American democracy has a disease, and it’s called secrecy. Since 2001 the United States Government has spent well over a trillion dollars attempting to secure the nation from terrorist attacks and other physical threats to the well-being of the American people. But the excessive secrecy that hides how the government pursues its national security mission is undermining the core principles of democratic government and injuring our nation in ways no terrorist act ever could.
Simply put, government secrecy is incompatible with a healthy democracy. As U.S. District Court Judge Damon Keith said, "Democracies die behind closed doors."
Yet today much of our government’s business is conducted in secret. We have a multitude of secret agencies, secret committees of Congress, a secret court — and even secret laws.
For example, federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security, have assumed an unprecedented amount of authority to detain and spy on individuals. Yet the public has been kept unaware of how these powers have been used. Government secrecy is a concept completely at odds with the idea of government accountability.
This sprawling — and growing — secret security establishment presents an active threat to individual liberty and undermines the very notion of government of, by and for the people.
Certainly some level of secrecy is necessary for protecting the nation from potential enemies. But even where secrecy is needed, it must be recognized as a necessary evil, and effective checks against error, abuse and corruption must be re-established. History — including recent history — has often shown that secrecy does great harm to the nation by depriving policy makers and the public of crucial information before decisions are made and by fostering illegality, inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the agencies charged with our protection.
ACLU Report Calls for Radical Reforms to Combat Government Secrecy (2011 press release): In the years since 9/11 the United States government has spent over a trillion dollars on national security measures that have increased government secrecy exponentially. A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Drastic Measures Required,” illustrates the vast and systemic use of secrecy, including secret agencies, secret committees in Congress, a secret court and even secret laws, to keep government activities away from public scrutiny.
“Drastic Measure Required: Congress Needs to Overhaul U.S. Secrecy Laws and Increase Oversight of the Secret Security Establishment” (2011 PDF report): It is time for Congress to make the secrecy problem an issue of the highest priority, and enact a sweeping overhaul of our national security establishment to re-impose democratic controls. Congress has considerable powers to monitor and regulate the executive branch’s national security activities, but it must sharpen these tools and use them more effectively.
ACLU White Paper on 2009 Government Secrecy Report (2010 PDF report): The National Archives and Records Administration’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) released its annual report on the government’s security classification programs, revealing useful statistics about how much information the government hid from public view for national security reasons in 2009. The ACLU offers this analysis memo to highlight the importance of this new data and to call for more significant reform of a bloated secrecy regime that kills public accountability and cripples our constitutional system of checks and balances.
ACLU Report Calls for Radical Reforms to Combat Government Secrecy (2011 press release)
The Secrecy Double-Standard (2011 blog)
Obama Endorses Bush Secrecy On Torture And Rendition (2009 press release)
Congress Passes Important Bill To Reduce Government Secrecy (2010 press release)
Secrecy and Surveillance (2011 blog post)