Throughout History Governments Have Made Mistakes Due to Excessive Secrecy

Roundup: Media's Take

John D. Podesta and Judd C. Legum, in Salon (March 22, 2004):

Every time our nation faces a threat to national security there is a powerful tension between the need to keep the people informed and the need to keep the enemy in the dark....

On July 20, 1916, a group of German saboteurs blew up a large munitions dump on the New York Harbor, creating what the New York Times later described as"a colossal, ear-splitting, ground-shaking, glass-breaking explosion" that could be heard as far away as Maryland. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty. Thus, terrorism was an issue of great national concern nearly 90 years ago.

The attack on the New York Harbor and, more broadly, the beginning of the United States involvement in World War I marked the birth of the modern secrecy movement. During the first days of World War I, the Army implemented the first modern information-classification system. And just weeks after the United States entered the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it unlawful to disseminate information relating to the broad categories of"national defense" or"public defense."

In October 1917, Theodore Roosevelt expressed the prevalent attitude of the day:"The men who oppose the war; who fail to support the government in every measure which really tends to the efficient prosecution of the war; and above all who in any shape or way champion the cause and the actions of Germany, show themselves to be the Huns within our own gates and the allies of men whom our sons and brothers are crossing the ocean to fight."

Attorney General John Ashcroft, in an eerie echo of Roosevelt's comment, made it clear that the"Huns within" syndrome is alive and well. Testifying in support of the USA PATRIOT Act, a law which significantly expanded the ability of the government to act in secret, Ashcroft infamously said:"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."

It has always been this combination of the fear of the enemy as well as the fear of disloyalty -- what Roosevelt referred to as the"Huns within" -- that has been the rationale for withholding government information from the American public. As apprehension of subversives rises, so does the scope of government secrecy.

The lesson of the Cold War
Secrecy became more formalized and pervasive during the Cold War. The Soviet Union heightened anxieties of external attack, domestic infiltration and espionage. Communists and"fellow travelers" became the new"Hun within."

As fears of the Communism increased, the executive branch expanded the role of the intelligence communities, continually placing more of the government's operations under a shroud of secrecy. Stunningly, by 1957, the epidemic of over-classification was acknowledged by the government. That year a presidential Commission on Government Security concluded that a"vast, intricate, confusing and costly complex of temporary, inadequate, uncoordinated programs and measures designed to protect secrets and installations vital to the defense of the National against agents of Soviet imperialism" had grown unrestrained. But the commission's advice to reduce and control that system went unheeded. That same system, although somewhat narrowed or expanded by succeeding presidents, underpins our classification system today.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 demonstrated the unfortunate consequences of increasing reliance on government decision making performed exclusively through secret channels. The aim of the limited invasion, planned and carried out in a narrow and covert channel, was intended to spark a popular revolt against Castro. Instead the failed mission set in motion a chain of events that led to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The year before the invasion, Lloyd Free, a Princeton University social scientist, conducted an extensive public-opinion survey in Cuba. The study revealed that at the time Cubans were quite optimistic about the future. Free unambiguously concluded that Cubans"are unlikely to shift their present overwhelming allegiance to Fidel Castro." Even though this public information was specifically given to the U.S. government, it was ignored. This is one of the most tragic consequences of the culture of secrecy: Crucial public information becomes devalued, easily disregarded or dismissed.

Nearly 40 years later the U.S. invasion of Iraq mirrors the problems associated with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Bush administration concluded that Iraq currently possessed weapons of mass destruction based on information that it was provided largely in secret, even though much of this information was self-serving, secondhand or otherwise unreliable. For example, the government relied heavily on information provided to it by Ahmed Chalabi, its favorite exile who hadn't been in Iraq for decades and had a strong self-interest in precipitating a U.S. invasion.

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