The Secrecy Trap

A key goal in any democracy and certainly in ours is openness and transparency in government. Sadly, we’re rapidly going backwards in that regard.

In its annual report to the president, the federal Information Security Oversight Office, which is charged with ensuring that government classifies as secret a minimum amount of information, reports that 15.6 million documents were classified secret last year, up 10 percent from the year before and double the number in 2001.

Is all this secrecy necessary? The short answer is no, most of it is not.

J. William Leonard, the head of the ISOO, told The New York Times, “I’ve seen information that was classified that I’ve also seen published in third-grade textbooks.”

Bureaucracies don’t like sharing information and 9/11 gave them an excuse not to, abetted by the Bush administration, which tightened up on the Freedom of Information Act and presidential libraries and expanded the number of agencies that can classify information as secret. There are currently 41 agencies that can do so.

While there are standard categories of classification, the agencies have invented new ones to avoid sharing information, a particular favorite being the nebulous “sensitive security information.”

Secrecy tends to progressively reinforce itself until it reaches sublimely ridiculous levels. A popular example is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s recent reclassification of a profile it had done of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1975. The reclassification redacted such information as Pinochet is “mild-mannered; very businesslike” and “drinks scotch and pisco sours.”

There is broad agreement that certain military, national security, technological and commercial matters should be kept secret. But the history of classification is that often documents are classified secret because the information they contain is simply embarrassing _ evidence of waste, mismanagement, incompetence, political interference or simply bad judgment.

Congress needs to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and forbid agencies with no reason to classify documents from doing so. It also needs to slash back the exceptions and exemptions that are steadily being added to the requirement that most government information become public after 25 years. The burden of proof on what should be secret must be on the agency doing the classifying, not the public that wants to see the information.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)