Alter: The Steep Price of Secrecy

For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city." Those were the most important words President Obama spoke on his first full day in office. Obama then signed executive orders to shift the balance back toward openness in government. At least in theory, the burden of proof will move from those who would release information to those who would classify it. It's significant Obama led off this way. He went right after not just George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but an eternal bureaucratic impulse. Will Obama's emphasis on discipline and control eventually lead him to share that impulse? We'll see.

Thomas Jefferson argued that "information is the currency of democracy," and for generations peacetime America respected the principle. Believing, as Secretary of State Henry Stimson did, that "gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail," the nation chose not to even have an intelligence service until World War II. Then came the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and the National Security Act of 1947, which essentially said that a certain constantly expanding category of information was "born classified." That means no formal process for assessing if something should be secret or not—just an officious bureaucrat with a big stamp.

The Cold War created a national-security state that we now assume to be normal. Occasionally, the value of openness asserts itself, only to be crushed by fear. President Johnson's 1966 Freedom of Information Act and declassification efforts by Presidents Carter and Clinton were severely curtailed by Bush after 9/11. And to protect former presidents (including, not coincidentally, his father and himself), Bush gave the ex men the power to keep their records secret after leaving office. This attack on the very idea of honest history was also reversed by Obama's executive order.

Obama's angular left-handed signature on an order won't transform the bureaucracy overnight. Every agency of government is afflicted with the secrecy disease. George Washington University's National Security Archive, currently suing for access to 5 million Bush administration e-mails, hands out an annual "Rosemary Award," which is named for President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who notoriously erased 18 and a half minutes from a crucial Watergate tape. The award is for the worst responsiveness on FOIA requests. Last year it went to the Treasury Department, which seems to work overtime stalling efforts to release information. That must change soon or we'll never learn the details of how the government spent $700 billion in a few months trying to bail out the banks.

Rational people agree that vital national-security details (i.e., sources and methods of intelligence-gathering) need to be kept secret. But the 9/11 Commission reported that 75 percent of what was classified about Osama bin Laden should not have been, and by some estimates as much as 90 percent of secret material wouldn't hurt national security if posted online tomorrow.

In fact, it would likely help. The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that secrecy isn't just antidemocratic, it's stupid. It impedes wise decision making because what's not known can't be widely debated. That by definition reduces options. Moynihan wrote that secrecy, rather than Jefferson's information, has become the currency of government, as agencies hoard everything they can. This creates scarcity, which makes secrets "organizational assets" to be traded in a closed market of officials, with the same harmful consequences of any closed market.

Then there are cultural factors. Dealing with classified material makes officials feel important, as if the sacrifice of taking a lower-paying government job can be partly compensated for by the frisson of handling something secret. And they worry that were they to err on the side of openness and declassification, they'll get in trouble with their bosses. If Obama's new policy is to succeed, these same officials will have to fear facing penalties for not declassifying documents and making them available posthaste.

Many government agencies still use 1980s computers, and presidential libraries require a tech upgrade, too. Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive reports that George H.W. Bush's staff produced a few hundred thousand e-mails; Bill Clinton's generated about 32 million; and George W. Bush's, more than 100 million. Swamped historians will need to apply clever use of keywords to glean anything significant.

The Internet offers new ways to use openness as a huge money saver. As a senator, Obama won approval of a "Google for government" bill that requires the posting of a brief description of federal contracts. He should now go further and mandate PDFs of all contracts with the private sector. The yelps of these companies living off the federal teat must be ignored; when competitors see the contracts, they'll race to convince the government they can do the same things cheaper.

In the White House, Obama and reporters are already sparring about what is properly confidential. It was hardly a blow to the republic that the meaningless oath do-over wasn't televised. But true transparency requires getting rid of unaccountable Washington traditions like referring to background briefers as "senior government officials" when everyone in town knows their identities (Press Secretary Robert Gibbs inadvertently conveyed the name of one, White House counsel Greg Craig, in his first news conference). The president has a right to private meetings, but, in the spirit of transparency, he shouldn't get too upset when details inevitably leak. And there's no point growing irritated, as he did last week, when reporters use any chance they get to ask him some tough questions.

Stories of secrets and espionage have long been cool in Washington lore. Openness was for geeky goo-goos. But now a hip new president says it's time to "make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be." He might have added a line from Pat Moynihan: "Secrecy is for losers."