Secrecy makes democracy dysfunctional

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Let me tell you about a truly unhealthy relationship. The symptoms are well-documented: One partner skulks about suspiciously, distrustful, secretive, evasive, conversing with others out of earshot, making important decisions unilaterally, spying on the other partner, retaliating in anger when questioned or challenged.

This is what’s going on right now between American citizens and their government. It is not a relationship that Oprah or Dr. Phil can fix. But it must be fixed. Until both partners in this relationship are restored to equal footing, democracy suffers.

As in all dysfunctional relationships, communication is the problem. Over the last few years, the information flow between the government and the public has become increasingly torturous. When voters and taxpayers seek access to government information, they usually are in for an ordeal and disappointment. When federal officials share information voluntarily, it often has a whiff of politics accompanying it.

Understandably, voters and taxpayers want more access to government information under such circumstances. Requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act have increased by 23% in the latest year for which figures are available. But there is only a one-in-three chance that those requests will produce a meaningful response. If requesters go to court to challenge rejection, a mere three in 100 will get what they had sought.

To compound the problem, agencies frequently fail to respond to requests within the 20 days the FOIA requires; in fact, some requests languish for years. The backlog has grown by 15%, and there’s not much hope that will change. Since 9/11, federal officials have found more reasons for delay and denial, including reinterpretation and expansion of the nine exemptions in the FOIA.

Barriers to access also have taken on a new dimension in the form of “sensitive but unclassified” information that must be “safeguarded,” which in practice translates into withholding. Now there are more than 50 terms for SBU material and at least that many definitions. Whatever it means, massive stores of government information that is neither classified nor exempt under FOIA have been put beyond the reach of the public, scholars, scientists and the press.

In the meantime, federal officials have been manufacturing secrets at a record pace of 15 million-plus a year. In 1997, 20 officials in the federal government were empowered to wield the top secret stamp. Now there are 1,300.

Even government officials concede that this “most open society in the world” has far too many secrets and far too few standards for making secrets. That inevitably leads to over-classification, which in turn creates an effort at declassification, which provokes the intelligence community into pushing back with reclassification.

The most recent example of this numbing and expensive secrecy cycle was the revelation last month that for the last seven years representatives of intelligence agencies have been hidden away in the bowels of the National Archives pulling back into the shadows more than 55,000 pages of information that have been in public for years, some of it dating to World War II.

Mind you, very little if any of this information seems to have had anything to do with national security, but more to do with embarrassment, mistakes or control.

News of the back-room operation did create something of a dust-up. The nation’s archivist ordered a moratorium on the reclassification project. The Information Security Oversight Office began an audit of the information reclassified. The Public Interest Declassification board began a review. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) announced an inquiry into the secretive project by the House subcommittee he chairs.

Secrecy for security’s sake, of course, is one thing. Secrecy for the sake of power and control is quite another. Excessive and reflexive secrecy doesn’t make us safer. It does make us democratically dysfunctional.

That brings us back to the unhealthy relationship between the government and the American people. How can it be fixed?

Don’t look to the elected and appointed leaders who brought about this dramatic shift in the U.S. information policy for help. They have few incentives to loosen their grip on national agenda-setting and the hiding of abuse or mistakes. Rather, they are more apt to protect and expand these policies.

So it falls to the American people to heal this relationship. And as vital as true communication is to representative, accountable and effective government, the vast majority of us seem to be content in the role of unequal partner. The symptoms of that also are well-documented: We prefer to trust rather than verify, we feel less freedom is a fair price for more security, we say there’s nothing we can do — the excuses and rationalizations go on and on.

As long as that attitude persists, this relationship is not just dysfunctional, it is dangerous and destructive — for both sides.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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