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The Government's 9/11 Secrecy Obsession

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
Michael German,
Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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September 13, 2011

Our government lost its way after 9/11 in many different respects. One of them was to worsen what had already been long apparent as one of the most significant problems with our security establishment: its out-of-control habit of secrecy.

The secrecy problem had been studied and decried for decades before 9/11, with nearly every government panel, commission, and committee that examined the issue concluding that the amount of information kept secret was far out of proportion to what was justifiable, and was harming our nation.

Indeed, excessive secrecy played a role in 9/11 itself and our government’s failure to stop it.

“The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has used excessive secrecy to hide possibly unconstitutional surveillance.”

Read the Report »

Unfortunately, in the wake of 9/11, the government turned in exactly the wrong direction. New laws were passed, such as the Patriot Act, giving agencies broader new powers to operate in secret. Other laws were secretly violated, using highly-classified legal memos as justification. The White House directed federal agencies to interpret the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the narrowest possible manner. The government began deporting people in secret hearings with secret evidence, and actually began restricting access to information that had already been made public, removing hundreds of thousands of public documents from the Internet. President Obama pledged to reverse this trend and took some modest but important steps, like reversing his predecessor’s FOIA policy. But in other areas he stepped backward, continuing misuse of the state secrets privilege to block lawsuits alleging constitutional abuses and prosecuting more government whistleblowers than any previous president. The government made a record 76 million classification decisions in 2010 alone. Securing these unnecessary secrets costs taxpayers over $10 billion per year.

In fact, secrecy has become a crucial tool for the surveillance state that continues to grow in the midst of our government. According to a study by the Washington Post, at least 263 government organizations have been created or reorganized in response to 9/11, with at least 20 percent of the agencies that have an anti-terror mission having been created since those attacks. Many of those that already existed have seen their budgets and workforces double or more. And this establishment is armed with sweeping secrecy powers, which allow it to hide its activities from the American people, or reveal facts selectively in order to manipulate politicians and the public into giving them new powers, and supporting their sky-high budgets.

Out-of-control secrecy is a disease that is sickening our democracy, and Congress needs to take not piecemeal actions, but drastic measures in order to fix it. A recent ACLU report analyzes the urgency of this problem in more detail, and outlines precisely what we think Congress needs to do.

As James Madison, the “Father of our Constitution,” put it, “a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.” Or put another way, “information is power.” Madison and our other founders meticulously designed our Constitution precisely to limit government power, and it has worked pretty well for over 200 years. Congress needs to act on the secrecy problem to keep those limits alive.

On Thursday, September 15 at 4 p.m. EDT, we’ll be hosting a live chat onFacebook. We hope you’ll join us; send your questions to @ACLU with #ACLUchat and #911 hashtags, or leave them in the comments section below.

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