The State Department has released a February 2006 internal memo from Philip D. Zelikow, counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, opposing Justice Department authorization for "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the CIA. All copies of the memo, which reflect strong internal disagreement within the George W. Bush administration over the constitutionality of such techniques, were thought to have been destroyed. But the State Department located a copy and declassified it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive.
- The Zelikow Memo: Internal Critique of Bush Torture Memos Declassified, National Security Archive, George Washington University (April 3, 2012).
- Approving Torture and Destroying Documents: More Notes on the "Zelikow Memo", by Nate Jones, Unredacted, the National Security Archive blog (April 4, 2012).
- Document Friday: The Torture Memos, We Now Know, by Nate Jones, Unredacted, the National Security Archive blog (April 6, 2012).
- CIA Committed ‘War Crimes,’ Bush Official Says, By Spencer Ackerman, Wired "Danger Room" blog (April 4, 2012).
Two stories in the news describe different approaches to government secrecy and citizen privacy:
- White House Orders New Computer Security Rules, By ERIC SCHMITT, New York Times (October 6, 2011)
"The White House plans to issue an executive order on Friday to replace a flawed patchwork of computer security safeguards exposed by the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks last year.
"...In addition to these immediate measures, Mr. Obama’s order creates a task force led by the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to combat leaks from government workers, or what the White House calls an “insider threat.”
"The directive also establishes a special government committee that must submit a report to the president within 90 days, and then at least once a year after that, assessing federal successes and failures in protecting classified information on government computer networks.
"...[Pentagon issued cyber identity] credentials allow supervisors to track what users are working on."
- Data Mining: DHS Needs to Improve Executive Oversight of Systems Supporting Counterterrorism, Government Accountability Office, GAO-11-742 (September 7, 2011). The report says that, until needed reforms are put in place the Department of Homeland Security and its component agencies "may not be able to ensure that critical data mining systems used in support of counterterrorism are both effective and that they protect personal privacy."
"By not consistently performing necessary evaluations and reviews of these systems, DHS and its component agencies risk developing and acquiring systems that do not effectively support their agencies' missions and do not adequately ensure the protection of privacy-related information."
See also: GAO Report: DHS Data Mining Needs Privacy Oversight, By Grant Gross, IDG News, PC World, (Oct 7, 2011). "One of the most disturbing findings by the GAO was that ICEPIC rolled out its law enforcement sharing component before it was approved by the DHS privacy office."
The White House has released a new report, on open government:
- The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government: A Status Report [the report, pdf, 34pp].
- A Status Report on the Administration’s Commitment to Open Government [announcement] by Steven Croley, The White House Open Gov Blog (September 16, 2011).
In an analysis, Steven Aftergood says the report, "downplays or overlooks many of the Administration's principal achievements in reducing inappropriate secrecy. At the same time, it fails to acknowledge the major defects of the openness program to date. And so it presents a muddled picture of the state of open government, while providing a poor guide to future policy.
- An Ambivalent White House Report on Open Government, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News (September 19, 2011).
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) says that the government applies a broad legal interpretation of certain provisions of the "P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act" and has classified that interpretation so that it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged.
- There’s a Secret Patriot Act, Senator Says, By Spencer Ackerman, Wired (May 25, 2011).
Wyden says he "can't answer" any specific questions about how the government thinks it can use the Patriot Act. That would risk revealing classified information -- something Wyden considers an abuse of government secrecy. He believes the techniques themselves should stay secret, but the rationale for using their legal use under Patriot ought to be disclosed.
- The Secret PATRIOT Act and the End of Limited Government in America, by E.D. Kain, Forbes (May 26, 2011).
Apologists for the PATRIOT Act have claimed that the innocent have nothing to fear from the government’s broadened powers.
At isssue is the so-called "business-records provision" of the Act (Section 215) which empowers the FBI to get businesses, including libraries, to turn over records it deems relevant to a security investigation.
Sen. Wyden Decries “Secret Law” on PATRIOT Act, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News (May 25th, 2011)
"We can have honest and legitimate disagreements about exactly how broad intelligence collection authorities ought to be, and members of the public do not expect to know all of the details about how those authorities are used," Sen. Wyden said. "But I hope each Senator would agree that the law itself should not be kept secret and that the government should always be open and honest with the American people about what the law means."
But the Senate moved toward cloture on reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provisions and the Wyden amendment, which was co-sponsored by several Senate colleagues, was not permitted to be offered or to be voted upon.
Steven Aftergood reports today that the Pentagon Paper are to be declassified:
- Declassifying the Pentagon Papers, Finally, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News (February 15th, 2011).
The National Declassification Center (NDC) at the National Archives will declassify the full text of the Pentagon Papers as well as the underlying documentation on which they are based, along with investigative material concerning the 1971 leak of the Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, the NDC said yesterday.
As we noted here recently, Steven recently pointed out that "every public and private library in the country that has a copy of the Papers is technically in possession of currently classified material."
One has to wonder if the Pentagon Papers had been released digitally and not on paper, if libraries had excluded then from their collections at the time of their release, if librarians had argued against their selection and acquisition and preservation, if they were not preserved in libraries 40 years ago, would we still have them? Would their declassification have happened today?
Steven Aftergood points to an article by an historian who says that the Pentagon Papers are still classified as Top Secret:
You might be dismayed to learn that the Pentagon Papers are still classified as TOP SECRET!
This is despite the fact that The Pentagon Papers have long been in the public domain. Indeed, US government historians use them in official accounts of the Vietnam War and they are referenced and republished in official US government records, such as Foreign Relations of the United States. Senator Mike Gravel even entered them into the Congressional Record!
