An Obsession With Secrecy

The Vice President has been on the record talking about the fact that … since Watergate, the Presidency has suffered an erosion of power. And I think that part of that view is that there’s been too much information made available.

Jonathan Landay on Open Source

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A request for reclassification

From The National Security Archive’s press release Declassification in Reverse

After the Vice President’s post-shotgun interview with Brit Hume, a lot of people picked up — among them Steve Clemons of The Washington Note — on Cheney’s admission that the Vice President has the authority to declassify information. It wasn’t an admission, actually, so much as it was a simple, unashamed declarative statement. On Februrary 21st, the National Security Archives — a non-governmental organization that collects documents released under the FOIA — announced that several agencies had been reclassifying documents that had already been made public.

Have we lost control of what we know, and what we’re allowed to know? By any measure, the Bush Administration has put a premium on secrecy; one of its first acts on assuming office in 2001 was to extend the period during which Presidential records are kept under lock and key, effectively making secret some things we should now know about the Reagan administration. The White House has not been particularly forthcoming with Congress or the 9/11 Commission; as Knight-Ridder’s Jonathan Landay pointed out in a pre-interview this afternoon, senior members of the Republican caucus have recognized, in their opposition to the UAE ports deal, that policy made in secret can carry a price with voters.

But this obsession with secrecy can’t just be a desire to cover up malfeasance. As Cheney has pointed out directly, this administration believes that the executive branch’s natural constitutional power has been curtailed since Watergate; is all this secrecy just a puffing of constitutional muscle? Do we need to trust the executive in a time of war? Are there long-term dangers to secrecy that we haven’t begun to recognize yet? What about all those revisionist Reagan histories that never got written?

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  • Nikos

    I’m probably wrong, but I want to think that the sudden, eleventh hour appearance of this page for tonight’s show is a deliberate example of its topic!

    Good work, gang!

    😉

  • You raise an interesting point when you mention their “desire to cover up malfeasance”. I don’t think the Bush Administration really views anything they do as misconduct. They are loathe to admit mistakes, and it’s hard to know if they really see any mistakes inside of the Bubble. The Administration clearly believes that it knows what is right for the country and it is acting in our own best interest. Even to the point of Cheney’s ideas of Unitary Executive – they know what needs to be done, and the rest of the government is just holding them back.

    Of course in doing what must be done (especially in the fight against terrorism), they must occasionally step outside the bounds of the law (or redefine the law). Torture, wiretapping, etc. – it’s all in the name of our own safety and doing everything they can to protect freedom. They just say “trust us”, they’ll make sure everything is ok in the end. Bush in particular thrives on being the cowboy come to save the day. And if we shine any light on their methods, or if people leak to the press, that too just gets in the way of getting the job done. (“talking about the wiretaps only empowers the terrorits”)

    So what, if anything, can we do about this? How do those of us that see the folly explain the importance of openness and transparency to those that just want a strong leader to take care of it all for them? Is there hope that people will wake up?

    Maybe I’ve just become too cynical about my fellow citizens and the state of the world.

  • Jon

    An administration has three choices: 1) Tell the truth, 2) Lie, or 3) Make it secret. Choice 1 appears to be too challenging for them in many instances. Choice 2 is also exceedingly challenging, since it requires lots of people to keep their stories in synch. Hence choice 3, which in its extreme form becomes the obsession with secrecy that we are presently witnessing–not to say there isn’t also some of choice 3 thrown in as well…

  • Jon

    make that, “–not to say that there isn’t also some of choice 2 thrown in as well…”

  • cheesechowmain

    Secrecy? What secrecy? I wasn’t aware there were any secrets in the D.C. Color me having a Claude Rains moment of insight.

    😉

    Now, let me help clear this matter up:

    “But this obsession with secrecy can’t just be a desire to cover up malfeasance.”

    Yep. Yep it can.

    “As Cheney has pointed out directly, this administration believes that the executive branch’s natural constitutional power has been curtailed since Watergate; is all this secrecy just a puffing of constitutional muscle?”

    Yep. Yep it is.

    “Do we need to trust the executive in a time of war?”

    Nope. But, given the nature of the *supine* electorate, we will. (Thanks Professor Tribe)

    “Are there long-term dangers to secrecy that we haven’t begun to recognize yet?”

    Yep. Yep there are. You gotta love those known unknowns. (Thanks Secretary Rumsfeld).

    😉

  • cheesechowmain

    “Do we need to trust the executive in a time of war?�

    I don’t think the constitution requires nor necessitates that a citizen *trust* the executive branch in general, the president in particular.

