Reporter: Government, press ‘contest’ over secrecy won’t be solved

Monday, March 19, 2012

WASHINGTON — The “contest between the government’s right to keep secrets” and the press’s duty to probe those secrets is one that won’t — and should never — be solved, a veteran journalist said last week.

From left: Liza Goitein, Alex Abdo, J. William Leonard, Jeffrey Smith, Dana Priest. Photo by Maria Bryk

“The way the Constitution’s laid out, to solve [the contest] means you either take away some of my rights or you open up all the secrets. Neither one of which is realistic,” said Washington Post reporter Dana Priest March 16 at the 14th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference.

Priest, author of Top Secret America, spoke during the panel discussion “Secret Government and Secret Laws: Do claims of national security trump open and accountable government?” Her comment came in response to a question from moderator Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, who asked: “Are there some legitimate (government) secrets?”

Panelist Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel for the CIA, said that although there are legitimate secrets, government workers sometimes lose sight of what should and should not be shielded.

“Secrecy can be very corrosive. It’s very seductive,” Smith said. “It’s a way of protecting what the government does for legitimate purposes, but it’s easy to have it expand too much and protect things that aren’t secret because of convenience and … a variety of motivations that aren’t good.”

The challenge for government workers, Smith said, is to make sure they don’t overclassify information. Journalists, meanwhile, “have to keep pressing to try to find those secrets and expose things where things go wrong,” he said.

In response to a question from Brian on the cost of secrecy, panelist J. William Leonard, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, said excessive secrecy “makes for bad government” and “faulty decisions.”

“The decision to go to war in Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the decision to include FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security … are just two prime examples of decisions that were shrouded in secrecy (and that) turned out to be totally abysmal,” Leonard said. “Americans have paid … in treasure and blood as a consequence.”

“Without out a doubt, that is … the most corrosive cost of secrecy,” he said.

Panelist Alex Abdo, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said an additional cost is a loss of “basic trust in government.”

“Since 9/11, there are an astonishing number of things that are open secrets that it is impossible for either government agents to talk about or for individuals in court to talk about,” Abdo said. “I think it has an effect on Americans’ trust in their government when you listen to a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder that talks about something that everyone knows about, and yet he’s forced to talk about it in such a way to preserve a need for secrecy that is difficult to explain.”

Yet another cost is national security itself because “secrecy is an increasingly weak security measure,” said panelist Liza Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. It’s “harder to keep the real secrets when so many things are needlessly kept secret,” she said.

“Day after day after day (government workers) are seeing documents that are stamped classified that never in a million years should qualify as classified,” Goitein said. “The risk is that people are going to leak information because they don’t think it matters, because they don’t think the classified label means anything, and maybe this time they’ll be wrong and there’ll be something in there that really shouldn’t get out, that really ought to be kept secret.”

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