9/11 report rare break from wave of secrecy

Last week's final report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks offers a time for reflection on what went wrong - and rededication to move beyond assessing blame and make the fixes needed to lessen the chance of another disastrous intelligence failure.

One achievement of the commission is that it has opened at least a small window on how the government does - and at times fails to do - its most important business. In no small part because of the advocacy of the victims' families, a number of documents were released that helped clarify what officials knew before that fateful day. But there is much more to do. Nearly three years after the attacks, it is more difficult than ever to be an informed citizen - even if you happen to be a member of Congress.


Earlier this month, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a 500-plus page report on intelligence failures in the lead up to the war in Iraq. For weeks, there had been a heated back-and-forth on what needed to stay secret in that report. When it came back from review by intelligence officials, fully half had been blacked out. One senior committee member called that "absolutely an insult. ... They redacted half of what we had," including many parts "that revealed nothing" and were "everyday, unclassified words." The angry senator: former Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.

The flap over that report reveals a growing concern over increased secrecy. In April, the government's Information Security Oversight Office, the small agency charged with counting official secrets, reported that last year the executive branch created more than 14 million new secrets - 25 percent more than the year before, which itself had seen a large rise. The CIA's numbers rose 41 percent, the Justice Department's 89 percent. Meanwhile, the amount of declassification fell to half what it had been in 2000, and one-fifth of 1997 levels.


Push to declassify

No surprise, then, that Sept. 11 commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey, noted that "three-quarters of what I read that was classified shouldn't have been." Or that last year, when a congressional committee investigating the 9/11 attacks was forced to black out an entire part of its report said to deal with Saudi Arabia, former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby, a Alabama Republican, commented that he had carefully reviewed those sections "and my judgment is that 90 to 95 percent could be released and not compromise our intelligence in any way."

But the numbers tell just part of the story. The kind of information being withheld is also growing - well beyond what is formally classified. Last December, the Defense Department announced a policy preventing its inspector general from posting unclassified information "of questionable value to the general public." As a result, the decision of "value" is left to Pentagon officials without any oversight. Other agencies have pulled back information previously available to the public - including about the dangers of chemical accidents and emergency response plans in response.

And the problem extends well beyond what the public is denied the right to know. Indeed, perhaps a worse problem - one highlighted by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York in the late 1990s, and even more relevant today - relates to how our secrecy system prevents crucial information from getting to top government officials. Too often, secrets become assets to be hoarded, not shared - even, at times, when the president badly needs the information. The result, as longtime Intelligence Committee member Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, recently noted, is "a number of instances where failures to share information were in and of themselves threats to national security."

When all is said and done, the legacy of this week's Sept. 11 commission report, and others like it, will be measured by whether they prompt a real change in the way the government does business. To Lott's credit, the experience with the Intelligence Committee report led him to do something: join with three colleagues, two Democrats and one fellow Republican, in introducing legislation July 15 to create an independent body to review how the government decides which information needs to be kept secret. As co-sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, noted, the goal is to "apply some common sense to the national security classification system."

Their proposal is a modest one, and not without some real limitations. But it demonstrates that at least some members of Congress are finally ready to re-engage, to reclaim their appropriate role as overseers of what the executive branch can and should be able to keep secret.

Change needed

Congress now has the chance to emerge from its post-9/11 slumber and help identify what Americans are entitled to know about how their government does its business. Where the release of information would damage national security, it needs to be protected. But where secrecy is invoked not to protect our security but to prevent embarrassment - as appears to be the case with the classification of the official report on abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which is now under review - then the system is badly in need of repair.


A first small step would be to follow Lott's advice that decisions on what should be secret "are independent and objective." As Human Rights First noted in a recent report on secret U.S.-operated detention facilities around the world, official secrecy "has made conditions ripe for illegality and abuse." Imposing some outside oversight over classification would help begin to address broader policy concerns - including those noted in the Sept. 11 commission report.

Eric R. Biel is deputy Washington director and senior counsel of Human Rights First.