Jun 03, 2008
"They hate our freedoms," we've been told. Over and over again. Never mind the willful ignorance involved, even using that shallow Bushism as a measuring stick, we're losing the war on terror. To say "we're losing" is not even controversial, much less news -- if you've been paying attention. But in this neo-PC era, in which talking about obvious realities in the political arena is considered beyond the pale ("chickens coming home to roost," for example), merely suggesting that "we're losing" will be taken by some readers as an expression of eternal "anti-American" defeatism instead of the realistic assessment that it is; a necessary first step toward the renewal of the Republic. Exhibit A: Access to information is the cornerstone of a free and open society. I don't think Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Wall Street Journal editorial page lovin' conservatives could disagree with that. Yet, under Bush, access to information has been increasingly restricted in the name of national security at levels never seen before. And it's happening right under our noses. So, even if you buy into the oversimplified "they hate our freedoms" mindset, the mere fact that since 9/11, America has gone from formal democracy to an official "secretocracy" must have the yet-to-be-captured bin Laden singing praises to Allah. As former Bush White House press secretary Scott McClellan writes in his new book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, "keeping the curtains closed and doors locked is never a good idea in government, unless it involves vital matters of national security. Secrecy only encourages people to do things they would prefer others not know about. Openness is critical for accountability." "The Bush administration lacked real accountability in large part because Bush himself did not embrace openness or government in the sunshine. His belief in secrecy and compartmentalization...ultimately self-defeating in the age of the internet, blogsphere, and today's heightened media scrutiny." Last week, an official background paper on the new White House information security policy plan was leaked to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). In essence, the new policy, announced early last month, gives federal agencies the authority to designate many government press releases as "Controlled Unclassified Information" under the guise of "standardizing practices" and safeguarding unclassified government information deemed sensitive. The official acronym is CUI. On its face, the policy gives federal information officers a single catch-all acronym to replace the various labels individual agencies use to control information i.e. "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." There's about a hundred labels used by Uncle Sam to mark degrees of need-to-knowness. But, beneath the surface we find this 2006 Congressional testimony from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): "The great majority of information which is now controlled can be put in a simple unclassified, uncontrolled category, it seems to me," ODNI Information Sharing Environment program manager, Thomas McNamara, testified. Here's the rub: under the new Bush CUI policy, as Steven Aftergood of FAS notes, the "great majority of the information" McNamara said should be uncontrolled is likely to remain controlled and unavailable to the public. What if a member of the public (or reporter working as a proxy for Joe and Jane Q. Public) wants information that a federal agency has stamped CUI? According to the White House background paper, that person should submit a Freedom of Information Act request. Speaking from experience, anyone who has submitted FOIA requests knows the process is anything but timely, cheap or even necessarily fruitful. The current FOIA system is, as my grandmother used to say, slow as molasses in January. (Several years ago I submitted a FOIA request to the Interior Department. It took six months and $360 to get a few hundred pages of fairly innocuous documents). The unveiling of the new CUI policy happens to coincide with news that The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is overwhelmed and backlogged, facing a mind-boggling increase in electronic and classified records. "The National Archives today faces two overwhelming challenges -- the exponential increase in government-held electronic records, and the geometric increase in currently classified and previously declassified records -- with which NARA has neither the resources nor the strategy to cope," National Security Archives director Thomas Blanton testified at an oversight hearing two weeks ago. The hearing also revealed an interesting budget detail. We spend more than $8 billion a year keeping secrets and only $44 million declassifying them, which helps explain why the National Archive administrators are calling for a "classification tax" on federal agencies to fund a National Declassification Center. They're also pushing Congress to change the standards for how government info is classified; how historical records are released; and for the establishment of independent review boards -- a la the Kennedy Assassination Records Act and the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. "Institutionalizing presumptive withholding in a government-wide CUI policy could make it harder to overcome current secrecy practices when the opportunity to do so presents itself," Aftergood cautions. The irony is hard to miss. In our Information Age, the information citizens need to make informed decisions is becoming less accessible. Inheriting the Mess-o-patamia left behind by Bush & Co., it would be nothing short of miraculous if the first 100 days of the next administration accomplished nothing more than to pull back the curtains, open the White House windows and let the sun shine in. Then -- maybe, just maybe -- we can start "winning." Sean Gonsalves is columnist and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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