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Calling for a secrecy beat

COMMENTARY | April 29, 2008

Ted Gup writes that reporters should be writing about the emerging 'secretocracy' that threatens to profoundly alter our entire system of governance, neutering oversight efforts and marginalizing citizens. He advocates writing not just about the secrets we can uncover, but also about the information that has been denied us.

(The following article first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Nieman Reports. Barry Sussman describes highlights of the issue dedicated to investigative reporting here.)

By Ted Gup

The real intent of the First Amendment was to prevent national suicide by making it difficult for the government to operate in secret, free from the scrutiny of the press.

—I.F. Stone, October 3, 1966

Investigative reporters are all too familiar with secrecy. They know it as the obstacle that stands between them and the object of their interest. Everything about investigative reporting reinforces the notion that secrecy is but an impediment to be overcome. We celebrate our triumphs over secrecy with prizes, promotions and public accolades. But secrecy is more than a mere roadblock to successful reporting, and the conventional treatment of secrecy may inadvertently play into the hands of those who seek to keep the public in the dark.

With some noteworthy exceptions, secrecy is rarely tackled head-on in the press. Rather, it crops up in stories as an incidental—a fleeting denial of access, a closed door, a call not returned, a stalled Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Secrecy itself gets short shrift. It is endemic to the culture of investigative reporting to see it in terms that are defined by our own ability or inability to surmount the obstacles before us.

In so doing we have tended to overlook one of the more significant stories of our lifetime—an emerging "secretocracy" that threatens to transform American society and democratic institutions. Systemic or indiscriminate secrecy involves the calculated use of secrecy as a principle instrument of governance, a way to impede scrutiny, obscure process, avoid accountability, suppress dissent, and concentrate power. The tendency to abuse secrecy is as old as power itself, but prior to 9/11 it was usually checked, and even its abuses were cyclical.

Too often today this broader use of secrecy escapes our attention, or at least our reporting—especially when as reporters we fail to prevail and obtain the information sought. On the rare occasion that secrecy itself is granted center stage, it is often so closely tied to the particulars of a given story that the context is lost. Readers encounter the subject of secrecy almost always in isolated settings—this official refused to disclose, that official declined to comment.

Our own reportorial frustrations have sometimes been allowed to color our judgment and blind us to the news; we personalize secrecy. Because we are stymied in our quest for information, we view the story as a dry hole. There is a professional reluctance to write about secrecy per se, in part because it is seen as self-serving or whining, an admission of our own shortcomings as reporters. Writing about intact secrets somehow smacks of defeatism. Great reporters, we might imagine, would not stoop to carping about such conditions, equating secrecy with professional adversity; they would rise above them, or so the argument goes. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers remain the template, stories steeped in secrecy, but in which the reporters emerged triumphant. The closest we come to recognizing secrecy as an integral element of the story is when it is cast as a cover-up.

Obstacles to Reporting on Secrecy

There are other reasons why secrecy is rarely taken on directly. To expose broad patterns of secrecy requires reporters to cooperate across beats and to subordinate sensitivities over turf to news values. There is also the fear that an examination of secrecy is for policy wonks and political scientists, not journalists, and that it is too abstract to be of much interest to readers. But it is no more so than a host of other topics we routinely cover, including economics, science, health or politics (and secrecy involves them all—and more).

The key, here as elsewhere, is to show who benefits and who suffers and how secrecy is the lubricant for all manner of chicanery. Nothing so discredits legitimate secrets as the profusion of counterfeit secrets. Most importantly, we should be detailing how indiscriminate secrecy threatens to profoundly alter our entire system of governance, neutering oversight efforts and marginalizing citizens. Secrecy writ large can hijack democracy itself.

Finally, while journalistic enterprises have targeted secrecy at the publishers’ and trade association level, individual papers are often squeamish about working in concert with one another, eschewing campaigns out of fear that they compromise objectivity. One week a year, a coalition takes up the subject and spotlights individual states’ compliance or lack of compliance with sunshine provisions, but otherwise it is a topic left to ad hoc efforts linked to specific reporting challenges.

