BOB GARFIELD: When all is said and done, the Bush administration was right, of course, in its assertion that changes must be made in the flow of information to safeguard national security. Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, agrees. But he says that a policy of reflexive secrecy can also make America vulnerable.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: What happens when you protect too much is that you undermine your own performance. That was one of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, which said, for example, that there is too much secrecy in U.S. intelligence and that it needs to be curtailed. The classification system, as a formal mechanism, at least has a certain internal order and rules and regulations. What we're seeing more and more, however, is that agencies are withholding information in a much more idiosyncratic manner, and the result is that more and more information is being withheld just by default.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about what I think is a pretty good example, and that's the Taguba Report about the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, the Taguba Report is a remarkable example of what you might call the pathology of the secrecy system. The report itself was classified in its entirety as "Secret," and "No Foreign Distribution." Nevertheless, it promptly leaked to the media, and on close inspection, it was apparent that it was classified to protect the Defense Department from embarrassment. There is an explicit prohibition in the executive order on classification that says "information about violations of law or information that is embarrassing to an agency may not be classified," and yet it was.
BOB GARFIELD: The Pentagon did eventually look at the situation and concede that yes, it had been over-classified, and yes, it seems to have been to save the Defense Department embarrassment, and no, we're not going to do this again. Can we take this reaction by the Pentagon as potentially good news for the second Bush term?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, there is a bit of a silver lining. The system is not totally locked into place, and it is possible to challenge it. My organization filed a complaint about the classification of the Taguba Report. The ACLU filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the report. And six months later, almost all of the report has been de-classified, released to the public, and the Defense Department says it has undertaken a new initiative to train classifiers more carefully and to provide additional oversight. So there is an awareness, even within the government, that they have gone overboard, and hopefully it, it will be possible to put a tighter leash on the secrecy system. But that's work that remains to be done.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, with Republicans taking even greater control of both houses of Congress, is there any chance that there will be a legislative counterbalance to the administration's reflex to make everything secret?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: There's only a small chance. On the other hand, there is an awareness by several Republican members of Congress that secrecy has become a problem. Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who is a Republican subcommittee chairman, held a hearing in August on over-classification. Senator Cornyn of Texas, who is a very conservative Republican, has been investigating the possibility of strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. So, there are some indications of open-mindedness, even with the Republican majority bloc, and you know, it's possible to take a glass half full, optimistic view of the situation. I would say in particular with respect to the news media, that there's a way of looking at it that says it's good for the news media, because the, the threshold for news has been lowered. The more secrets there are, the more secrets there are to uncover. It's actually a rather exciting time to be in the news business, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, this is one bull market [LAUGHTER] I'm afraid I'm not all that excited about. John Dean, in his book Worse than Watergate, and others, have said that in the second Bush term, secrecy would become even more extreme, and we can't help but notice that the president has used the word "mandate" many times in the last few days, suggesting that you ain't seen nothin' yet.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: It's very troubling. Now, a majority of the American public has said that the way the Bush administration works is within the boundaries of, of what we consider okay, and that's a shocking result. I think it tells us that all of the things that we take for granted --freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom from religion -- are not so firmly fixed that they couldn't be curtailed or abolished, and that if we care about them, we all really need to protect them on a daily basis, and we need to do a better job of educating ourselves and our fellow citizens about the meaning of First Amendment values. I can't help thinking that if the First Amendment had been on the ballot this week, it would have been voted down. It is, after all, a liberal proposition.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh! All right, Steve. Well, as always, thanks very much.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. His newsletter is called Secrecy News, and we'll put up a link on our website to help you find it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a controversy over counting the dead, catering to a demographic of one, and a kerfuffle over a word beginning with "c."