Top Secret America

On a rainy day in October 2005, Dana Priest was escorted across the immaculate marble lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia along with a pair of her editors from The Washington Post (I was one of them).

We crowded into a private, key-operated elevator that opened into a study that would have seemed almost cozy if not for the arresting artifact at the far end of the room: an American flag, scorched and battered, recovered from Ground Zero and now hanging behind the director’s desk.

The purpose of the meeting was to urge The Post not to publish Priest’s story about a global network of secret CIA prisons. The discussion was off the record, but senior officials in the room later made the same arguments in public. They said the story would disrupt the detention of highly prized prisoners. It could endanger American lives by interfering with efforts to stop another attack. And revealing this one secret might set off an invisible domino effect, ruining the government’s reputation for keeping others.

It was an icy and awkward encounter, but it could have been scripted by the Founders. Disputes over secrecy are as old as the republic. In this case, officials who had authority to order people’s deaths had no power to stop a newspaper article (which must have been infuriating). At The Post, we had no way of knowing if  the benefits of running the story outweighed potential costs (which was humbling). Where was the boundary between our responsibility to inform the public and hold the government accountable, even in wartime, and harm to national security? Wrestling with this question, case by case, was how the contest between security and freedom worked.

What’s striking today, in the era of Top Secret America, is how much these individual deliberations seem like a sideshow. As Priest and her colleague William Arkin show in their new book – richly explored in the FRONTLINE episode of the same name – the landscape of national security secrecy has changed beyond recognition. Even its maps are classified. The big story over the last decade is that the balance between what’s known and what’s secret has tipped decisively to one side. Today we don’t know even the magnitude of what we don’t know.

The results are troubling from every angle. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the government now creates far more secrets than it can control. The Obama administration, arriving with the promise to create the most open government in U.S. history, is instead the custodian of the world’s largest black box – while becoming a more fierce enforcer of secrecy laws than any previous administration. Since 2001 the news media has by some accounts disclosed more classified programs than during any other period of war in the country’s history. And this was true even before WikiLeaks came along to try to blow up what’s left of the old order.

Yet for all the millions of newly minted secrets and the thousands of those revealed, there’s been very little deep reporting about what the new contest over secrecy means for our security and democracy. Have more secrets made the country safer? Have classified leaks – some bitterly opposed by senior officials, others orchestrated by them – caused “exceptionally grave damage” to national security? Have they made the government more accountable or the public better informed?

An escalating clash over government secrecy was inevitable from the first days after 9/11. The Bush administration was clear in announcing that unlike other conflicts, this one would be conducted largely in secret – on “the dark side,” in Vice President Cheney’s bracing description. Journalists try to cover wars where they are fought; in this case on a front defined by secrecy. Failing to pursue secrets – or reporting only secrets leaked by officials to advance policy, such as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – would have left the public in the dark about critical decisions behind made on its behalf, indefinitely. After all, Cheney predicted to Bob Woodward a month after the attacks that the war “may never end. At least not in our lifetime.”

Like many journalism scoops, the key insight of “Top Secret America” was lying in plain sight. Priest recognized that at the heart of the current wars were not just secrets like those that shrouded the CIA prisons; there was also an industry producing the secrets. She saw that this expanding universe of clandestine organizations and programs, born of the Big Bang of the Sept. 11 attacks, had eclipsed the logic of its origins. And that nobody expects it to shrink in line with the country’s enemies – or to become less secret.

This is not just a problem for the news media or public knowledge. In its current architecture, Top Secret America doesn’t even serve the government well. It has not eradicated the “stovepipes” that separate classified information from those who need it. At the same time it has enabled an Army private to allegedly hand off hundreds of thousands of secrets to WikiLeaks that he may have blithely downloaded onto a Lady Gaga CD.

“Ten years after the attacks of 9/11, more secret projects, more secret organizations, more secret authorities, more secret decision making, more watchlists, and more databases are not the answer to every problem,” Priest and Arkin write. “In fact, more has become too much. The number of secrets has become so enormous that the people in charge of keeping them can’t possibly succeed.”

All the while, it seems a system immune to reform. Notably missing from debate about government spending and the deficit has been any serious move towards cutting an intelligence and security complex that costs scores of billions of dollars each year and may be ineffective, wasteful, bloated.

It has become a bureaucratic one-way mirror, all seeing but opaque to outsiders.

So far, there are few signs that Top Secret America got the memo about President Obama’s promise to create the most transparent administration in U.S. history. Some long-hidden secrets are now public: we know for the first time the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the non-military intelligence budget request ($55 billion for next year; the total combined intelligence budget is $80 billion). But during the year after Obama issued an executive order aiming to reduce excessive secrecy, the number of new secret documents generated by the government actually grew, to 77 million.

“There has been little or no discernible effect of the executive order on the day to day secrecy practice,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs a program on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “Overall, have we changed course? No we have not, we are very much in the thick of it. Within that picture there are glimmers of enlightenment.”

Covert operations remain at the heart of the government’s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies. And the Obama administration has aggressively used many of the tools of the Bush administration to protect certain secrets. The Justice Department has continued the practice once criticized by Obama of invoking a “state secrets privilege” to quash several lawsuits against the government. The department has charged more alleged leakers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Department lawyers continue to push for a subpoena ordering New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal the sources of his reporting about a CIA operation to give Iran phony nuclear plans. A government spying case collapsed in July against NSA employee Thomas Drake, who leaked information to a reporter about waste and mismanagement of  a billion-dollar computer project.

After Drake case foundered, J. William Leonard, a highly regarded official who during the Bush administration oversaw the government’s classification system, took the extraordinary step of filing a formal complaint against the NSA for improperly classifying documents in order to prosecute Drake under the Espionage Act. Leonard wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Every 6-year-old knows what a secret is. But apparently our nation’s national security establishment does not.”

Next in the docket might be Julian Assange. A grand jury has met in Virginia to consider whether to bring charges in the United States against the founder of WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, the news late last month that hundreds of thousands of classified documents obtained by WikiLeaks were available on the Internet without editorial review or measures to protect individuals named in the files showed what a profoundly new and disruptive force it has introduced to the struggle over secrets.

Where will it end? The answer will not come only from the courts or Congress – but then it never has been. The contest is over what kind of society we are creating. It’s a matter for public debate, hopefully well-informed. Thirty years ago, after the Supreme Court decided the Pentagon Papers case, Justice Potter Stewart said that the Constitution and lawmakers can sort out some disputes, but “for the rest, we must rely, as so often in our system we must, on the tug and pull of the political forces in American society.”

Philip Bennett is the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy. This commentary was originally published on Frontline.org.