Government Secrecy: Volume 19

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Table of contents

(28 chapters)
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Government secrecy is often portrayed as antithetical to transparency1 as well as an affront to the general right to know, citizen participation, administrative oversight, and democracy itself.2 Furthermore, government secrecy is connected to “much broader questions regarding the structure and performance of democratic systems” (Galnoor, 1977, p. 278), and in instances, is “more dangerous to democracy than the practices they conceal” (Fulbright, 1971).3 This condition has led to what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1987) describes as a secrecy state, whichhas extended the secrecy system far beyond its legitimate bounds. In doing so, the target is far less to prevent the disclosure of information to enemy governments than to prevent the disclosure of information to the American Congress, press and people. For governments have discovered that secrecy is a source of power and an efficient way of covering up the embarrassments, blunders, follies and crimes of the ruling regime. (p. 5)

Volume 19, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy begins with David N. Gibbs’ chapter, “Sigmund Freud as a theorist of government secrecy.” Drawing on Freud's psychological theories from his works Civilization and its Discontents and A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Gibbs observes:one of Freud's most important insights is his view of the human mind as a highly complex censoring mechanism, which systematically censors certain types of information, while it leaves uncensored other types of information.

This chapter argues that the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud provide a useful methodology for the study of government secrecy. The chapter makes two specific points. First, Freud viewed the human mind as a highly complex censoring device, which systematically censors certain types of information that embarrasses the patient, while it makes available without impediment more innocuous types of information that flatter the patient's image. It is argued that governmental bureaucracies work like this too, as they systematically censor information that is embarrassing to the state and state officials, while they make available information that flatters the state. Secondly, Freud's theories provide insight into how researchers can cut through systematic censorship and gain access to hidden information. Specifically, Freud shows that patients periodically slip and release censored information to the psychoanalyst. Similarly, state officials too will slip and will accidentally release information to historical researchers who study public policies.

In this chapter, the post-disaster handling of the British Petroleum Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico is analyzed according to the concept of “Public Reserve.” Public Reserve extends the theory of privacy from the individual into the context of corporate behavior and environmental regulation and management by government. Secrecy is viewed as a form of privacy.

The question of how we know when censorship occurred has several sides. Problems of evidence of censorship do not only arise from practical obstacles, but also from its very nature as a knowledge-related phenomenon. Scarcity and abundance of information about censorship may be determined by the extent of the censors’ success or by uneven research efforts. These factors often make it complicated to demarcate censorship from similar restrictions and to identify patterns and trends in the relationship between power and freedom. The present chapter looks into this epistemological problem by mapping the set of concepts governing and surrounding censorship in the particular field of history. It draws up a mini-dictionary with definitions of 26 key concepts related to, larger than, and different from the censorship of history. As these definitions are interrelated, the set in its entirety forms a taxonomy.

Since the early years of the Cold War, two countervailing trends have been present in the treatment of officially held information in the United States. On the one hand, as the foundations of U.S. information policy were being set after World War II, wartime practices were remade and made permanent in a crisis atmosphere, with the establishment of a classification system (essentially the same one used to this day) by executive order, as well, as the passage of the Atomic Energy Act in 1946 and the National Security Act in 1947. However, even as the practice of official secrecy took root, the United States took the lead in formalizing standards of openness by statute, beginning with the 1946 passage of the Administrative Procedures Act and culminating in the passage (and 1974 strengthening) of the Freedom of Information Act. This article traces the development of U.S. information policy since World War II and describes the impact of official secrecy on decision making and democratic practice more generally.

In the twentieth century, the U.S. government began expanding its size and power and keeping more information secret. Executive branch officials began spying on Americans, plotting to kill foreign leaders, and deliberately deceiving Congress and the media. As the government began to conduct real conspiracies, many Americans began to suspect it of even worse crimes, like the mass murder of American citizens to provide a pretext for war. Until the federal government becomes committed to transparency and openness, these toxic conspiracy theories will continue to pollute the body politic.

The first chapters in this part of volume 19 contrast systems of news control in Israel and the United Kingdom. Both systems not only represent the struggle over necessary secrecy and freedom of the press, but also a type of secrecy that serves national security interests, which brings with it, potential censorship.1

Although the state of Israel is a democracy, military censorship has been in use since its establishment in 1948 and is still imposed. The chapter analyzes the theoretical and practical grounds for military censorship in Israel based on an agreement between relevant parties: the government, the army, the media, and the public. Analysis of Israeli military censorship reveals that military censorship is not necessarily the enemy of the media and the public's right to know. On the contrary and paradoxically, we show that in Israel's case, military censorship not only performs its task of preventing the publication of information that threatens the national security, at times it sustains the country's freedom of the press, freedom of information, and the public's right to know.

