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Washington secrecy is creating a know-nothing democracy

Washington secrecy is creating a know-nothing democracy
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Washington may be more secretive nowadays than at any time in recent decades. Federal policymakers have become accustomed to rationing what they release while citizens are assured that official secrecy makes them more secure. But American democracy cannot survive perpetual bipartisan coverups from the political ruling class.

A recent analysis by Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States as 45th in the world in press freedom — worse than Romania and barely better than Botswana. Unfortunately, this dismal grade is not due to Trump’s endless denunciations of the media. The sharpest plunge in America’s press freedom rating occurred during the Obama administration — thanks in part to its zealous prosecutions of journalists. But Trump is continuing policies started by earlier presidents that mock freedom of the press and Americans’ right to know about federal activities.

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Secrecy may cast the most important confirmation vote for Trump’s nominee to be CIA chief, Gina Haspel. The CIA withheld from the U.S. Senate much of the information on Haspel’s 33 year career with the agency. The CIA did disclose that Haspel met with Mother Teresa, presumably exonerating Haspel of subsequent sins for her role in Bush-era torture. Even though Haspel wrote the cable ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes of waterboarding and similar brutalities, the Trump administration apparently expects senators to presume that Haspel would deal straight with Congress and the American people. However, Haspel's evasive testimony Wednesday morning failed to answer key questions about her role in the most controversial aspect of the war on terror.

Secrecy begets impunity, which spurs atrocities. The Trump administration is ignoring a 2016 executive order mandating annual reports on how many civilians and enemy fighters are killed by U.S. counterterrorism attacks. Trump officials express a commitment to protecting civilians and yet there is a sixfold increase in air strikes in Yemen.

Since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has practically been governed by a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Did you know that U.S. troops are currently engaged in combat in 14 foreign nations fighting purported terrorists? That jolting fact is practically a state secret, though it did slip out in a recent New York Times editorial. After four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger last October, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Election Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Five things to know about 'MBS,' Saudi Arabia's crown prince MORE (R-S.C.) and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' Medicare for All is disastrous for American seniors and taxpayers Senate Dems race to save Menendez in deep-blue New Jersey MORE (D-N.Y.) admitted they did not know that a thousand U.S. troops were deployed to that African nation. Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, admitted, “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing.” Congress has utterly defaulted on its role as a check-and-balance on the Pentagon, thereby enabling a surge in deadly covert interventions abroad.

Secrecy is a knavery entitlement program. Thanks to the ludicrously named Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, victims of alleged sexual harassment by members of Congress receive secret taxpayer-funded settlements. That means constituents rarely learn that their tax dollars underwrite their representatives’ allegedly roaming hands. More than $17 million has been spent in payoffs to congressional employees who filed workplace grievances.

At the same time an iron curtain of secrecy descended on much of official Washington, the feds multiplied their intrusions against everyone else. While the National Security Agency is vacuuming up Americans’ private data, federal agencies made the decision more than 50 million times to classify documents in 2016. The Freedom of Information Act, one of the underrated bulwarks of self-government, has become largely a mirage in recent decades.

The more information the government withholds, the easier it becomes to manipulate public opinion. By revealing only details that buttress the administration’s policies, citizens are prevented from assessing the latest power grabs or interventions. As a federal appeals court warned in 2002:

“When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”

Trump won the presidency in 2016 in part because of Americans’ disgust and distrust for Washington. By perpetuating the vast majority of official secrecy and creating new cloaks, Trump is missing his best shot against what he calls the Deep State. Sunlight would be far more effective at draining the swamp than Trump’s huffing and puffing.

Secrecy is perhaps the ultimate incumbent protection policy, and Trump may profit from muzzling federal agencies like he tries to do with old flames. But as Attorney General Ramsey Clark warned in 1967, “Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy.” There is no such thing as retroactive self-government.

James Bovard is the author of "Public Policy Hooligan" (Kindle version 2012), "Attention Deficit Democracy" (St. Martin's/Palgrave, 2006), and eight other books. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications.