House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now holding up an urgently needed revision to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The reason she and her colleagues cite is the Bush administration’s alleged penchant for trampling privacy rights and excessive secrecy.
This has become something of a mantra in left-leaning circles. Helen Thomas, who has covered the White House since John F. Kennedy was president, calls the Bush administration “the most secretive administration I have ever covered.” Barack Obama sees it as “one of the most secretive administrations in our history.”
Has the Bush administration really been so secretive? And if so, is that such a bad thing?
Our democracy faces a challenging conundrum. On the one hand, openness is an essential prerequisite of self-government. The electorate depends on the free flow of information to make considered choices about policies and the political leaders who will carry them out.
On the other hand, secrecy is an equally essential prerequisite of self-governance. To be effective, even the ordinary business of democratic rule — from the development of policies to the selection of personnel — must often take place behind closed doors. When one turns to the extraordinary business of democratic governance — self-preservation carried out through the conduct of foreign policy and the waging of war — the imperative of secrecy becomes a matter of survival.
This is not an ordinary time. Yet in the midst of our war on terror, elements of the press and a host of interest groups have been waging a battle for ever more openness. Most of the tactics and stratagems of this movement are legitimate. Whatever attitude one might take toward the underlying policy disputes, the particular methods in use — petitioning Congress and filing suits — are part and parcel of our political and judicial system.
But there is an element of this war on secrecy that is extra-legal, and that has already endangered American security: namely, leaks of classified information to the press.
Ever since the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, which involved leaked information about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, leaks have become a prominent feature of the Washington landscape. But as the “most secretive administration in our history” goes through its final year, the problem has become particularly acute. The Bush administration has been plagued by leak after leak. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend.
As in the Nixon era, America today is a country deeply divided over a controversial war. Today, as then, there is no shortage of disgruntled present and former government employees willing to dump secret documents into the public domain. Today, as then, these malefactors are aided by a press eager to glorify their actions.
But things have fundamentally changed in the decades that have elapsed, and for the worse. The Vietnam War documents that former Pentagon and State Department official Daniel Ellsberg provided to the New York Times in 1971, however sensitive, were all historical in nature. Not one page in the multi-volume collection of classified documents was written after 1968.
Today, the secrets that are routinely leaked to the press typically concern operational intelligence, i.e., secrets about ongoing intelligence programs. The New York Times’s publication in 2006 of details of the joint CIA-Treasury program to monitor al Qaeda financial transactions is one of the most egregious cases in point. But one could cite many other damaging leaks.
Such unauthorized disclosures of classified information have the direct and obvious effect of conveying vital information to America’s adversaries. They have a range of harmful second-order effects as well.
The ever-present possibility of disclosure throws a wrench into the machinery of deliberation. In this environment, discussion of policy alternatives must be confined to small groups of reliable officials, and certain policy alternatives cannot be discussed at all lest their disclosure generate outrage.
Also, foreign governments cannot depend upon the U.S. to protect their secrets, and therefore cannot share them. When that happens, communication even among friendly states, a vital part of intelligence, dries up.
What’s more, leaks aimed at influencing policy subvert the rule of law and the democratic process. Decision-making that is supposed to be the work of a democratically elected government is supplanted by the decision-making of anonymous officials and Pulitzer-Prize seeking journalists — individuals who have private agendas.
This state of affairs — government policy hijacked by leakers, government decision-making paralyzed by the fear of leaks and the repercussion of leaks — is exceptionally dangerous. And worse is yet to come.
Already the Internet hosts an organization called wikileaks.org, whose purpose is to develop “an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis” that will combine “the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies. . . . Anybody can post comments to it. No technical knowledge is required.” A federal judge has been trying to shut down wikileaks for its role in publishing stolen corporate documents, but mirror sites are popping up all over the Web containing an identical array of material.
What is to be done? Richard Nixon created the “plumbers” unit to try stop leaks. In short order its actions mushroomed into a scandal that brought down his presidency. But however much Nixon’s misdeeds discredited the idea, plugging leaks remains a legitimate function of government. Indeed, acting through the democratic process, the American people have assigned their elected officials the responsibility of keeping secret the information vital to their safety.
The Bush administration has been lambasted for excessive secrecy. But its persistently passive attitude toward the torrent of leaks that have sprung from its intelligence and national-security apparatus make it one of the country’s least-secretive administrations. It would be much better for the country if the administration took seriously the dangers of transparency in an age when the revelation of secrets can get us killed by the thousands. This would involve not only the vigorous enforcement of existing laws, but exercising leadership to change a culture in which leakers are hailed by the press as “whistleblowers,” even as they flout their oaths of office and violate the law.
Mr. Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, writes daily forconnectingthedots.us.com.