Secrecy won’t make Americans safe

By Danielle Brian: Guest Columnist

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress and the Bush Administration have expanded the kinds of information that are withheld from the public. A more careful approach to handling sensitive information was surely needed after the attacks, given the new terrorist threats against the American people.

However, government agencies have issued up to 50 sets of rules for keeping even unclassified information secret. These rules are a veritable Wild West of government secrecy — there are no standards and no protections against abuse. The result is that government agencies have free reign to hide their corruption and their failures.

The Department of Homeland Security has taken the lead on setting a bad example. Earlier this year, it issued a policy that threatens employees and contractors with civil and criminal prosecution for sharing information with the public, even if that information would be available under the Freedom of Information Act. The policy places a cloak of secrecy over the entire agency and all of its operations.

This type of overreaching secrecy has created a new set of problems. The government and the industries it regulates often fail to upgrade security to meet the new terrorist threats. Secrecy conveniently conceals these failings from journalists, concerned citizens and nonprofit watchdogs who play a vital role in holding government accountable and making public policy stronger. Without sunshine and public debate, our homeland security vulnerabilities are festering behind closed doors. The end result is a more — not less — vulnerable nation.

Since 9/11, the number of whistleblowers raising concerns internally has increased by 50 percent annually, in large part because of their concerns about homeland security weaknesses. The government’s usual reaction to an internal critique is to silence the whistleblower and brush the embarrassing problems under the rug. As a result, serious lapses, misconduct, or security failures may go uncorrected. And now, new secrecy policies give the government even more power to silence homeland security whistleblowers when they tell their bosses, the media, or the public about their concerns.

My own organization, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), has faced such chilling attempts when raising concerns about nuclear power plant security. After POGO published a letter revealing how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was failing to adequately test security at the plants, the Commission threatened us with civil and criminal prosecution. There was nothing in the letter that was classified or even sensitive and, in the end, the NRC was forced to back down. Of course, this was only after we had to secure an attorney to defend us from the government. POGO’s nuclear security concerns are now beginning to receive scrutiny, giving us hope that the problems we highlighted will finally be addressed.

Department of Homeland Security whistleblower Bogdan Dzakovic’s story provides another illustrative example. Dzakovic’s Red Team, which conducted undercover airport security tests, breached security with ridiculous ease up to 90 percent of the time. Yet, higher-ups ordered him not to write up their findings or to retest airports with particularly egregious vulnerabilities.

Dzakovic blew the whistle on this shortly after 9/11. Testifying before the 9/11 Commission, he noted that under the Department’s new secrecy rules: “I could have been fired and be sitting in jail, instead of being vindicated and testifying today.”

Ironically, the 9/11 Commission warned that excessive secrecy contributed to the terrorist attacks, and urged the government to end its Cold War culture of secrecy. Yet, since the Commission issued its report, ways to keep information from the public have proliferated.

This excessive secrecy will not make us safe. It endangers us by concealing problems that must be corrected, leaving them to fester over time rather than nipping them in the bud. As the director of the government’s classification policy office told Congress, sometimes excessive secrecy can decrease security rather than increase it.

Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project On Government Oversight in Washington, D.C. Contact her at 202-347-1122.