The ‘culture of secrecy’ needs to be declassified

I’d like to thank readers for the feedback I received regarding last week’s column.

It is great to know that there is concern regarding the National Security Agency and its proper role. There certainly is a divergence of opinion as to whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. While I hope that he is a hero, I concede that only time will tell.

As I stated previously, one of the troubling aspects of the Snowden affair is that he has applied for political asylum in Russia. Russia has granted his request, at least on a temporary basis. I’m a firm supporter of the concept of stand your ground and I would have preferred that Snowden stand his ground here in the United States against whatever charges the government might have brought against him.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has an abysmal record regarding whistleblowers. Its war on whistleblowers is generally acknowledged in the media, even the mainstream media. According to the Guardian, the British publication that broke the story, Snowden has been charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. The Obama administration, in fact, has prosecuted more whistleblowers under this act than all previous administrations combined.

President Woodrow Wilson pushed through The Espionage Act in 1917 after convincing Congress to enter WWI. It was the Patriot Act of its day and its intent was to give government the means to prosecute anyone giving aid to the enemy. Wilson was able to get it passed, along with the so-called “Trading with the Enemy” Act because we were at war. It was extended by a set of amendments passed under the name of the Sedition Act of 1918. Those amendments, which in essence made it a crime to criticize the government, were eventually repealed, but the Espionage Act remains.

One of the more noteworthy prosecutions under the Espionage Act was that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times during the Nixon administration. The Times decision to publish them on First Amendment grounds was controversial. Said publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger at the time: “I just didn’t feel there was any breach of national security, in the sense that we were giving secrets to the enemy.” Not unless the enemy was the American public. The prosecution by the Nixon administration ended in a mistrial.

Fast forward to 2010 to the Times coverage of the case of whistleblower Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act for revealing to the press that the NSA spent $1.2 billion on a contract for a data collection program called Trailblazer. According to Drake, the work could have been done in house for $3 million. The government eventually dropped all charges against Drake in exchange for a guilty plea on a minor misdemeanor – unlawful use of a government-owned computer.

President Obama ran for office promising government transparency. The Sunlight Foundation reported on July 25th that the website created by the Obama transition team in 2008, had been down since June 8th. There was speculation that it was because of this promise posted on the site:

“Protect Whistleblowers”: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.”

So much for government transparency and campaign promises. By the way, on July 30th, after its post went viral on the internet, the Sunlight Foundation reported that suddenly and magically reappeared.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an article in 1997 called “Culture of Secrecy” stemming from the report issued by the Commission on Government Secrecy that he chaired. It described a culture of secrecy that pervades the U.S. government and its intelligence community going back 80 years to the Espionage Act. The Commission reported that approximately 400,000 new secrets are created annually – and that’s only at the “Top Secret” level. In other words, virtually anything can be “classified.”

While no one would question the need for intelligence — where is the accountability?  The NSA claims the right to keep secrets from American citizens, while Edward Snowden has revealed that the NSA believes that Americans have no right to keep secrets from them. Is he a traitor or a hero? That appears to be classified information. While there are those that appear to want to shoot the messenger, let’s focus on the message.  Something is amiss in the land of the free, and we need to find out why.

— Elliot Simon writes from 

Harpers Ferry













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