Secrecy Under Scrutiny

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March 12 to 18 is the second annual Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative backed by the news media and watchdog groups to spark dialogue on the importance of open government.

At a time of increasingly frequent battles over access to government records, U.S. News sat down with Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, to discuss his relentless push for greater freedom of information. For 15 years, Aftergood has fought for open records and accountability in government. His online newsletter, Secrecy News, is required reading for those who follow national security policy in Washington, D.C. Interview excerpts:

America has a long tradition of a free press, lots of publicly available records, and a government that's wide open compared with most places. Why do we need a Sunshine Week?

The United States has the most open government in the world by far, but paradoxically it also has the most secretive government, in the sense that we are the most prodigious producers of new secrets. The pace of classification has escalated dramatically year after year and has now reached a record level--nearly 16 million new secrets annually.

Is that bad?

It's not inherently bad. Some of that is clearly due to the fact that we're in a heightened security environment after 9/11. But some of it is also due to this administration's apparent preference for conducting business behind closed doors. All kinds of records that used to be in the public domain are now off limits--on toxic waste, on government spending. The problem is that we are undermining our own political institutions, which are designed to deliberate over public policy openly. If we had had a full, searching discussion of the case for war against Iraq, we might have decided not to go to war. Having gone to war, we might have prepared more carefully than we did.

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