The People’s Right to Know: One Man’s Revealing Battle
Angus Mackenzie’s “Secrets” does not, in fact, reveal an astonishing number of astonishing secrets. But it does contain a wealth of information about our government’s ever-increasing tendency to deprive its citizens of information we deserve and need.
The author was the scion of several generations of “afflict-the-comfortable” journalists; his great-grandfather was S. S. McClure, whose eponymous magazine published the muckraking work of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Angus Mackenzie died of brain cancer in 1994, at the age of 43; this book was completed by his colleagues and family.
In a sense, “Secrets” begins in 1970, when Mackenzie was 19 and already an anti-Vietnam War activist. Much to his shock, he was arrested in Beloit, Wis., for selling the People’s Dreadnought, a Movement newspaper. That experience radicalized him further and led to his obsession with the government’s counterintelligence campaigns against dissidents and its subsequent attempts to cover up such efforts.
After his arrest, Mackenzie filed a lawsuit against Beloit authorities and then a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, which led to years of litigation; “Secrets” relies in part on the information Mackenzie obtained from the government.
Mackenzie’s account of CIA infiltration of the antiwar press is not news. But he had broader concerns, and “Secrets” charts what Mackenzie called “a fundamental and radical change in the relationship between the American government and the American people.”
“The government-sanctioned suppression of dissent . . . even after it was officially called off . . . had an afterlife whose consequences to the 1st Amendment were just as dire. Suppression was . . . replaced by censorship,” he wrote.
Today, Mackenzie’s book charges, increasing numbers of documents are classified as secret, thereby becoming unavailable to scholars, journalists and ordinary citizens, while millions of government employees must sign lifetime secrecy oaths. Government censorship, the book alleges, now “pervades every agency and department of the federal government,” and even members of Congress must sign oaths.
What can the government classify as secret? Apparently, almost anything. Richard Nixon classified White House menus.
The Defense Department censored a Pentagon consultant’s speech that included objectionable quotes from Francis Bacon. Seriously ill workers at a secret Air Force base in Nevada were told they faced 10 years in prison if they revealed--even to their doctors--which chemicals they had been exposed to.
It is not surprising that President Lyndon Johnson, who faced rebellion in the streets; Nixon, who was paranoid; President Bush, who headed the CIA; or President Reagan, a longtime foe of supposed subversives, should all have pushed for greater executive control of classified information.
But the Mackenzie book charges that under President Clinton--a man who thrives on the image of candor--"the ring of secrecy around the White House” became “even tighter.” It says that, in 1993, Clinton stamped “secret” on 60,000 more documents, and declassified far fewer, than did Bush in the previous year.
Says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists: “The situation is basically out of control; more information is classified today than there was when the Berlin Wall was torn down.”
Mackenzie’s book is critical of the “establishment” press, which, it says, has consistently favored its own 1st Amendment rights over those of government workers.
But the harshest criticisms are reserved, perhaps surprisingly, for the American Civil Liberties Union, which, the book charges, has made a series of pacts with the CIA, buckling under again and again--out of cowardice, naivete or incompetence--to that agency’s demands. One former CIA agent describes the agency’s relationship with the ACLU as “a nice tame arrangement.”
Does the public care about the increasing infringement of its right to know?
The most dispiriting quote in this book comes from government classification expert Steven Garfinkel: “Once you get outside [Washington], very few people are concerned about this issue. There are no more than three to four people in this country who would go into a voting booth . . . because of it.”