Washington has seen its share of odd sights in the last few years but few as bizarre as the one we witnessed late last month after the release of the report on the causes and consequences of the September 11 terrorist attacks. There in front of the White House, fresh from a meeting with President Bush, stood the disappointed foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, imploring the president to release parts of the report that apparently contain damaging evidence of Saudi Arabia's complicity in those attacks.
The president denied the Saudi request and later turned a deaf ear to Republican and Democratic members of Congress who, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, separately made the case for sharing the information. The president said that releasing the information would jeopardize "sources and methods" of intelligence collection, a line he and others repeated over the days that followed. The incredible irony -- that the leader of the United States would use this excuse to protect a regime that has been implicated in harboring and helping those who killed more than 3,000 American citizens -- seemed to go unnoticed.
In fact, it was business as usual in the Bush White House. The administration's embrace of secrecy as a means of control is hardly isolated to the Saudi case. It is far-reaching, cynical and -- most important -- damaging to the safety of American communities and families.
Since September 11, secrecy in government has increased exponentially. In addition to the new Department of Homeland Security, three other domestic agencies -- the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency -- have been given unprecedented power to classify their own documents as "secret, in the interests of national security." Meanwhile, members of the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary, looking into the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act, have been denied information despite their security clearances.
The Department of Justice has become a veritable black hole when it comes to release of government information. It has steadfastly refused to release the names of the hundreds of Muslim men it detained after September 11. Attorney General John Ashcroft has also radically changed the interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reassuring government officials who reject FOIA requests that the Justice Department would defend their decisions unless they lacked a "sound legal basis."
The focus on secrecy clearly has the blessing of the White House. On March 20, 2002, Andrew Card, my successor as chief of staff to the president, issued a memo that ordered an immediate re-examination of all public documents posted on the Internet. The memo encouraged agencies to consider removing "sensitive but unclassified information." More than six-thousand public documents -- including federal reports on enforcement actions against air carriers, chemical site security and emergency-response plans -- have already been removed from government Web sites. Meanwhile, classification of documents is up 18 percent.
Even before September 11, the Bush administration's preoccupation with secrecy and information control was clear. Concerned with its political base and seeking to avoid embarrassment, it barred access to information on the use of condoms to prevent HIV-AIDS and Department of Labor statistics on job loss. Vice President Cheney made strenuous, and ultimately successful, efforts to stonewall Congress and the Government Accounting Office as they tried to acquire information about energy company lobbyists who attended energy task-force meetings. Acting against the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, President Bush signed an executive order that allows any current or future president to block the release of any presidential record -- an order then used to withhold Reagan administration documents that were potentially embarrassing to members of the current administration. And the administration has slowed to a crawl an unprecedented effort, initiated by then-President Clinton, to declassify historically valuable records from World War II, the early days of the Cold War and Vietnam.
Cold War Redux
George W. Bush is certainly not the first president to use secrecy and the control of government information as a weapon to try to mold public attitudes in support of administration policy. Modern history is replete with examples -- from the Cold War to Vietnam to Iran-Contra -- of presidents from both parties who sought to avoid public oversight of controversial policies by withholding or distorting information.
In the world after September 11, it is both appropriate and necessary for our country to re-examine the balance between rights of individuals, the values we cherish as an American community, and the need to secure our nation from the threat of transnational terrorism. It is beyond dispute that some information must be closely held in order to protect national security, to engage in effective diplomacy, to protect how information is gathered, to maintain our intelligence relationships abroad and to prevent unauthorized disclosures. Failure to guard information can ultimately jeopardize the lives of our citizens -- particularly at a time when we face enemies that operate in the shadows, seek out civilian casualties and seem hell-bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
But what is troubling about this administration's approach to secrecy is its conversion of the legitimate need for operational security into an excuse for sweeping policies that deny public access to information and public understanding of policy making. Duct tape and plastic sheeting may have replaced the fallout shelters of the Cold War, but re-creating a massive bureaucracy to control government information is all too familiar. It can lead to an invidious, paranoid culture of secrecy today, just as it did in the 1950s. By deeming everything under the sun a secret, the Bush administration has affected our ability to distinguish what's really a secret from what's not. This infects the entire system of security classification with ambiguity and weakens the argument for nondisclosure.
Perhaps more importantly, a default to secrecy denies the public the vital information we need to strengthen security here at home. And that is the paradox -- when the penchant for secrecy threatens to leave our country less secure and to weaken our democratic institutions.
President Bush was right when he said in his 2002 State of the Union address: "America is no longer protected by vast oceans. We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad and increased vigilance at home." But openness does not destroy security; it is often the key to it. The American people cannot remain vigilant if they remain ignorant.
Shielding Environmental Hazards
Buried in the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security is a provision that will expose Americans to more dangers than they might otherwise have faced. The provision effectively guts the FOIA with respect to vital public-health, safety and environmental information submitted by businesses to the federal government. The FOIA already prohibited the disclosure of information that could threaten national security. But this new provision prohibits the disclosure of any information that in any way relates to the protection of "critical infrastructure" that private industry labels "sensitive" and chooses to disclose to the government.
Not only do people lose their right to know about hazards that could affect their community, but now the government is under an affirmative obligation to keep this information secret. The exemption provides a convenient way for businesses to conceal even routine safety hazards and environmental releases that violate permit limits from public disclosure. Shielded from public scrutiny, these hazards are much less likely to be addressed.