    IMO, we devalue our role as citizens if we merely appeal to trust as a matter of consent; this runs the risk of degenerating into blind faith. I work more from the “trust, but verify” principles that were a common rhetorical theme during President Reagan’s administration. Which is a fairly polite way of saying, there’s probably not much trust, there is much uncertainty and doubt. Uncertainty and doubt in these matters leads to a skepticism which fosters accountability and improvement. I would appeal to the caveat that peggysue (what makes a great city?) offered in another thread that cynicism is not a display of critical thinking. To be contrary and cranky does not make for lucid clarity of thought or purity of spirit and actions. However, in matters of power struggles, doubt and uncertainty are not unreasonable tools for understanding and imposing accountability.

    Implied in that last sentence: there is an inherent power struggle between the citizenry (the vast, invisible branch of a nation) and the government. Both struggle to avoid serving the other, both struggle to reduce the control over the other. Should the governement serve the citizenry, or should the citizenry serve the government? Many issues of transparency and how they should be managed boil down to this tension. Moreover, a struck balance is difficult to achieve.

    Finally, there are many ways to manage information. You can limit who knows, which is the tactic of secrecy. Or, you can allow unlimited access, which is the tactic of transparency. Both allow for a reasonable means of control. Most importantly, built into both are implied *interpretations*. That is, the tactic has implications about its implied effect(s).

  • peadarquinn

    3/1 In light of the culture of secrecy, what is the response of the media in this country to the calculated control of information? Are the multiple media outlets challenging the secret information that is evident in our nation’s activities? What would Noam Chomsky have to say? Sincerely, Peter Quinn

  • brosenmass

    Here’s a post I threw out there during the Reagan show on the 20th of Feb. In the back of my head I hear little voices that may be saying Bush and the regime arecorrect in what they are doing. Part of this is trying to see the present in history’s point of view and part is because I am a geologist….

    brosenmass Says:

    February 20th, 2006 at 8:40 pm

    Fellow Bush basher here – But I agree with the analysis that Bush will be looked upon as a great strategist of the 21st century.

    Democracy is not the end game[to the Iraq war]. There are no lofty ideals here. Our manoeuvres will be seen as a last ditch attempt to secure our addiction to oil. That is how history will see it, and win or lose, Bush will likely be seen as a hero.

    Now somebody please give me the Heimlich manoeuvre….

  • brosenmass

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ever think I will thank Bush for lying to us to go to war, but with no alternative energy sources being as promising as cheap crude, and with the world’s increasing population vying for what little is left, his regime’s move to “secure” access to Middle Eastern Oil may be seen as a last ditch effort to support our standard of living. I hope I never have to turn a crank on my radio to listen to open source…

  • cheesechowmain

    brosenmass, In terms of measuring success/failure of policy, it’s still to early to tell. We’ve not seen the full implications of these results. Moreover, our thinking what is a success/failure today may evolve over time. Maybe we should view these things over a geological time scale.

    Consider yourself Heimlich’d…that chicken bone sort of resembled VP Richard Cheney.

    :^)

  • “one of its first acts on assuming office in 2001 was to extend the period during which Presidential records are kept under lock and key, effectively making secret some things we should now know about the Reagan administration”.

    which makes perfect sense because the Reagan administration was the inqubator for the demon seeds that gave birth to the current den of heinous villainy we call the Bush administration.

    “Do we need to trust the executive in a time of war? ”

    Times of war are when we need to be most suspicious of the executive.

  • Nikos

    Peggy Sue: as usual: right on (I’m so ‘Sixties’, aren’t I? Sheesh!).

    See second reply to CCM for more feedback, however.

    CCM, re your 6:08PM post: LOL! And right on.

    Another ‘right on’ to your 7:33PM post, but here’s some food for thought regarding this from you: “there is an inherent power struggle between the citizenry (the vast, invisible branch of a nation) and the government. Both struggle to avoid serving the other, both struggle to reduce the control over the other.�

    We ignorant Americans don’t seem to know or to care, but in state-of-the-art 20th (and 21st) century parliamentary democracies, the executive can’t play such effective secrecy games with the voters because the executive is drawn from the parliament – and representatives in those systems – which sport vastly fewer lawyers than our legislature (see book recommendation below) – aren’t nearly so willing to delude their constituents for the good of the party. The recent blowups and flaps in Blair’s government – which are not genuinely parallel to the seemingly similar ‘mini’ scandals of the Bushies – bear this out.

    So, regarding this: “Should the government serve the citizenry, or should the citizenry serve the government? Many issues of transparency and how they should be managed boil down to this tension … a struck balance is difficult to achieve…�

    In parliamentary democracies, the government is viewed as the implementer of the will of the citizenry – not as an elected but sovereign (and coercive) quasi-adversary.

    If you don’t believe me (and my assertions based on extensive time discussing this sort of thing with the highly civically-involved citizens of Sweden and Greece), please check out Daniel Lazare’s The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy Harcourt, Brace, & Co.; 1996) http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-0156004941-0.

