A Times Editorial

Secrecy and its defenders

It has been more than 36 years since Richard Nixon testified before a grand jury on the Watergate scandal. His views on the events that led to his resignation are of undisputed historical interest. So why, after all this time, is the Obama administration seeking to keep that testimony under wraps? The lame excuse is that disclosure may embarrass some people who are still alive — an interest that pales compared with the public's interest in Nixon's account. But this push for secrecy is part of a larger trend by the administration, and it's one of the greatest disappointments of Barack Obama's presidency.

As a candidate, Obama promised that his administration would be open and transparent, and early on it reversed some of the cramped freedom of information policies it inherited from the Bush administration. But that encouraging start has fallen away, replaced by a zeal for secrecy. Last year, officials classified nearly 77 million documents, an increase of 40 percent.

The Obama administration is not the first to succumb to the disease of overclassification. The federal government has a natural penchant for operating in secret, sometimes legitimately but often just to avoid embarrassing disclosures. Overclassification has a pernicious effect, making it impossible for policymakers and the public to know what government is doing or hold it accountable.

And overclassification can have serious consequences for whistle-blowers. Such was the case for Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency official who tried to raise awareness about wasteful NSA programs. In an aggressive response, Drake faced felony charges of disclosing classified material to a reporter and illegally storing it at home. But the case collapsed, and in the end Drake admitted to a misdemeanor with no prison time or fines.

One of the classified documents that formed the basis of the case against Drake turned out not to have been properly classified. Now reasonable questions are being asked as to why it was classified in the first place and what consequences are there for violating classification rules.

J. William Leonard, the government's former classification czar, is pushing for sanctions on whoever classified the document. He told the New York Times that over his 34 years with the federal government he saw routine overclassification and never saw it punished. The Drake case and the fact that the Obama administration has charged a record four other people with leaking secrets to the news media has raised the stakes on classification.

If people lost careers for inappropriately putting material out of public reach, it would shift priorities within federal intelligence and defense agencies. This is an easy way for Obama to support more government openness and demonstrate that his promise has not been not forgotten.

Secrecy and its defenders 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 5:30am]

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