Similar concerns arise from the administration's approach to dealing with the serious homeland-security threat posed by the storage of dangerous toxic chemicals. Industrial manufacturing facilities storing acutely toxic chemicals such as chlorine gas, ammonia and cyanide present a potentially enormous and devastating opportunity for terrorists. The EPA has estimated that at least 123 plants store toxic chemicals that, if released through explosion, mishap or terrorist attack, could result in deadly toxic vapor plumes that would put more than 1 million people at risk. The U.S. Army Medical Department's worst-case estimate is that a terrorist attack on a chemical plant could lead to nearly 2.5 million deaths.
Yet it is possible, by setting priorities and using practical steps already available, to sharply reduce this kind of threat. Only a small fraction of the 75,000 chemicals in use -- probably less than two dozen -- can explode into large, lethal plumes that kill or maim on contact. And we know that concrete actions at the most dangerous facilities could minimize or eliminate them as a terrorist target. The facilities can substitute their most acutely toxic ingredients with less toxic alternatives; they can convert to "just-in-time manufacture," where their most highly toxic molecules are synthesized immediately before use rather than synthesized separately and stored in bulk reserve; and they can reduce storage volumes of the most acutely toxic chemicals.
When the Bush administration first looked at the threat posed by chemical manufacturing, it rightly embraced a risk-reduction strategy. But under intense pressure from the chemical industry lobby, the administration backed down, settling for voluntary efforts by the industry to strengthen site security such as building stronger fences and adding guard dogs. The EPA is not even requiring companies to report the steps they have voluntarily taken at their facilities. And the people who live adjacent to these very dangerous places know less about what is going on behind the chain-link fence. They are therefore less able or likely to demand corrective action.
In the new Patriot Act II legislation, the Justice Department had its chance to empower the EPA and the Homeland Security Department to reduce the threat posed by these industrial facilities. Instead, the bill contains a provision that would actually allow chemical companies to avoid reporting worst-case scenarios that would result from chemical spills, industrial accidents or explosions -- a requirement that stretches back 30 years to the Clean Air Act.
A Different Course
In finding a different approach to these issues that better protects the public, reflects our fundamental values and shows our commitment to informed public discourse, it would be wise to start with three questions:
Does the information fall within a class that should presumptively be kept secret? Operational plans, troop movements, human source identities, technological methods of surveillance and advanced weapons designs must continue to command the highest level of protection. But even in these categories circumstances can occur where public disclosure is appropriate and warranted -- a recent example being Secretary of State Colin Powell's United Nations Security Council briefing of declassified intelligence on Iraq's alleged program on weapons of mass destruction.
Does the information's important public value outweigh any risk of harm from public disclosure? For example, in the Clinton administration, the White House worked with the EPA and the FBI on a disclosure regime of information in the EPA's toxic release inventory, including emergency evacuation plans. The public was able to receive important public-safety information that, the FBI had concluded, was of no unique value to terrorists. Likewise, under the leadership of then-Vice President Gore, the overhead imageries dating back to the 1960s from the Corona, Argon and Lanyard intelligence-satellite missions were declassified. Disclosing the capabilities of our oldest spy satellite systems caused no harm to our security while the information proved to be of great value to scholars, as well as to the natural resource and environmental communities.
Finally, does release of the information inform the public of security vulnerabilities that, if known, could be corrected by individuals or public action? Louis Brandeis said that sunlight is the best of disinfectants. By that he meant that without openness, people would lose trust in their government and government would lose its ability to do its work. But in the post-9-11 environment, Brandeis' statement should serve as a warning that security flaws in our nation, just like security flaws in our computer software, are best put in the sunlight: exposed, patched and corrected.
Benefits and Balance
The need for technological advancement has never been greater than it is in the post-9-11 world. The problems of terrorism are so complex that many of the solutions lie in technologies not yet developed or even imagined. Public knowledge, public scrutiny and free exchange of scientific information may not only provide the breakthroughs necessary to stay ahead of our adversaries, they may also offer a better long-term national-security paradigm.
The United States has been a world leader in technology over the last century for one main reason: Information flows more freely within this country than anywhere else in the world. We must resist re-establishing the Cold War culture of secrecy -- a culture bound to influence the direction of discovery and retard the efficient advancement of scientific knowledge.
September 11 seared into our consciousness the realization that there are strong forces in the world that reject the trends bringing our world together, reject modernity, reject openness and reject the values we cherish as Americans. But in addressing the problems of international terrorism and homeland security, it is paramount that we remember our goal: the advancement of an open society, a country where people are free to criticize their government and where government is truly an extension of the people. We cannot protect this society by abandoning the principles upon which it was founded.
Likewise, when we relinquish our role as a beacon of government transparency, we derail our own mission to create a more secure, democratic world. The only way for any government to earn the trust of its people is by conducting its work in the light of day, by exposing itself to scrutiny and criticism, and, eventually finding a system that citizens will accept and abide by.
Finding the right balance between confidentiality and an informed public opinion is certainly more difficult than a policy of absolute secrecy or one of unconditional disclosure. But at this critical moment in our history, we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to strike this balance and to protect our tradition of liberty. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a great military leader, made the argument succinctly when he said, "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."