“I, _________________________________, an individual official, employee, consultant, or subcontractor of or to _______________________ (the Authorized Entity), intending to be legally bound, hereby consent to the terms in this agreement in consideration of my being granted conditional access to certain information, specified below, that is owned by, produced by, or in the possession of the United States Government.”
It may not be the most compelling prose you’ve come across lately, but it may well disguise one of the very worst policy ideas in recent history. The Department of Homeland Security — that gargantuan federal bureaucracy brought to you by Congress — is getting out of the transparency game almost as quickly as it began operation.
We SPJ members spend lots of time and energy on freedom of information, and we should: It is a cornerstone right that we have long defended. But the government’s secrecy is morphing into new forms daily, and nondisclosure is still nondisclosure.
Take a look at the new Department of Homeland Security policy. It’s the gag order to end all gag orders, an oath of silence demanded of all 183,000-plus DHS employees. The legalese continues for three pages, gently reminding our homeland security troops that violators face possible criminal penalties and investigations of employees could occur “at any time or place.”
The nondisclosure agreement requires employees to sign secrecy agreements that prohibit them from disclosing “unclassified but sensitive information.”
This represents a major shift in government information policy. Until now, the government has reserved these sorts of agreements for the protection of clearly classified information. Now an amorphous category of information — unclassified but sensitive — falls into the $33 billion hole that is DHS.
Let’s not kid ourselves: This agreement is not primarily about protecting us from secret files slipping into the hands of those who would do us harm. That’s what classification is for, and trust me, our government makes ample use of it.
If anything, we hide too much information already. OpentheGovernment.org’s “Secrecy Report Card’’ notes that 14 million new classification decisions were made in 2003, up 60 percent from 2001. Critics of every political persuasion agree that government secrecy is escalating faster than ever. It obviously is horribly expensive. In 2003, U.S. taxpayers spent $6.5 billion on classification — $2 billion more than the year before.
Our government already is far too secretive, and it spends way too much money keeping secrets. So? It’s the government! This is terrorism we’re talking about, and we must be willing to do what it takes.
But what if it is not working? What if it is horribly inefficient and bureaucratic and reactive and downright sloppy? What if DHS ignores criticism while punishing critics, or tells us all is well, when in fact, all is not?
Well, perish the thought.
The clear aim of this repressive policy is to give the world’s largest bureaucracy unchallenged control of the information environment, as our military commanders are fond of saying. No more messy worries about contradiction from employees actually guarding the homeland. Whistleblowers be gone!
Valerie Smith, a DHS spokeswoman, told the Washington Post that the nondisclosure agreement “simply reminds employees that this information is by definition sensitive and not meant for broad public distribution.”
Oh, no doubt it reminds them. It reminds them to keep a tight lip no matter what they see, no matter the level of incompetence or apathy. Lest they forget, those criminal penalties will serve as a nagging wakeup.
The cultivation of a climate of secrecy and fear, a taxpayer-funded Valhalla in which public accountability is anathema, stands the guiding principles of democratic governance on its ear. It ignores the role of the press, which has served us ably through the years by holding public servants in the light of scrutiny.
Certainly we must protect lots of homeland security-related information. That’s what classification schemes are for. But combine the nondisclosure agreement foisted upon DHS employees with the rapidly expanding systems of national security secrecy, and we have created a system in which virtually all homeland security information is either classified or can be withheld because it is classifiable, or sensitive but unclassified.
It’s a recipe for disaster. The news media has a critical role to play in homeland security. First, the media have always served as the public’s information channel in times of crisis.
Equally important, the news media should doggedly examine and document potential threats to the homeland, as well as the effectiveness of the government responses. Department of Homeland Security ignores the importance of this function when it adopts a systemwide gag order.
Nondisclosure agreements, denial of Freedom of Information Act requests and incessant operational secrecy send but one message to the American people: Trust us.
No thanks. I’d rather have some idea of what you’re up to.
Charles Davis, co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, is an associate professor and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.