A corollary to the belief about the value of an informed electorate
is that an uninformed or misinformed electorate is likely to make bad
decisions or at least be open to manipulation by unscrupulous
politicians. In that sense, excessive government secrecy is the enemy of
a meaningful democracy. Indeed, secrecy is often the handmaiden to
George W. Bush's government obviously is not the first U.S.
administration to abuse its power over state secrets, but it has
exploited the "war on terror" relentlessly to classify and thus hide its
controversial -- and potentially illegal -- policies, such as
spying on Americans and torturing detainees in U.S. custody.
Then, when these policies were belatedly exposed, the administration
exaggerated any real harm that the disclosures might pose to national
security. The end result may be the prosecution of government
whistleblowers and even journalists. In this guest essay, Ivan Eland of
the Independent Institute explores the artificiality of many government
secrets and their pernicious effects on democracy:
Gonzales is threatening to prosecute reporters under the 1917
Espionage Act. This anachronistic act was passed during World War I to
make it illegal for unauthorized personnel to receive and transmit
national defense information.
The law is also currently being used to prosecute two lobbyists from
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for obtaining and
transmitting classified information they received from a U.S. Defense
Department employee. The lobbyists’ lawyers have filed a motion in court
arguing that the law is an unconstitutional breach of the First
Amendment right to free speech.
A successful prosecution in the AIPAC case could open the floodgates
to indict journalists for publishing classified information leaked to
them by government officials. The government would have an easier time
prosecuting reporters than it does uncovering and indicting
often-anonymous leakers. In fact, the threat of being prosecuted might
make reporters less inclined to protect sources, thereby flushing out
the leakers, or making officials more reluctant to leak in the first
The casual observer might conclude that reducing the amount of
classified information in the media might be a good idea. But the
revelation of the unconstitutional NSA domestic spying program shows
that leaks by conscientious officials can, at times, have positive
effects. And the public shouldn’t assume that all, or even most, of the
information the government shields from public view needs to be secret.
Classification can hide facts embarrassing to the U.S. government or
keep information from the American public that is common knowledge among
foreign governments. An example of the latter was President Jimmy
Carter’s revelation on television that the United States had spy
satellites, which the nations of the world had long known.
Officials working for both Democratic and Republican administrations
have routinely and predictably exhibited contradictory behavior toward
classified information—on the one hand, regularly leaking highly
classified information for political or policy gain and, on the other
hand, attempting to stifle leaks of embarrassing information. The most
famous case of the latter was President Nixon’s team of Watergate
“plumbers,” which was originally set up to plug leaks.
Such schizophrenic behavior was recently on display at the
confirmation hearing of General Michael Hayden, nominated for director
of the CIA. General Hayden said that he would only respond to Sen.
Dianne Feinstein’s pointed questions about embarrassing government
spying activities and prisoner interrogation methods in a committee
session closed to the media and public.
But in response to one of Sen. Feinstein’s questions, General Hayden
eagerly took the opportunity to talk about the Iranian threat in open
session. Similarly, government officials keep the cost of the overall
U.S. intelligence budget classified, even though it is widely known to
be about $44 billion.
Yet they have no problem leaking to the media to brag about the
tripling of clandestine intelligence officers in the field or the
opening of 20 percent more secret CIA stations around the
world—information that actually might be of some use to terrorists and
foreign intelligence agencies.
Yes, there is some information that should be classified—for example,
intelligence officers in the field (or their foreign sources and
contacts) could be killed if their identities were revealed. Yet the
same Bush administration that may well prosecute reporters for writing
about its illegal warrantless spying program conspired at the highest
levels to expose the identity of a CIA field officer for political gain.
The evidence seems to indicate that Vice President Dick Cheney was
interested in CIA officer Valerie Plame’s occupation.
But the over-classification of much government information makes
officials cynical about keeping much smaller amounts of legitimately
sensitive data under wraps. Thus, a massive declassification of
government information would make the remaining secrets more secure and
less open to political manipulation. Unfortunately, the Bush
administration is classifying ever more information.
More important, in a democracy, where the supposed rulers—the
people—need the maximum information possible to make good decisions, the
amount of information that is withheld from the public should be
minimal. And if the government cannot keep its data secret, government
officials, not journalists, should be the ones who are prosecuted.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.