This chapter focuses on how the United Kingdom, historically and contemporarily, has generally resolved the dichotomy between the conflicting public interest principles of media freedom to publish and governmental duty to protect, in the field of national security. The fundamental principles common to all democracies are discussed, the history of UK government/media interaction described, two detailed recent case studies are used of the UK's system of officially informed but voluntary self-censorship (during Afghanistan 1 and Iraq 2), and lessons on government/media balance are drawn. In today's high-speed international communications environment, it is no longer feasible for governments to suppress information widely in the public domain electronically and in other countries. Governments therefore achieve better protection of necessarily secret national and allied security information at source by not attempting to suppress publication of other security information seen by large numbers of insiders as being of low security importance.

Project Censored/Media Freedom Foundation, a 35-year old media research group originally based at Sonoma State University, now operates in cooperation with over 30 college and universities worldwide. The Project encourages college instructors to use and validate independent news stories as part of student classroom research assignments. The 25 most important validated news stories are published annually in the Censored yearbooks from Seven Stories Press (see www.projectcensored.org/ for more details).

Operation Pedro Pan was a 1960s clandestine program resulting in the transport of more than 14,000 Cuban children to the United States. Based on the rumor that children would be taken from their parents if they remained in Cuba, Operation Pedro Pan serves as an example of U.S. government secrecy and propaganda. In this chapter, the authors examine the research efforts of former Pedro Pan children such as Maria de los Angeles Torres, and Yvonne M. Conde to uncover the stories of their transport to the United States, as well as relevant theories on government secrecy articulated by scholars such as Blanche Wiesen Cook and Carl J. Friedrich.

Opening this section's examination of current information policy is Patrice McDermott's analysis of Obama administration transparency initiatives, executive power, and continuing problems with federal agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance. Of note is McDermott's discussion of the ambiguous Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU) classification marking, which “is often defined differently from agency to agency, and agencies may impose different handling requirements. Some of these marking and handling procedures are not only inconsistent, but are contradictory.”1

On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government (White House, 2009a) committing his Administration to create an unprecedented level of openness in government and indicating his belief that government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. This chapter examines the Obama Administration through June 2010, and looks at how closely the administration is hewing to its promises, in the context of the legacy of secrecy it inherited.

The collision between climate science and climate policy was strikingly manifested during the Bush–Cheney Administration. Based on both the documentary record and direct observation, this chapter reviews multiple means by which the Administration controlled the flow of climate science communication from federal scientists and research programs when Administration officials saw a need to conform science communication with Administration politics. Government secrecy imposed via information control was evident, for example, in the editing of climate program reports; the suppression of official reference to an existing major climate impacts assessment; selective application of control over contacts between government scientists and the media; alteration of congressional testimony; shutting down of government Web sites; “stealth” release of reports to minimize public attention; and concealing a Supreme Court-mandated scientifically based draft document that would have triggered regulation of greenhouse gases to protect public welfare. With these political interventions, the response from the ranks of federal career science managers and research scientists varied, ranging from open criticism, anonymous leaks, and whistleblowing to silence, self-censorship, and active complicity.

The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) is the focal point of the Information Sharing Environment (ISE), a radical reformulation of policies governing government intelligence activities within US borders. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, long-standing informational norms for the production, use, and circulation of domestic intelligence records containing personal information are being replaced with far less restrictive norms, altering a status quo that had been in effect since mid-1970s. Although the NSI represents an unprecedented expansion of human resources dedicated to the collection and production of domestic intelligence, it is not well known in privacy advocacy community. This chapter considers these and other terms in the context of relevant US law and policy, including the Privacy Act of 1974, the E-Government Act of 2002, Executive Order 12333, and 28 CFR Part 23. In addition to describing the federal (ISE-SAR) standard, the chapter examines the critical role of guidance in the logic of suspicious activity report (SAR) production, and the problematic role finished ISE-SARs seem to play in the matrix of federal and state-level watch lists. The program, if not properly regulated, could pose a considerable threat to personal privacy and the life chances and self-determination of all US persons. The chapter considers this threat in terms of Nissenbaum's (2010) “contextual integrity,” a theory of context-relative informational norms.

