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Too Much Secrecy: Governments Don't Like to be Accountable

2 September 2002

The Bush administration's policy of secrecy in its war against terrorism has met its first substantial judicial challenge. A federal appeals court panel in Cincinnati has ruled that the media and public should have been given access to the deportation hearings of the some 1,200 noncitizens taken into custody after last year's Sept. 11 attacks.

Approximately 750 of them have already been deported, released or criminally charged as a result of secret hearings ordered by the Justice Department. This was unconstitutional, in the view of the court.

The opinion said the First Amendment "protects the people's right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully and accurately."

There is no doubt that John Ashcroft's Justice Department will appeal, and it may win its case in a Supreme Court currently passing through a notably conservative phase. However, it is reasonable to think that eventually the constitutional argument against judicial secrecy will prevail, as it nearly always has in the past.

The U.S. executive branch, like that of most governments, suffers an institutional bias toward secrecy. The less public and legislative scrutiny there is, the happier life can be for elected officials and for bureaucrats.

A number of constitutional questions have been raised in the "war" against terrorism. Background to nearly all of them has been an intention to conceal what the government is doing. This is justified as keeping precious information away from the enemy, a rationalization always offered when governments impose exceptional measures of secrecy. As everyone knows who has experience of government, and of the political context in which governments function, classifying information usually means hiding things that are at best politically awkward or bureaucratically compromising, and at worst are illegal.

Officials may protect a nation against the enemy, but they also protect themselves against interference by the public, legislators and the judiciary. This is what the Bush administration has been doing.

Military operations in Afghanistan have been under tight, effective censorship since the start of operations last year. Why? U.S. operations are no secret to the enemy. Most of what Americans even now know about what went on in Afghanistan during the war comes from foreign reporters, including the Arab press and television, and from nongovernmental organizations.

The contrast between this and the detailed, front-line press coverage of World War II, Korea and Vietnam is breathtaking, including the American press's willingness to accept this censorship. Most of the American public got all the information it has about the Afghanistan war from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Today, in the debate about attacking Iraq, documented fact about Iraq and its capacities is almost completely absent. To Vice President Dick Cheney, Iraq will soon be a nuclear power taking over one country after another through nuclear blackmail. To his critics, that country is weak and isolated. Both sides assert as fact what suits their partisan arguments.

The same is true about Al Qaeda. The only serious investigative reporting I have seen on Al Qaeda since the Afghan war has been in The Wall Street Journal. It does not give the picture Washington gives.

Nearly always, U.S. government secrecy is intended to prevent Congress and the press from interfering with the executive branch.

I was involved with the CIA-sponsored Free Europe organization in the late 1950s. A few of us were solemnly let into the secret about who we really worked for, but this was no secret to Russia, the Warsaw Pact governments or the political exiles at Free Europe, who had not been born yesterday. The main (although not only) reason for the secrecy was fear of McCarthy-like congressional interference.

William R. Polk, a retired U.S. ambassador, recently circulated a note on the Internet observing that while it now is well known that both Al Qaeda and the Taliban were CIA creations to fight the Afghan-Soviet war, this was never a secret to the Russians, Afghans or Pakistanis - only to Americans.

The United States supplied satellite intelligence and military advice to Saddam Hussein during the 10-year war that followed his 1980 invasion of Iran. Of the concerned parties, only the American public didn't know.

Governments like secrecy because it gives them latitude to act as they want. It gives them a space of unaccountability. But the basis of democracy is accountable government, and that is why the Bush administration is making principled enemies.

William Pfaff, Paris
Published in the International Herald Tribune © 2002 the International Herald Tribune

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