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America’s Secret Government Crisis – Antiwar.com Original

America’s founding generation believed that an informed citizenry was vital
to the survival of the Republic. Writing
to theologian and philosopher Richard Price on January 8, 1789, Thomas Jefferson
observed with satisfaction how his countrymen had come to largely embrace the
new constitutional form of government just recently adopted.

“A sense of this necessity, and a submission to it,” Jefferson told Price,
“is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well informed
they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far
wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

But what if that same government takes deliberate, calculated steps to try
to ensure that the public is not well informed about the government’s own actions,
especially those carried out under a legal cloak of secrecy?

Over 200 years after Jefferson’s missive to Price, the United States now has
a sprawling national security bureaucracy that has created tens of millions
of classified documents. In 2017
alone (the last year for which figures are available), federal employees created
some 50 million classified records. Estimated cost to you, the taxpayer?
Around $18 billion.

What’s worse is that many of the classified records created since World War
I (when the U.S. government classification system essentially began) – tens of
millions of pages – remain classified to this day, out of the reach of the public,
historians, journalists and others interested in understanding the totality
of America’s history. Here are some examples, based on just the last six years
of my own research at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
and from using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Martin Luther King, Jr.: According to National Archives locator documents
I examined,
at least 17,000 pages of material on King remain classified to this day, over
50 years after his murder by James Earl Ray.

Frank Wilkinson: Founder of the National Committee to Abolish the House
Un-American Activities Committee, Wilkinson’s file is over 130,000 pages and
would take years to review and release, according to an August 2019 email exchange
I had with a NARA archivist.

TALON/CIFA programs: The Department of Defense’s Counterintelligence
Field Activity (CIFA) and the Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) report
program were major sources of controversy during George W. Bush’s presidency,
as they targeted domestic dissidents opposed to the Iraq War. According to the
G.W. Bush Presidential Library, there are potentially over 60,000 pages of relevant
records on CIFA and TALON that, per January 2022 letters to me from NARA officials,
will take anywhere from 12 to 20 years to process and release.

Operation VULGAR BETRAYAL: A massive and illegitimately predicated FBI
counterterrorism investigation
of Arab and Muslim Americans dating from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s,
which a November 23, 2021 FBI letter to author revealed that the Bureau has
at least 1,290,010 pages of records potentially responsive” to the Cato Institute’s
FOIA request.

Since the Bureau will never release more than 500 pages per month to a FOIA
requester, absent the rare order from a federal judge, it would take 215
years
for Cato to receive all the records.

Existing federal agency and department records review and release polices practically
ensure that requesters will be either very old or long dead before the mountain
of previously secret government records they seek see the light of day. And
while federal courts could compel agencies and departments to produce the records
at a far faster rate, they rarely do. The effect is to keep the public in the
dark about lots of potentially dirty deeds done in secret, in their name, at
taxpayer expense.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), who co-chaired the Clinton-era
Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, wrote in his 1998
book Secrecy
(pp. 216-217) that “Eighty years from the onset of secrecy as an instrument
of national policy, now is the time for a measure of definition and restraint.”

We are now over 100 years into the American Age of Secrecy, with even fewer
restraints on the federal government’s ability to keep its citizens in the dark
about what it is doing secretly in the name of national security. The commission
Moynihan led proposed legislation to address the problem, but in the author’s
view it still left entirely too much discretion to executive branch officials
about what, why, and for how long a given document could be classified.

It’s important to remember that the Constitution only mentions secrecy once,
and not in connection with the executive branch but Congress – Article
I, Section 5
. Congress was the original arbiter of what should or should
not be kept from the public, and if America’s governmental secrecy sickness
is to be cured, it must reclaim that leading role.

Any secrecy reduction legislation must do, at a minimum, several key things.

First, it should be a felony to classify a document to conceal waste, fraud,
abuse, negligence, mismanagement, criminal conduct, or anything deemed “embarrassing”
to the executive branch entity.

Second, in no case should a record remain classified unless it deals with current
or projected military operations; cryptologic systems in active use by the United
States or a foreign power; an active, ongoing, and legitimately predicated criminal
investigation; the need to protect a current, confidential human source; or
maters dealing with an ongoing treaty negotiation process.

Third, it should repeal existing, sweeping agency- or department specific legal
carve
outs
that allow those governmental entities to withhold entire bodies
of information.

Fourth, the Government Accountability Office should be given the mandate and
the resources to monitor, on an annual basis, executive branch compliance with
the statute.

Finally, the new law should apply to the operations of House and Senate committees,
many of which deal with classified issues on a daily basis.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, neither the House or Senate Intelligence Committees
had sent a single one of their records to NARA for review and release, according
to NARA officials with whom I spoke. If the American people are ever to know
whether or not Congress is doing a proper job of preventing executive branch
overreach on secrecy, it should open its own records for public inspection.

Jefferson’s vision of an informed citizenry holding its government accountable
will only be realized when government secrecy becomes the exception, not the
rule.

Former CIA analyst and House senior policy advisor Patrick Eddington is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute

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