Seeing as how the big time reporters and columnists like George Will can't seem to come up with questions to ask the presidential candidates that actually matter, I'm going to suggest a line of inquiry that doesn't frolic in the frivolity of flag pins and pastors.What do the candidates think about our "secretocracy?" And, if elected, will he or she work to strengthen the virtually toothless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) -- the legal key to an open society?
Former staff writer for the Washington Post and Time magazine, Ted Gup uses the term "secretocracy" to describe our post-9/11 society. You may not have heard of this because reporters generally don't report on it, except maybe during Sunshine Week. Rarely are there stories about information journalists did not get. That's not sexy.
Over the weekend, Gup, who is now a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University, explained to me what he means by "secretocracy."
First, noting that "secrecy is as old as power itself," Gup described the paradigmatic shift toward hyper-secrecy after 9/11, which should be fairly obvious to anyone who hasn't been in a coma since the dawn of the new millennium. But journalists, whose stock and trade is information, have come to know official secrecy intimately.
"Virtually everything was considered a target after 9/11 -- the entire infrastructure of the country. It brought out the opportunists who've always thought there was too much transparency."
For example, Homeland Security instructed state governments to take bridge maintenance reports off their Websites. After the Minneapolis bridge collapse, when reporters went to find out if other bridges were safe on behalf of those who drive over them everyday, they hit a wall of "security" secrecy, despite it being more likely for a bridge to collapse than for it to struck by terrorists.
The two bridges (built in the 1930s) that are the only vehicular way on and off Cape Cod are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- perhaps the most secretive federal agency outside the traditional national security apparatus, as people seeking post-Katrina information about the Army Corps' role in the New Orleans levee failures learned.
Another alarming manifestation of our "secretocracy" can be found in the federal court system. Did you know that fewer than two percent of federal court cases go to a full and open trial, as more and more cases are settled through "alternative dispute resolutions" and are sealed?
In researching his latest book Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy And The American Way of Life, Gup discovered that the software system used in all federal courts is specifically designed to spit out "No Such Case Exists" when a query is made of sealed cases. It's one thing for the courts to say: you can't have access to a particular case file but to deny that a case exists when it's actually sealed is officially-sanctioned lying by an institution that is supposed to be candor and fairness incarnate.
But, even aside from America's entire civilian infrastructure being drawn into the secretive military-industrial nexus, we've seen an opportunistic Bush administration, with the help of a compliant Congress and Supreme Court, consolidate power under the "unitary executive" theory. (Funny how Busheviks get all hot and bothered about the theory of evolution -- "it's just a theory; not an indisputable fact!" -- but apparently have no problem with a legal theory that undermines Constitutional checks-and-balances).
"The quickest way to consolidate power and disenfranchise those who would challenge it is to deprive people of information. Secrecy. You can't challenge something without good information," Gup rightly observed.
Though 9/11 is the symbolic start of America's "secretocracy," this creeping fascism is inextricably linked to deregulation, which, among other things, "reduced the reporting requirements (of private companies) and created a laissez-faire atmosphere where the government is seen, not as a regulator, but as a partner."
And some folks wonder why reports of contaminated human and animal food -- even toys -- have become regular news stories.
The most discouraging thing about all this is that because you can't sign a treaty with a non-state enemy in this so-called Global War on Terror, our "secretocracy" could be with us for an "indeterminate duration," Gup reminded me.
Does terrorism justify a closed-door, back-room, Ashcroftian, just-trust-us society or is it a delusion -- based on false promises of security, whereby fearful people lose the ability to think clearly about the real world, signaling to "the enemy" that we've already lost?
"There's an illusion of safety and a notion that somehow the more secretive we are the more secure we are. But the lesson of 9/11 and much of history is just the opposite of that," Gup notes, pointing to the bipartisan 9/11 commission (and most other analyses), concluding that 9/11 "surprised" us, not because there was a lack of information, but due to "a lack of connectivity of information already in hand, which is to say there was too much secrecy; not enough collaboration and cooperation. That makes us vastly more vulnerable."
Gup left me with a sobering thought: If you added up all the harm that's been done because people didn't have enough information, or because vital information was withheld, it would be staggering.
Before I got off the phone with Gup, he reminded me that "this is not about us (in the media). We are there are as proxies. We have no special powers. The public knows about the First Amendment but they sometimes interpret it to mean that the government has to cooperate with us. They don't."
"This isn't about the news media, it's about people needing information to make informed decisions. Every aspect of our lives is predicated on information. And the degree to which vital information is denied citizens is the degree to which they are exposed to unknown risk."
What to do? Here's a starter idea: ask your Congressional rep to give FIOA some real teeth. In the meantime, submit a FIOA or public records request to a federal or state agency, asking them to give you a list of everything you're not allowed to know.
Shoot me an email if you get a response.
Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org