    I know I’m surely developing a reputation as an obsessive for so frequently suggesting this book, but it’s for a damn good reason. These problems of our government, from the seemingly simple problem of voter interest and turnout, to these vexing questions of congressional integrity and executive imperiousness, are all a by product of an experimental blend of democratic impulse and the founders’ simultaneous fear of democracy (which they dubbed something like ‘mobacracy’, if memory serves).

    So, they gave us a republic only one step removed from monarchy (we elect our ‘king’ to four year terms, while skipping altogether the British ‘prime minister’ model), that was rigged to favor the propertied over the ‘ignorant masses’.

    And we seem so smug with our constitution that we’re not willing to question whether or not two centuries worth of untrammeled development of corporate power and international commerce hasn’t perhaps nudged it into obsolescence.

    To one who has read the Lazare book, it’s blatantly obvious that this is exactly what’s happened. (And I feel more strongly than ever that this is worthy of an hour of ROS.)

    Over and out from one-trick-pony Nikos.

  • loki

    Hey,for George and Dick,telling the truth requires more energy that telling a lie.

  • Phillip

    Penchant for secrecy! Ooh!

    BUSH Regime? – How about instead Bush administration.

    “The public was not informed that having a U.S. military presence could fuel an intifada and lead to civil war.� Odd, I heard that as an average citizen paying attention to the news prior to the invasion. What a secret!

    Of course the office of the Vice President’s should remain as a the do nothing post described by Thomas Jefferson rather than a working part of the administration. The fact that Governor Bush ran office with the stated purpose of using Dick Cheney and other experienced leaders as an integral part of his administration is irrelevant.

    Opensource is stuck on Daniel’s “Left� Shore.

    It’s amazing how the press including Mr. Shore showed great deference to the Clinton administration in withholding information on Whitewater, the death of Vince Foster, and “Hillary Care�.

    Too bad NPR was effective as fighting the oversight of the CPB board.

  • cheesechowmain

    Nikos, excellent post and that’s a good pony to keep riding. You stated the situation very clearly. I’m going poke around for the Lazare book. Appreciate the sighting of it and the link.

  • tbrucia

    Secrecy in the relationship between citizen and ‘the Administration’ results in the same type of relationship between a wife and a husband who ‘keeps secrets’ from her: one of distrust. If ‘the Administration’ were bent on finding a means of generating fear and anxiety, they couldn’t have come up with a better method than they have. One is left with (a) the idea that the guys up top ARE total fools for thinking keeping secrets is a good idea, (b) the idea they are convinced WE are all fools and will trust them even more for keeping us in the dark, or (c) know perfectly well that this will destroy trust between them and the public, and this is precisely what they are trying to achieve. I think of alternative (c) as ‘the nihilistic position’…

  • Schumolberry

    What a change from work has been tuning in Open Source in my car at lunch hour, especially for this Secrecy show. Got out and saw the sunlight, and at the same time heard talk radio getting to the bottom of something…in my case over regular non-satellite radio! It was like the old days of Contragate. An hour I will keep in my memory. I hope and pray more change comes about as a result of what we learn this time.

    Google helped me find sourcewatch.org

  • Constant

    Issue 1: “Cheney’s admission that the Vice President has the authority to declassify information. ”

    Fortunately, the grand jury is ably guided by a competent US Attorney, Mr. Fitzgerald.

    One issue is data; the issue before us is the statute protecting the name. The two are completely different.

    Plame’s name is not a simple “declassification of data” — rather, the statute specifically prohibits anyone from revealing the name of a CIA Operative’s name. One issue relates to data access, the second applies to the protection of people. The statute prohibits revealing the name of a CIA agent — this in not to protect information, but to protect a person.

    I completely disagree with the notion the Vice President may declassify something using the Executive Order as foundation, for two reasons:

    1. The Youngstown Case shows us that Executive Orders must be consistent with statute; at no time may the President or Vice President “authorize” someone to violate the law. Whether someone in government or their legal counsel in New York chooses to proffer this before the court is a separate matter.

    2. It is a red herring to confuse the issue “authorized to declassify something” [which may or may not be true, but irrelevant]; and the issue of “whether one can or cannot reveal a CIA agent’s name.” Whether Libby actually believes this “defense” is a separate matter, but has no bearing on whether he did or did not violate the statute barring conduct against this revelation.

    American Culture: Devoid of credible public legal advocates

    The world has taken the bait on the “declassification” issue — that applies only to information that can be declassified; it is a separate matter whether or not someone has violated the law in revealing an agents name.

