July 28, 2004

July 28, 2004 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Spawning a Culture of Secrecy

Quick, call the FBI! Get a search warrant ASAP. Put the Justice Department's best investigators and prosecutors on the case. National Security has been compromised by another leak of classified information.

And what vital secrets were leaked this time, you ask? Why, appropriations for the Central Intelligence Agency … in 1953, 1954 and 1955.

It happened in the District of Columbia District Court recently in a Freedom of Information Act suit. The files were clearly marked "Secret" and "Security Information," yet they were exposed to the whole world.

Actually, it was no accident. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, the plaintiff in the FOIA suit, purposely made the files public. He says he wanted "to demonstrate to the Court that the CIA's classification policy on the matter is erroneous and that historical intelligence budget information must be released."

But the problem goes way beyond the spy agency. It includes a bureaucratic culture of secrecy that has grown over the decades to encompass the entire government. Experts across the political spectrum agree that government keeps too much information classified for much too long. And too much is unnecessarily exempted from disclosure under the FOIA.

Two serious problems result. One, ironically, is that we wind up with too little control of truly important national security information. (Witness the recent disappearance of computer disks containing sensitive data about America's nuclear weaponry.) When too much information is classified, bureaucrats become understandably confused about what constitutes truly sensitive information and show less concern about safeguarding that information. The second problem, of course, is that too much information the public should see remains closed doors.

Over the years, federal bureaucrats in virtually every agency and department have stamped countless millions of documents "classified" or otherwise exempted them from public disclosure. Now those documents remain locked away from public inspection, even though there is no longer any reason for keeping them secret.

President Bush amended the executive order on classification last year, directing federal agency heads to implement several reforms designed to insure the classification system properly identifies and processes what should and should not be kept out of the public eye. Among other things, Bush stipulated that the classification system is not to be used "to prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national security."

Unfortunately, thanks to the bureaucratic inertia that fosters the culture of secrecy, progress is hard to see. J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office in Washington, D.C. noted recently that senior government colleagues "candidly acknowledge that the government classifies too much."

The problem is so bad, Leonard said, that some agencies "have no real idea how much information they generate is classified" and "whether too much or too little information is classified and whether for too long or too short a period of time."

Similar problems are seen on the FOIA side. A National Security Archive survey last year looked at the 35 federal agencies that handle 97 percent of all FOIA requests received in a typical year. Among other things, NSA said, its survey "revealed a federal FOIA system in extreme disarray. Agency contact information on the Web was often inaccurate; response times largely failed to meet the statutory standard; only a few agencies performed thorough searches including e-mail and meeting notes; and the lack of central accountability at the agencies resulted in lost requests and inability to track progress."

These problems didn't start with the Bush White House and there is no reason to think they will go away after November, regardless of who wins the election.

Should anybody outside of Washington care? In 1966, then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld said the most vigorous opponents of the proposed FOIA included executive branch bureaucrats with "a vested interest in the machinery of their agencies and bureaus" who resent "any attempt to oversee their activities either by the public, the Congress or appointed department heads."

Now consider these facts: Every .31 seconds, the federal government makes a credit-card purchase. Every .77 seconds, it issues a contract worth $25,000 or less. Every 14 seconds, it signs a contract worth more than $25,000. Few of the more than 33 million annual purchases identified by the Procurement Executives Council will ever be reviewed outside of government.

Clearly, the bureaucratic culture of secrecy has a lot to hide.

Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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