Aftergood notes that "This means that every public and private library in the country that has a copy of the Papers is technically in possession of currently classified material."
- Twelve Million Pages Opened by Declass Center in 2010, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News (January 26th, 2011).
- Can Government Employees Read the Pentagon Papers?, by John Prados, Unredacted (December 14, 2010).
Prados goes on to say:
The classification of the Pentagon Papers takes on an even stranger significance when one considers the federal government's recent pronouncement that "unauthorized disclosures of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog, or on websites) do not alter the documents' classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents."
This is the reason –in the case of Wikileaks– why the Government has been demanding that US government employees refrain from looking at any of these documents, even if doing so hampers their ability to fulfill their mandates. If this standard holds true, government employees should not be allowed to read (or reference, or cite) the Pentagon papers either.
Last week, the University of Washington's Master of Communication in Digital Media program hosted a public forum at Seattle Public Library to discuss the swarm of stories surrounding Wikileaks. "Open Secrets: An Open Conversation about Wikileaks and Information Transparency in America" featured a panel of local "thought leaders": Mike Fancher, Retired Executive Editor of The Seattle Times; Brett Horvath, Director of The Leaders Network; and Sarah van Gelder, Editor-in-Chief, Yes! Magazine, a progressive magazine.
The discussion exemplified the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of getting a handle on so many fractured and simultaneous dimensions at the moment they're occurring, as if trying to gather one's most precious possessions from the air in the middle of a tornado. But to the credit of the moderator, panelists, and audience, the discussion was civil and wide-ranging, creating a public forum for whatever sense-making is possible at this stage.
Even in a story that's evolving moment by moment, with a steady din of conjecture and partial information, the troops are already lining up behind their chosen heroes and challenging designated villians. Friday's discussion was no exception. The general consensus seemed to be that Julian Assange, a clever though flawed hero, has done democracy a service by tossing raw classified information into the winds. A few participants in the audience raised questions about how people who work in government (the government is comprised of people, after all) are to conduct themselves in earnest, without the expectation that each datum will be publicly available, suggesting that indeed there may be some role for classification under certain circumstances. Their questions found little traction or response. My own conjecture is that their comments met a general climate of suspicion, an assumption that government is insidiously secretive by default.
But there's another reason for this quick leap to the comfortable pro-con approach to this complex story. Many discussions in the media have been strikingly deficient in providing background on government documents and what roles they fill in the work of agencies and actors. What documents does the State Department produce, and for what purpose? Why are some of them classified? What IS classification? Are there different levels of classification? Under what circumstances can documents be declassified? What is the current state of government transparency overall, and how has this changed from the last to the current administration?
That's where you all come in, Free Government Information community. If government information stymies even librarians, then what else could WE be doing to make it accessible to the general public, beyond putting raw documents at easy reach? What else could we communicate about the information life cycle of government documents that could flesh out our analysis of the current state of government transparency and secrecy more accurately? I'm not suggesting that this would make the questions or answers any less challenging, nor do I suggest that we become apologists for government abuses of transparency. But while these stories are in heavy circulation, we have an opportunity to insert our expertise to bring grounding to many narratives that are now lacking that crucial context.
Before I begin, I would like to first thank Mr. Jacobs for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. Hopefully I can provide some new perspectives about government information through the eyes of an (aspiring) economist.
There is no doubt that E-Government is all the rage these days. One justification for E-Government is that technology makes government more transparent, and transparency deters corruption. To the best of my knowledge, there are actually few studies that look at whether E-Government actually prevents the government from behaving badly. There is one recent study by Anderson in Information Economics and Policy that attempts to identify this relationship.
Using an indexes for corruption and E-Government, he confirms that E-Government can indeed reduce corruption, even after "controlling for any propensity for corrupt governments to be more or less aggressive in adopting e-government initiatives." (pg 210) A broader claim one may extrapolate from this study is that transparency prevents corruption.
E-Government acts as a mechanism for transparency, in a similar manner as media/press. That said, a study by Snyder and Stromberg finds that American politicians don't work as hard (for their constituents) if they receive less press coverage.
One advantage of E-Government is that the government knows more about their inner workings than information starved reporters. The trade-off though is that government can cherry-pick what information is revealed; why would any rational corrupt government official agree to reveal information that supports claims of his bad behavior? To that end, reporters in search for political scandals are more likely to shine the light on bad behavior than E-Government.
Reid moves closer to ending secret holds in Senate, By Michael O'Brien, The Hill (07/28/10)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) added a bill to eliminate the practice of secret holds on nominees to the Senate calendar on Wednesday....
Adding the legislation to the calendar has the effect of moving the legislation closer to the point where Reid could bring it up for a vote.
If Reid does bring it up, it appears that he may have the votes to do away with the practice after Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) lobbied Senate colleagues to end it. Sixty-seven votes are needed to change Senate rules, and McCaskill, as of late June, had said she'd gathered 68.
Yesterday, President Obama issued an executive order on classified national security information that declared that “No information may remain classified indefinitely.” The order is “part of a sweeping overhaul of the executive branch’s system for protecting classified national security information,” which includes overturning Executive Order 13292 of March 25, 2003. That order, put in place by President George W. Bush, allowed the leader of the intelligence community to veto decisions by an interagency panel to declassify information. This order also establishes a new National Declassification Center at the National Archives (sec3.7) which, according to the AP is expected to speed the declassification of “more than 400 million pages of Cold War-era documents” that are currently backlogged.
[Thanks Think Progress!]