Secrecy can easily overwhelm freedoms

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated columnist

Secrecy is one of those virtues, like candor, that can easily be overdone. A strong commitment to safeguarding sensitive national security information is a good thing. A blind insistence on concealing anything and everything is not. Whether the CIA had good reason to fire Mary McCarthy depends on what sort of secrets, if any, she revealed.

According to CIA Director Porter Goss, the career intelligence officer talked with a Washington Post reporter who revealed secret CIA-run prisons for terrorist suspects in a story last year. Although the agency did not claim that McCarthy leaked that particular information to the Post, it said she “knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence” — which her lawyer denied. She could even be criminally prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Her dismissal sparked different reactions in different quarters.

Liberals charged the administration with trying to intimidate the press and suppress information the public ought to know. Conservatives applauded Goss, while accusing the news media of helping the enemy by splashing vital secrets on the front page.

Both sides are guilty of assuming that secrecy can only be one thing or the other. If it’s always bad, of course, then leakers should be free to share classified material with the news media. If it’s always good, then anyone disclosing national security information might as well be working for al-Qaida.

Trouble is, the people in charge of classifying information are fallible humans whose motives are not always entirely pure. The executive branch has primary responsibility for national security, which gives it a major stake in shielding military and intelligence secrets that might help our enemies.

But the president and his subordinates also have a strong interest in preventing the release of any information that might make them look bad. There is also a natural bureaucratic tendency to cover your backside by classifying more rather than less. The government now classifies some 15 million documents a year, up fourfold since 1995.

The result is that a lot of things that should be public information remain locked away. Even the administration and its allies in Congress admit as much. In 2004, a top Pentagon official testified that roughly half of what is classified should not be. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., noting that some estimates of overclassification go as high as 90 percent, says the system is “so bloated it often does not distinguish between the critically important and the comically irrelevant.”

By erring so far on the side of secrecy, the government does two kinds of damage. First, it prevents the public from information it needs to assess its leaders. Second, it breeds contempt for secrecy rules among executive branch officials. The more the government classifies, the more it invites a counter-reaction in the form of leaks.
It’s hard to get people to respect procedures they know are bogus. When everything is secret, nothing seems crucial.

Editorializing on the McCarthy case, the pro-administration Wall Street Journal accused the press of “inventing a preposterous double standard that is supposed to help us all distinguish between bad leaks (the Plame name) and virtuous leaks (whatever Ms. McCarthy may have done).” But it’s not hard to see that some leaks are healthy. If the president or his subordinates are breaking the law, federal employees shouldn’t be obligated to keep it under wraps.

The antidote for excessive secrecy is not, as some in the press would have us believe, to let every civil servant decide for herself what should be revealed and which newspaper should publish it. If McCarthy leaked material that was justifiably classified, then the CIA had every right to get rid of her. Sometimes, what’s bad for the news media is good for the country.

On the other hand, officials who see abuses of power should have some option besides silence. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would protect intelligence community whistleblowers who feel they can’t solve problems by going to the boss.

Those with “direct and specific evidence” of lawbreaking, gross mismanagement or dangers to public health would be allowed to report it to members of Congress serving on committees that deal with intelligence. That would be a big improvement on the current whistleblower law, which is about as much help as a snow shovel in an avalanche.

It’s impossible to safeguard national security without a good deal of secrecy. But we’re in danger of letting something that should be our servant become our master.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at:
schapman@tribune.com