BROOKE GLADSTONE: As the war on terror rolls on, so do the complaints about excessive government secrecy. This summer, 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean observed that three-quarters of the classified material he reviewed during the investigation should not have been classified in the first place. Since then, we have heard a new round of calls for revising federal guidelines on secrecy, and not just from the usual run of whining liberals. Conservatives are whining too. Among them, Senator Trent Lott, who last month co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times blaming excessive government secrecy on political motivations by classifiers. And the same day, none other than Donald Rumsfeld suggested that, quote, "the hemorrhaging of classified information might have something to do with there being too much classified information in the first place." Mark Tapscott, a staff member at the conservative Washington think tank The Heritage Foundation, has long decried the government's squeeze on public information. Mark, welcome back to OTM.
MARK TAPSCOTT: Thank you. It's very good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Mark, what makes secrecy a particularly conservative issue?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Because with big government, which of course is the bane of all conservatives, you get big secrecy, and as a result, conservatives become very concerned any time documents or other information that the taxpayers paid for are denied them, and they are not allowed to see them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've been reading a lot of what you've been writing lately, and you've noted a couple of really egregious examples of government secrecy. Can you give us one?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Absolutely. The federal government has a system, a computer software program that is called The Past Performance Information Retrieval System. It maintains information on the performance by more than 300,000 federal contractors, on how they have performed on their contracts. This is exactly the kind of information that the taxpayers ought to have full access to, and yet they have no access to it. It's entirely kept from the public examination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Every time you write about secrecy, you always say this is a problem of bloated federal bureaucracy. You don't lay blame at the feet of the Bush administration. But wouldn't you submit that the problem has gotten a lot worse in the past 3 and a half years?
MARK TAPSCOTT: It ebbs and flows. There were a record number of FOI requests last year -- more than 3 million of them, according to the Department of Justice -- and 99.999 percent of those requests were all handled by career federal employees. The career people who make most of the decisions about FOI rarely if ever even see a political appointee, much less receive direction from them. So I think the problem is that there is a culture of secrecy that is, frankly, impervious, in many respects, to the direction of political appointees one way or the other. Regardless of who's in power, when you have the government, you will have people in government abusing the power and using it to conceal information that they believe the public shouldn't have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Mark, if it ebbs and flows, then the last couple of years have seen one heck of a flow. In fiscal years 2001 to 2003, the average number of decisions to classify information increased 50 percent over the previous five fiscal years. Classification actions in 2003 were more than double those recorded, say 10 years earlier. It's been an extraordinary explosion of secrecy that could hardly be described as in the general run of ebb and flow.
MARK TAPSCOTT: Some portion of that flow in the last 3 years is legitimately understood to be as a product of the war on terror. There are things that we don't want Osama bin Laden to know. And that requires some classification. And my point has always been that when you have big government, and also a national security situation, we shouldn't be surprised that officials will always err on the side of caution and over-classify. That doesn't make it right, but it does explain that it does happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wouldn't you say, then, that the excuse of national security is used to over-classify information in a way that doesn't protect our national security?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Absolutely. And I would go beyond that to say that it is typical of people on the right, quite frankly, that when national security is invoked, that becomes a, virtually an automatic pass to go ahead and classify. But you have the same phenomena among people on the left on non-national security matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But obviously it's not the Democrats that have prevented us from seeing records pertaining to Cheney's Energy Task Force, for instance, or withheld the cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation from Congress. These are White House initiatives, and they have nothing to do with national security, right?
MARK TAPSCOTT: Isn't it interesting that the Cheney Commission on the Energy Task Force invoked in the same manner an alleged right to maintain secrecy about who they talked with that was invoked by the Clinton Health Care Task Force. [LAUGHTER] My point is, they were both wrong, and I wrote specifically about the Bush administration being on the wrong side of that particular issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is your reaction to the legislation sponsored by Senators Trent Lott and Ron Wyden that would create an independent national security classification board? Do you think it would create more bureaucracy or do you think it would address the concerns we've talked about today?
MARK TAPSCOTT: The problem is that it doesn't go far enough to recognize the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is -- big government creates big secrecy. Therefore the solution is -- less government. In the interim, given that we are going to have big government for some period into the future, measures like Wyden-Lott, I think, are prudent. The key thing is how they are administered, and I would hope, for example, that legislation would stipulate people from outside the government as members of that, that board.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How far in the future do you think we'll have big government? [LAUGHS]
MARK TAPSCOTT: Hey. Couldn't resist, could you? Let us, let us hope, in the interest of individual freedom, that big government is no longer a problem for any of us, sooner rather than later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Tapscott, thank you very much.
MARK TAPSCOTT: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Tapscott is the director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, determining the threat level for freedom of information, and a reason to think well of personal injury lawyers.