BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wen Ho Lee was accused of telling secrets. The government is charged with creating far too many of them. Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy Project, birddogs the government's tightening grip on information in his newsletter Secrecy News. He says that while the United States is the most open government in the world, it's also the most secretive.
STEVE AFTERGOOD: No other government produces new secrets at such a prodigious rate -- more than 23 million new secrets in the last year alone. And part of that has to do with the enormous size of our military, the vast size of our intelligence bureaucracy which dwarfs that of any other in the world, and with the result that we're just producing an avalanche of new secrets all the time. I think as a society we somehow need to get a handle on this and make sure that we're keeping secret the things that need to be secret, because there are such things, but nothing more than that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's review some of the big government secrecy stories of 2003. One of them is actually one that dates back to 2001 but has gained new life, and that's the controversy over Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force which we understand was filled almost exclusively with people from the oil industry, but we'll never know for sure, because he wants to keep that list secret.
STEVE AFTERGOOD: That's right. I don't think the vice president is trying to hide the fact that he had a meeting with the Sierra Club. [LAUGHTER] But it's an interesting case, because unlike many other controversial aspects of government secrecy, even the government does not claim that there is a national security interest here. They are simply saying "We don't want to tell you." This is a, a position they adopted prior to September 11, and I think it tells us a lot about the attitude of the Bush administration towards public disclosure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And where does that case stand now?
STEVE AFTERGOOD:The Bush administration has appealed to the Supreme Court to intervene in the case so that it does not have to disclose the kind of information that a lower court said it must. This is the subject of a lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club. The Supreme Court will hear it next year and make a decision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Another big story from this year is the famous missing 28 pages from the Joint Report on 9/11. Now this was the report that was supposed to look into intelligence failures, our inability to predict that attack. Now this does have something to do with national security. Do you think it's valid that those 28 pages were redacted?
STEVE AFTERGOOD: Well, this is a-- again, a really interesting and representative case, because the authors of the report, members of Congress, have argued on a bipartisan basis that most - not all - of those 28 pages should be declassified. And yet the Bush administration refused, and Congress, I think to its disgrace, did not put up much of a fight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That does seem to be a problem. Congress seems to have been rather passive with regard to fulfilling its responsibility for oversight.
STEVE AFTERGOOD: That is definitely a problem, and it's also a problem for citizens and journalists who would try to understand the workings of government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the story this year that was most influenced by the wheels of government secrecy in play?
STEVE AFTERGOOD:Well, undoubtedly the decision to go to war in Iraq is the most dramatic and most consequential instance of government secrecy at work. You know, not only was crucial information withheld, but false information, whether knowingly false or otherwise, was introduced into the mix. I think it's an object lesson in how the quality of the deliberative process has begun to deteriorate. It's not that, you know, strongly-held views should not be aired. Obviously they should and must. But the opportunity to critically evaluate them was lost, and we embarked on a path to war largely in the dark.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In a war against unwarranted government secrecy, Dana Priest recently called you "an army of one." Is that how it feels for you?
STEVE AFTERGOOD: Oddly enough, the answer is no. There are a growing number of individuals and organizations who recognize that this is a problem in their own domains, whether it's journalists or historians or environmentalists or ordinary citizens bumping up against the wall of secrecy. Early in 2004 there's a new coalition that's about to be unveiled under the aegis Open the Government dot org -- which is a broad coalition of diverse organizations who share a common concern about growing secrecy and are determined to try and correct it. So it's actually not lonely. It's a tough slog, as Secretary Rumsfeld put it, in a different context-- [LAUGHTER] but it's not lonely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much, Steven.
STEVE AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Steven Aftergood is director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy and publisher of the newsletter Secrecy News.