    If we are to believe that “anyone” can “comply with the law” by ignoring it, then this tells us alot about the public’s willingness to embrace non-sense; and the government/media’s propensity to spew forth this non-sense without any challenge. As we have seen with Iraq, both the media and government-judicial system fell down: They embraced non-sense, and absurdly believe this will not be challenged.

    – – – –

    Issue 2: The current discussion:

    1. Question: Have we lost control of what we know, and what we’re allowed to know?

    We are not without power to inquire, use other methods, and make adverse judgments. It is permissible – when the Executive refuses to cooperate – to make conclusions.

    Whether Congress does or does not want to act on this adverse judgment – and impeach – is a separate issue. But the argument that “impeachment is just a political tool� should not be the excuse to do nothing in the wake of high crimes, abuse, and malfeasance.

    The problem is twofold:

    A. This Congress has allowed the President to absurdly “reclassify� something that is in the public domain;

    B. The President is given the exclusive power to fire the Inspector Generals. What’s needed is a system that will reform the lessons of the special counsel problems, and inject this system of oversight-audits into the Executive Branch. Possibly creating for congress an NSA-like monitoring system that is directed that the Executive Branch.

    What’s needed is a method to strip the Congress of legislative immunity when they continue to appropriate money for unlawful conduct. Once Congress continues to assent to violations of the Constitution they no longer can credibly claim legislative immunity, and are attached to the subsequent unlawful, unconstitutional conduct.

    2. Question: As Cheney has pointed out directly, this administration believes that the executive branch’s natural constitutional power has been curtailed since Watergate; is all this secrecy just a puffing of constitutional muscle?

    For the Executive to dance and puff unconstitutionally, two other branches must assent to that unlawful conduct. One can only “puff� muscle if one assent to that puffery. At best the Senate Intelligence Committee has turned into the cover-up committee; at worst they are complicit in the war crimes. Hitler didn’t arise simply through brute force; he rose because the nation assented to that unlawful conduct. No different in America.

    Cheney is delusional and believes in non-sense. Get real – Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Black sites, war crimes in Iraq – plenty of evidence that the constitutional muscle is being flexed despite laws to the contrary.

    3. Question: Do we need to trust the executive in a time of war?

    No, that’s why Congress has the power to declare war – and they have not made such a declaration. The founding fathers in Federalist 47 and 51 remind us that no executive is to be trusted.

    To suggest the Executive’s argument “we’re at warâ€? means anything asks us to ignore the constitutional principle: The Constitution is neutral in its schedule –the Constitution was written to apply during both peace and war, not when the Executive wants to follow it or explain it away. This executive has violated the constitution with the unlawful NSA activity, and Congress assents to those violations.

    There needs to be mechanisms to remove the Executive and Congress when they fail to assert their oaths and protect the system. The states need to have a Constitutional convention to discuss this self-evident failure of the current system of “checks and balances� and remedy this well known defect with accountability. It’s clear that the threat of “losing one’s seat with an election� does nothing to mitigate the continued appropriations for unlawful wars.

    4. Question: Are there long-term dangers to secrecy that we haven’t begun to recognize yet?

    Yes, by “focusing on the long term� we are encouraged to ignore the current problems: Chipping away, rationalization of misconduct.

    5. Question: What about all those revisionist Reagan histories that never got written?

    Unclear what you’re trying to say with this. Need more discussion on what you’re trying to say.

  • Nikos

    Thanks, Constant, for an excellent and provocative post.

    Constant wrote: “There needs to be mechanisms to remove the Executive and Congress when they fail to assert their oaths and protect the system.�

    Thomas Jefferson might offer the most realistic answer:

    “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?�

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson

  • Nikos: Thanks for the book suggestion. I’m glad you’ve obsessed over it, as I hadn’t seen the name before. Must be on threads I haven’t been involved in.

    I, too, think that a show about whether our form of democracy needs to be updated would be great. I don’t understand why a document written over two centuries ago, can’t be re-examined. After all, many of the writers of that document were slave holders. Certainly, we have a different perspective on humanity now. And, yes, the arrival of the Corporation in the 1800s and its rise as the 4th branch of government was not in the test models discussed by the founding fathers. (The very fact that it was only written by men suggests that we go back and a get a more balanced perspective.)

    I think it would be cool to have a project where we write a new constitution! Can we have a thread about that? It might even see more action than the morality thread….

  • Nikos

    Allison: thanks — although that’s not why I’m writing now.

    I think the concluding sentence of your 12:38PM March 7th post would be an excellent follow-up to Constant’s long post in the ‘Insta-giants/Bloggers…’ thread. So I’m wondering if you might permit me to cut and paste it to there — or perhaps — and better — you might do so yourself, with whatever adaptation you think necessary or fitting.

    Regardless of your decision, you might like to consider this title as an ideal companion to the Lazare book:

    http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-1579549551-3

    See ya.