Friday, December 17, 2010

Panel says problem isn't WikiLeaks, but over-classification

Testifying on WikiLeaks:  Abbe Lowell (left), Ralph Nader (center), and Thomas Blanton (right).  

Today, on a snowy Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., Jotman observed the House Judiciary Committee hearing on “the Espionage Act and the Legal and Constitutional Issues Raised by WikiLeaks.”  A common thread ran through the discussion.  Seven panelists and several Congressmen spoke at length about an urgent problem confronting the United States, one that must be addressed.   And it wasn’t WikiLeaks.

Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt set the tone: “I view this hearing in a larger context.   This is a moment in history when there is too much classification.  We have to examine our classification procedures. There is far too much classification within the executive branch and that puts democracy at risk.  Throughout history we can see that secrecy is a trademark of totalitarianism; openness the hallmark of democracy.”

Gabriel Schoenfeld of the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank, stated outright, “There is too much over-classification.”

 “The real problem is not too little secrecy, but too much,” said House Justice Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr..   “Over-classification” he continued, “means many foreign service officers need access to classified material, so it’s hard to protect any of it.  Instead of low fences around vast fields we need to build high fences around graveyards.” 
Thomas Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said “I would estimate that between 50% and 90% of government documents are over-classified.”   Blanton added, “Tom Cain, chair of the 9/11 Commission said that 75% of classified material they had seen should not have been classified. The 9/11 Commission found that more openness would have made us more secure.”   Blanton concluded that “the government has a responsibility to share information with the American people.”

Ralph Nader said over-classification impeded the operation of government -- Congress in particular.  Nader said, “Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a book in which he explained that Congress has been repeatedly prevented from getting the information it needs to do its job.  Deprivation of information weakens the most powerful branch of government.”   Nader said “the benefits of disclosure vastly outweigh the disadvantages.”  Nader cited examples where more disclosure of information could have prevented wars.  His list included the Spanish American War, World War II, the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnam War), and the Iraq War.   Nader said, “The suppression of information has led to more loss of life than WikiLeaks.  One million Iraqi lives, five thousand US servicemen, hundreds of thousands of injured Americans.”

Prior to the hearing, Jotman had not realized that a US Congressman typically has no more   access to classified information than an ordinary American citizen.    Thomas Blanton explained that “Only the chairs of committees have the right to see confidential documents.  Other committee members are treated like the general public.”

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said, “I’m concerned that if we freeze down on WikiLeaks, we are freezing down on information that could help us win the War on Terror.”    Responding to a question from Congresswoman Lee, Ralph Nader affirmed that it's important to acknowledge "how disclosures can help national security.”

Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor, put it bluntly.  “The starting point should be reforming the process and standards of classifications. We’ve run amok with secrecy.”
Members of the hearing raised several other interesting points, which I'll describe shortly in another post.   For some background and an introduction to today's hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, see this post.

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