Two Cultures of Secrecy and Disclosure

06.14.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The legitimacy of official secrecy policy that is taken for granted within official circles is increasingly open to question within the press and among many members of the public.

“Government officials must… accept the enduring reality of a media culture that is prepared to publish official secrets and considers such disclosure a patriotic contribution to democratic discourse,” said the Congressional Research Service in passing in a new report.  See “Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share” (pdf), June 6, 2011.

This is not quite precise, since no U.S. news organization publishes official secrets just because they are secret.  And no one seriously views the publication of a classified technical manual, for example, as a contribution to democratic discourse.  The secrets must also be newsworthy, and even then most news outlets will exercise discretion and will give consideration to national security claims.

But it is certainly true that reputable news organizations of liberal, conservative and other editorial persuasions will publish classified information over government objections.  That is the privilege and the right of a free press.

Strangely, the obverse is also true:  Government officials will sometimes insist that information that is irreversibly public is nevertheless classified and subject to official security controls.

This was demonstrated most recently in a Justice Department policy for habeas attorneys regarding limitations on access to records published by WikiLeaks concerning detainees at Guantanamo, as first reported by the New York Times on June 11.

“While you may access such material from your non-U.S.-Government-issued personal and work computers,” the attorneys were told (pdf), “you are not permitted to download, save, print, disseminate, or otherwise reproduce, maintain, or transport potentially classified information.”

But the idea that information can be “accessed” online without “downloading” it is garbled, and it illustrates the confusion that prevails in government regarding classified information in the public domain.  See “Feds’ policy on reading WikiLeaks docs ‘incoherent,’ critics say” by Josh Gerstein, Politico Under the Radar, June 12.

The gap that separates the two cultures of government and media over official secrecy could be narrowed if not eliminated by a concerted effort to limit secrecy to its least ambiguous, most broadly accepted purposes.  But currently, the Obama Administration is devoting far more effort to enforcing the existing secrecy regime than to fixing it.