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Wednesday, August 25, 2004
The Lex Files - The Truth is Out There... Way Out There

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August 25, 2004

Let the sunshine in

I was surprised and delighted to read a slightly different version of this story in today's paper:

WASHINGTON - A former dictator's cocktail preferences and a facetious plot against Santa Claus were classified by the government to prevent public disclosure.
Also stamped "secret" for six years was a study that concluded 40 percent of Army chemical warfare masks leaked.

These and other ludicrous and lethal examples of classification were cited Tuesday by members of Congress and witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing into the Sept. 11 commission's conclusion that secrecy is undermining efforts to thwart terrorists.

Some classifications were made in error or to save face.

The CIA deleted the amount Iraqi agents paid for aluminum tubes from page 96 of a Senate report on prewar intelligence. The report quoted the CIA as concluding, "Their willingness to pay such costs suggests the tubes are intended for a special project of national interest."

That price turned out to be not so high. On page 105 of the same Senate report, the same security reviewers let CIA's figure — up to $17.50 each — be printed twice, along with other estimates that the Iraqis paid as little as $10 apiece.

"There are too many secrets" and maybe too many secret-makers, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the Government Reform Committee's national security panel. There are 3,978 officials who can stamp a document "top secret," "secret" or "confidential" under multiple sets of complex rules.

No one knows how much is classified, he said, and the system "often does not distinguish between the critically important and comically irrelevant."

Government documents are where I eat, professionally speaking, so of course I'm biased in favor of more openness. But you should be, too.

Why? Welcome to Lex's Civics 101:

The government has the power to tax you, and if you don't pay it can imprison you, and if you try not to go to prison it can shoot you. When you strip all the societal and cultural niceties off your relationship with the government, that's pretty much what you're left with. The only way to impose any kind of balance in that relationship is to insist on the maximum level of openness consistent with public safety (including national security). Anything else encourages -- and, I would argue, almost inevitably leads to -- mischief. For every legitimate use of secrecy to protect national security, there are multiple examples of frivolity, self-dealing and even outright fraud. Indeed, if a contractor knowingly sold the Army gas masks when 40% of those masks wouldn't keep the wearer alive and healthy as advertised, you could argue that the contractor has taken the step from fraud up to manslaughter if any soldier dies as a result.

I've been paid for the past 20 years to watch the government, and with very few exceptions (routine hiring decisions among them), the good that comes from government secrecy is outweighed by the bad. On the national level, I'd love to see Congress impose tighter rules on what can be classified in the first place and rigorous standards for declassifying what's already secret. Right now, the executive branch has too much leeway to decide via executive order, when what they're deciding on isn't just their business. It's also yours and mine.

Posted by Lex Alexander at August 25, 2004 11:15 AM


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