Secrecy News

President Bush Speaks Out on Openness, Classification

“We believe that the more we inform our American citizens, the better our government will be,” President Bush said Tuesday.

The remark could be considered conventional wisdom. Yet it is unexpected from this President since by most objective measures — such as the record number of classification decisions, skyrocketing expenditures on classification-related activities, and growing security controls on unclassified documents — public access to government information has been markedly curtailed under the Bush Administration.

Nevertheless, the President reiterated, “We believe that the more transparency there is in the system, the better the system functions on behalf of the American people.”

It follows that the less transparent aspects of government, such as the national security decision making process, function less well, which is manifestly true.

The President spoke at a signing ceremony for the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which will establish a searchable online database of federal grants and contracts.

A White House fact sheet presented an argument that the new law “Is Part Of President Bush’s Ongoing Commitment To Improve Transparency, Accountability, And Management Across The Federal Government.”

At another event on Tuesday, the President appeared to express doubt that the national security classification system was working properly.

Referring to press reports in the New York Times and elsewhere about a classified National Intelligence Estimate on trends in terrorism, portions of which were declassified (pdf) Tuesday, President Bush complained that “Somebody has taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes.”

In Washington, he said, “there’s no such thing as classification anymore, hardly.”

In reality, of course, classification has expanded in size and scope to unprecedented levels in the Bush Administration.

So the President might have been making a deep point that the efficacy of classification declines when its use increases sharply, along the lines of Justice Potter Stewart’s familiar dictum that “when everything is classified, then nothing is classified.” Or maybe he just misspoke.