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The Secrecy Double-Standard

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April 6, 2011

For almost a decade, the American public has been told time and time again that some of our government’s most controversial national security policies and programs are “secret.” From warrantless wiretapping to the CIA’s torture and “targeted killing” programs, the government has often insisted that our security requires secrecy, and that information about these programs is too sensitive to be shared with the public — even claiming state secrets to have the information shielded from judicial scrutiny.

But an op-ed in the LA Times today by the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer brings up a disturbing trend: Jameel points out numerous instances where the government insisted on secrecy in one context only to later disclose its supposed “secrets” in another – be it an interview with the media or a national book tour. Jameel discusses a recent interview with former CIA lawyer John Rizzo in Newsweek magazine in which Rizzo discusses the scope, process and methods of the CIA’s “targeted killing” program — a highly controversial counterterrorism program that had previously been cloaked in official secrecy. Jameel writes:

“What was most remarkable about the interview, though, was not what Rizzo said but that it was Rizzo who said it. For more than six years until his retirement in December 2009, Rizzo was the CIA’s acting general counsel — the agency’s chief lawyer. On his watch the CIA had sought to quash a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by arguing that national security would be harmed irreparably if the CIA were to acknowledge any detail about the targeted killing program, even the program’s mere existence.

Rizzo’s disclosure was long overdue — the American public surely has a right to know that the assassination of terrorism suspects is now official government policy — but it reflects an opportunistic approach to allegedly sensitive information that has become the norm for senior government officials.”

The public absolutely has a right to know what our government does in our name. President Obama himself has declared that, “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”

While there may be some instances where secrecy is indeed a necessity to security, there are too many examples of the government’s secrecy double standard for the American pubic to continue buying this argument.

Jameel notes that the courts themselves are partly to blame, explaining that “both the Constitution and the Freedom of Information Act invest the courts with the power to determine whether claimed state secrets are actually state secrets and whether classified information is properly classified, courts too often accept executive claims without scrutiny.”

One of the most egregious examples of excessive secrecy is with regard to survivors of the Bush administration’s torture program. Despite the fact that there is a significant and ever growing body of public information about the abuse and torture of prisoners in CIA custody, the government’s misuse of the so-called ‘state secrets privilege’ has enabled it to deny all survivors of U.S. sponsored torture their day in court and shielded their torturers from accountability.

The ACLU will continue to challenge this notion of secrecy in our lawsuit on behalf of five survivors of the U.S. “extraordinary rendition” program, Mohamed v. Jeppesen. You can add your support by sending a letter to the Obama administration letting them know that the American public deserves to know why prisoners were tortured in America’s name.

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