America's Secret Obsession

By Ted Gup
Sunday, June 10, 2007

"If you guard your toothbrushes and diamonds with equal zeal, you'll probably lose fewer toothbrushes and more diamonds."

-- Former national security adviser

McGeorge Bundy

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In April 1971, CIA officer John Seabury Thomson paddled his aluminum canoe across the Potomac on his daily commute from his home in Maryland to CIA headquarters in Langley. When he reached the Virginia shore, he noticed a milky substance clouding the waters around Pulp Run. A fierce environmentalist, Thomson traced the pollution to its source: his employer. The murky white discharge was a chemical mash, the residue of thousands of liquefied secrets that the agency had been quietly disposing of in his beloved river. He single-handedly brought the practice to a halt.

Nearly four decades later, though, that trickle of secrets would be a tsunami that would capsize Thomson's small craft. Today the nation's obsession with secrecy is redefining public and private institutions and taking a toll on the lives of ordinary citizens. Excessive secrecy is at the root of multiple scandals -- the phantom weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of Enron, the tragedies traced to Firestone tires and the arthritis drug Vioxx, and more. In this self-proclaimed "Information Age," our country is on the brink of becoming a secretocracy, a place where the right to know is being replaced by the need to know.

For the past six years, I've been exploring the resurgent culture of secrecy. What I've found is a confluence of causes behind it, among them the chill wrought by 9/11, industry deregulation, the long dominance of a single political party, fear of litigation and liability and the threat of the Internet. But perhaps most alarming to me was the public's increasing tolerance of secrecy. Without timely information, citizens are reduced to mere residents, and representative government atrophies into a representational image of democracy as illusory as a hologram.

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The explosion in government secrecy since 9/11 has been breathtaking. In 1995, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, the stamp of classification -- "confidential," "secret," "top secret," etc. -- was wielded about 3.6 million times, mostly to veil existing secrets in new documents. Ten years later, it was used a staggering 14.2 million times (though some of the bump-up was the result of increased use of the Internet for government communications). That works out to 1,600 classification decisions every hour, night and day, all year long. (And not one of those secrets is believed to reveal where Osama bin Laden is.)

Managing this behemoth has required a vast expansion in the ranks of those cleared to deal in secrets. By 2004, the line of 340,000 people waiting to receive a security clearance would have stretched 100 miles -- from Washington to Richmond. Many must still wait a year or more. And the cost of securing those secrets -- as much as $7.7 billion in safes, background checks, training and information security -- is about equal to the entire budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the notion that information is more credible because it's secret is increasingly unfounded. In fact, secret information is often more suspect because it hasn't been subjected to open debate. Those with their own agendas can game the system, over-classifying or stove-piping self-serving intelligence to shield it from scrutiny. Those who cherry-picked intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war could ignore anything that contradicted it. Even now, some members of Congress tell me that they avoid reading classified reports for fear that if they do, the edicts of secrecy will bar them from discussing vital public issues.

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