Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Secrecy: greater peril to U.S. democracy than terrorists?


Though our society is often reviled as a shamelessly exhibitionist one in which people eagerly share personal secrets on confessional TV, our government is morphing into a "secretocracy," where, as professor and author Ted Gup explains coldly, a citizen's right to know is being replaced by a "need to know."

From the sealing of local court lawsuit settlements, to the names of food dispensers caught with uneatable products, to Cold War Defense Department budgets to a mosaic of government operations, the heavy veil of secrecy is blocking public access to more and more of the people's business.

In 2005, for example, "Top Secret" was slapped 14.2 million times on official federal documents, according to the Information Security Oversight Office. That's 1,600 classifications each hour, around the clock, all year, a fourfold increase in 10 years. Millions more were listed with lesser classifications of "secret" and "confidential." The number of court cases involving product and food liability that were settled and sealed is incalculable.

Except for indisputable national security needs, far too many public documents are being hidden from public access for vain political or professional reasons or to shield blunders and mismanagement.

By one reckoning, at least 1.5 billion—billion!—U.S. government documents deemed too sensitive for the public to see are 25 years old or more. Some include newspaper articles that have been stamped "secret."

In its mid-1990s final report, the Moynihan Secrecy Commission quoted one observer as saying, "Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament—at least insofar as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy's interests."

Such frantic classification is perilous to democracy: Government can't be held accountable and the public is denied information required for healthy debate and dissent.

Obsessive secrecy is a bank breaker, too. According to a two-year Washington Post investigation, 854,000 federal employees are empowered to see, handle and classify secret documents. Since 9/11, at least 33 buildings totaling 17 million square feet have been built in the Washington area for secret intelligence work.

And for the first time, U.S. intelligence spending has been revealed--$80.1 billion per year, twice what it was in 2001.

How sure are Americans that none of this is used to pry into their private lives and personal affairs? How could they find out in any event?

Tyrant states use two principal methods for controlling people—larger police powers and operating in secret.

For Americans, the fastest growing government activities today are homeland security and secrecy.

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