidential documents, except those involving national security, be made public 12 years after a president leaves office. In 2001, Bush issued an executive order blocking the release of these documents — even if the former president wanted to make them public.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, the administration started designating as secret information that the government had long provided, including historical Cold War information on U.S. air and missile defense that had been available to the public since 1971.

In just the last few weeks, NASA released the partial results of a massive air safety survey of airline pilots who repeatedly complained about fatigue, problems with air traffic controllers, airport security and the layouts of runways and taxiways.

However, as The Associated Press reported, it was heavily redacted and released in a format that made if difficult to analyze.

As Charlie Savage detailed in “Takeover,” the explosive growth of the executive branch’s use of secrecy “was part of a larger pattern in shutting down the flow of unclassified information to the public. Websites went dark, periodic reports that compiled politically inconvenient information were shut down, and Freedom of Information request began running into new walls.”

Alarms are starting to go off. On Tuesday, the Public Interest Declassification Board, a joint presidential-congressional advisory group, urged greater openness, saying the government is lagging far behind in declassifying its secrets and the problem is getting worse as agencies create billions more electronic records containing classified information.

Given this administration’s penchant for secrecy, significant changes are only going to come — if they ever do — with the next administration.

Americans must understand the threat this poses to our democracy. Secrecy should be used to protect national security. But more and more, government officials are using it to conceal what they are doing.

As Judge Damon Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit wrote in a 2002 decision regarding the Bush administration’s attempt to have deportation hearings closed to the public, “The executive branch seeks to uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors. … When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightly belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation. The Framers of the First Amendment did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us. They protected the people against secret government.”

If the American people don’t grasp the significance of Keith’s words — and soon — democracy in America is doomed.


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