Obama’s fight against secrecy

‘For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city.” That’s what President Obama said on his first day in office. He was talking about the way George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had used 9/11 as a pretext for pulling a veil over many of their key policies and actions. Last week, Obama announced he was replacing Bush’s executive order on classified documents with a new one designed to reduce secrecy. Obama’s policies are a distinct improvement, but they don’t really solve the underlying problem.

The basic idea is a simple one. As Obama said in the order: “Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government.” Officials rely on secrecy to avoid being held responsible for their failures and to conceal illegality and misconduct -- waterboarding of suspected terrorists, for example. If practices like waterboarding are a good idea, the details of why, when, how and who should be knowable and defendable in public debate. That’s the principle behind the Freedom of Information Act, which permits “any person” to request government documents.

As the new rule states, the “secret” classification should be reserved for documents “that would clearly and demonstrably reveal: (a) the identity of a confidential human source or a human intelligence source; or (b) key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction.”


Obama’s order requires all federal agencies to review their classification systems and identify information that no longer needs protection. Most important, the order states: “No information may remain classified indefinitely.”

But the enemies of openness have had powerful weapons in their hands, and Obama probably hasn’t done enough to defeat them. Agencies maintain secrecy first of all by delay. It took 19 years for the government to release documents -- long supposed to be declassified -- on the 1959 Berlin crisis requested by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Four hundred million documents dating from World War II and the Cold War remain classified, despite a long-standing mandate that all such documents be released after 25 years unless they fall under a few narrowly specified exemptions. In 2000, President Clinton gave agencies a deadline of Dec. 31, 2003, to obey the order. When they failed to do so, President Bush established a new deadline: Dec. 31, 2009. They didn’t meet that one either. Obama’s approach? Set a new deadline, four years from now.

He has also introduced procedures that ought to help agencies meet the deadline. The review is one of them, but so is a new rule about documents that belong to more than one agency. If a document has been circulated to the FBI, the CIA and the State Department, for example, each in sequence must review it before it can be released. To avoid this, Obama established a single authority, the National Declassification Center.

Another weapon in the hands of the enemies of openness was a rule decreed by Bush in 2003 giving the head of the intelligence community the power to veto decisions to release documents made by an interagency panel. Since the CIA lives by secrecy, the results were disastrous. Obama has repealed that rule; now only the president can reverse such decisions.

But there’s a bigger problem that Obama’s new order does not address. We have an antiquated Cold War-era secrecy machine that kept citizens in the dark about what their government was doing, but it didn’t prevent the Soviets from getting our biggest secrets. Rather than tweaking the present system, as Obama is doing -- eliminating some roadblocks to declassification, streamlining the review process -- we need wholesale changes, in part because the threats today are so different from what they were in the 1950s. We need a broader public debate about how to combat terrorism, and we need a public that is knowledgeable and informed about how we are dealing with terrorist threats.

To start, all documents more than 25 years old should be automatically declassified. Cold War secrets are irrelevant in today’s world. We don’t need to spend taxpayer dollars going through these documents page by page. (In fact, a Department of Defense task force concluded that “perhaps 90%” of technical and scientific information could be safely revealed within five years of classification.)

Then we need a requirement that declassification rules serve the public’s right to know. Without such a directive, it will be much easier for the Obama administration to continue to keep secret aspects of Bush-era national security policy. Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, has a list: “The CIA is still withholding documents about its rendition, detention and interrogation program. The Justice Department is still withholding the legal memos that supplied the basis for the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. The Defense Department is still withholding the interrogation directives used by special forces in Afghanistan.” We need this information if we are to avoid repeating abuses from the past and to evaluate the wisdom of government policy in the present.

The principle that democracy requires open government applies not only to Bush administration records but also to Obama’s. And yet Obama has violated that principle in his executive order by increasing the secrecy around his own decision-making, as pointed out by Patrice McDermott, director of

Under Clinton, information originating from the president and his staff was exempt from release while the president remained in office. George W. Bush added to that the vice president and his staff. Now Obama has expanded that to include “committees, commissions or boards appointed by the incumbent president; or other entities within the executive office of the president that solely advise and assist the incumbent president.”

The strongest counterargument to greater openness is that it would permit terrorists to learn more about our vulnerabilities -- for example, if security lapses at nuclear sites were made public. But what’s more likely to lead to improving nuclear site security: public disclosure of lapses, followed by public outrage and public demands for change, or continued secrecy?

In 2000, Congress created a Public Interest Declassification Board to solicit suggestions from the public and make recommendations about declassifying documents. In 2008, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, Bush ordered the FBI, the CIA and other agencies to comment on the board’s recommendations. Open government groups then filed FOIA requests for copies of the agencies’ comments. The agencies refused to release them. That suggests how difficult it will be to get the agencies to change, even with Obama’s new policies.

Jon Wiener, a contributing editor of the Nation, teaches American history at UC Irvine and is the author of, among other books, “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.”