This chapter analyzes the construction of secrecy under the current U.S. export control regime for dual-use technologies and discusses its application for two technologies: research on a class of semiconductors used in military and civilian applications and biotechnology research on select agents. We argue that the assignment of technologies and countries to categories controlled under the export regime is an exercise in creating secret knowledge, in which the broad category of “the other” is subdivided between those who are forbidden to know and those who are not (and thus implicitly are qualified to become a party to the secret). We draw attention to the social cost of errors made in applying these categories, and point to some remaining issues.

In acknowledgment of the demands of studying state secrecy, this chapter asks how novel possibilities for knowing can be fashioned. It does so in relation to the place of secrecy within international diplomatic and security negotiations associated with humanitarian disarmament. A conversational account is given regarding how “cluster bombs” become subject to a major international ban in 2008. Tensions, uncertainties, and contradictions associated with knowing and conveying matters that cannot be wholly known or conveyed are worked through. With these moves, a form of writing is sought that sensitizes readers to how absences figure within debates about social problems and the study of those debates, as well as how ignorance born out of secrecy helps secure an understanding of the world. Uncertainties, no-go areas, and blind spots are looked to as analytical and practical resources.

Government corruption and secrecy are not new phenomena in Africa; however, international scrutiny has grown as nations end decades of conflict and seek to develop, donor nations consider providing more aid, and investors and transnational corporations look to the area for oil and other resources. Given that corrupt government activities account for millions of dollars diverted from public coffers each year in developing nations and lead to unfair benefit distribution to citizens, the chapter examines the global network of actors attempting to advance the international norm of government accountability to constrain corruption through advocating for the adoption of access-to-information legislation. The chapter also explores the relationship between perception of corruption in Africa and four political institutions of vertical accountability. The findings indicate that perception of corruption is inversely correlated with news media rights, civil liberties, and political rights. However, adopting access-to-information legislation or planning to adopt the law was not correlated with the perception of corruption.

The experience of Mexico's 2002 transparency reform sheds light on the challenge of translating the promise of legal reform into more open government in practice. An innovative new agency that serves as an interface between citizens and the executive branch of government has demonstrated an uneven but significant capacity to encourage institutional responsiveness. A “culture of transparency” is emerging in both state and society, although the contribution of Mexico's transparency discourse and law to public accountability remains uncertain and contested.

The final group of papers included in this volume Research in Social Problems and Public Policy involves ethical considerations of government secrecy and its intersection with privacy, knowledge production, language, and national security.

This chapter configures resources from the fields of communication studies, intelligence ethics, and organization studies in order to explore whether the collection and analysis of open source information and subsequent production of open source intelligence constitute an ethical issue. Using an “ethics as practice” perspective, the author finds that tensions surrounding open source collection vis-à-vis U.S. Persons and the “outsourcing” of open source activities among commercial firms create ethical dilemmas and the space for moral agency.

In contemporary, complex organizations, “open secrets” may be just as common as intentionally concealed secrets, and are often associated with ethical failures and administrative evil. This chapter explores the ethical implications of open secrets in contemporary organizations and the dynamics by which they can become masked. Both the space shuttle Challenger disaster and Enron's corporate collapse, as well as other similar ethical debacles, show how organizational actors at all levels can promote the public interest and recognize ethical issues, only if they require of themselves a broader scope of ethical standards and vigilance that addresses not just individual behavior but also, and even primarily, the organizational and cultural context of values and ethics. The evolution of a moral vacuum within a culture of technical rationality and the resulting ethically deficient organizational dynamics produced the inability to recognize the open secrets that masked the pathway to disaster.

It is genuinely accepted that the withholding of sensitive information by the federal government, be it relating to intelligence, military or foreign policy matters, will invariably serve to preclude or minimize damage to our nation's well-being. However, often overlooked is the impact that official secrecy has upon the decision-making process employed by national leaders. This overview examines the harm that official government secrecy can inflict upon our U.S. national security, through the corrupting influence it has on national policy decisions. Using the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as an apt lesson, this overview goes on to examine the impact that official secrecy had on many of the post-9/11 decisions made by U.S. national leaders.

DOI
10.1108/S0196-1152(2011)19
Publication date
Book series
Research in Social Problems and Public Policy
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-0-85724-389-8
eISBN
978-0-85724-390-4
Book series ISSN
0196-1152