Historically, reporters have indulged themselves in reporting almost exclusively on those secrets that they have penetrated. Everyone reports on a leak, but too few notice the dam looming behind them. The sense of accomplishment that comes with cutting through resistance and secrecy is undeniable. But cumulatively, such breakthrough stories may have left readers/citizens with the dangerous misimpression that few secrets can withstand our reportorial onslaught, that the republic still enjoys a robust albeit begrudging transparency, and that the government’s or industry’s feeble attempts to ward us off and conceal their actions are ultimately to no avail. In short, we have telegraphed to the electorate, the consumer, the patient and the litigant, that they are in possession of all the vital information they need to make informed choices.

That does not comport with my experience as a reporter. Nor does it, I believe, reflect the reality of America in 2008. Silly as it might sound, we also do the nation a service when we admit what important information we do not possess and cannot acquire because it has been denied us.

Secrets Not Shared

In truth, secrecy has migrated well beyond the historic reservoirs of national security as the nation’s entire infrastructure has been considered a potential terrorist target. All the state, county and metropolitan authorities that intersect with those sites—as well as the private industries that operate them—have increasingly come under the mantle of secrecy. Communications intercepts have brought the telecommunications companies into the security fold.

Formal secrecy, as all investigative reporters know first hand, is only a fragment of the problem. Hundreds of thousands of officials, senior and junior, as well as contractors, possess the ability—without any formal training or authorization—to scribble "Sensitive But Unclassified," or "Official Use Only," or any one of many other designations on documents, thereby removing them from public scrutiny even as they admit them to be unclassified. Those labels have brought about a sea change in the availability of materials and in our ability to track the policies and practices of government and industry. It is a subject familiar to the coalition of interest groups and journalists who care so deeply about such affairs, but it remains widely unknown to most Americans.

Secrecy is increasingly a problem in the courts as well, as fewer cases are adjudicated in open court and more and more cases go the way of alternative dispute resolution and are sealed. In the federal courts, fewer than two percent of cases go to a full and open trial. This might sound like an arcane subject, but it has very real public implications as tort litigation over potentially dangerous products—autos, tires, medications, machinery—medical malpractice, gender, age and race discrimination, and a slew of other topics that directly affect the public’s safety and well-being, are increasingly settled out of sight.

In my book on secrecy, "Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life," I reported that the software system used in all federal courts is designed to spit out "No Such Case Exists" when anyone queries cases that have been sealed. [See a reflection by Walter Pincus of Gup’s book.] But outside of lawyerly publications, such matters rarely receive notice in any systemic context.

I recognize that the economy has thinned the reportorial ranks, but given the wild proliferation of secrets in both the public and private spheres, it would be a terrific investment of reportorial resources, not to mention a valuable public service, to dedicate an entire beat to secrecy. If nothing else, it would produce some remarkable stories, and it might just help the public grasp the wider implications of unchecked secrecy.

When I began working on my secrecy book, I asked a ridiculously simple question that produced some extraordinary responses. The question: "May I have a list of everything I am not allowed to see?" At least it was a start.

We're at a fundamental bifurcation in our nation's history
Posted by Paul Reeves
06/07/2008, 10:17 AM

A recent reading of "American Prometheus", a biography of Robert Oppenheimer reminded me how the cold war represented a fundamental change in our nation as a secret portion of our government developed. We are now at another, where one branch of the government, the executive branch, is withholding information from the legislative branch (e.g., the "torture memos"). If this is allowed to continue, then we will have crossed a line that makes it impossible to have a legislative body that can act on our behalf, because it acts in ignorance. I cannot overstate how fundamental this change would be (perhaps it is already too late). Consider how the nature of our country has changed since the advent of the atomic bomb and the cold war. Then ponder, for a few minutes, the nature of a country where the President holds information that no one knows, and who can, with the utterance of a single name, "enemy combatant", whisk off any person, American or otherwise, to the darkest of limbos.

America, please wake up.

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