Author/journalist says secrecy hurting America
Ted Gup said security is vital to a democracy, but excessive secrecy threatens it.
Gup, an award-winning investigative journalist and Canton, Ohio, native, has written a new book, “Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life,” and said Americans need to understand the degree to which secrecy poses risk and danger in their lives.
“It seemed to me to be an unavoidable subject because it touches everyone in matters of accountability, integrity, and citizen participation outside of government,” he said. “You can’t live life in a meaningful way without some degree of information. Darkness is great for mushrooms, not people.”
Gup’s book examines the harmful effects of excessive secrecy, not just in government, but in virtually every aspect of American life: “whether your doctor is competent, whether the car you drive is dangerous; a medicine’s side effects. Secrecy puts us all at risk.
“People often say what you don’t know can’t hurt you. They’re wrong; it can kill you. Just in our little home in Ohio, we drive a Ford Explorer. The tires on it were recalled, but not before many people lost their lives. My wife has trouble raising her left arm. Her shoulder was damaged because a medicine caused muscle damage. My son was on the floor, with salmonella. The restaurant at which we ate didn’t maintain hygiene; we didn’t know it. You would be hard-pressed to find a family which has not been touched by secrecy in some way.”
Gup, a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University who worked for the Washington Post and Time Magazine, previously wrote “The Book of Honor,” which examined the history of CIA agents killed in covert operations.
“I’ve had an interest in government openness for my entire career, which now spans over 30 years,” he said. “I saw the misery that secrecy caused those families. That, I think as much as anything, persuaded me to take a look at the subject” of secrecy.
Excessive government secrecy existed long before Sept. 11, Gup said. But the attacks placed the media in a difficult position.
“People in the media are people, so, like the rest of country, they were afraid,” he said. “Add to that, they did not want to appear to be unpatriotic, so they pulled punches. They became less aggressive, more
trusting of government. All of that made them more vulnerable to manipulation and lies.
“I think there are people in government who exploited the good faith and the patriotic inclinations of the press, to the detriment of the press and the public.”
Gup said he supports secrecy when it serves the national interest, “but I believe that (applies to) real secrets ... how to build a bomb, or troop movements, or specific plans for nuclear reactors. These things should be robustly protected and guarded, but there is no greater threat to those secrets than the proliferation of false secrets.”
Secrecy escalated in part, he said, because checks and balances fell apart. Calling the Bush administration “the most secretive in history,” Gup said one-party control of the presidency and Congress for six years ensured that oversight and challenges were minimal. America also “had a citizenry that was genuinely afraid and profoundly deferential to the government,” he said.
And the watchdog press, facing economic and major cutbacks, wasn’t able to watch government closely.
“The combination spelled a major problem for transparency,” Gup said. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know what happens when no one’s watching.”
Civil libertarians aren’t the only ones worried about the government’s closer watch on its citizens at the same time its citizens are unable to keep a closer watch on government, Gup said. He cited reservations over warrantless surveillance expressed by Gen. Patrick Hughes, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also headed intelligence-gathering for the Department Homeland Security.
“He is not a left-wing liberal,” he said. “He spent his life in intelligence. He explained to me that when they collect information, they don’t just collect information on the guilty; they don’t just collect information on crimes. Within the context of terror, they also gather information on people’s business and personal relationships, their personal peccadilloes.”
Those reservations are a concern that Gup said he’s heard expressed by many in the military and intelligence community.
Gup said he strongly supports secrecy -- when it is in the national interest.
But government is over-reaching, he said. That’s perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the federal government classifies 14 million pieces of information every year, but “not one of those will tell you where (Osama) bin Laden is hiding.”
Calling the Sept. 11 attacks “the largest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor,” Gup blamed an archaic bureaucracy, parochial government agencies and cutbacks in human intelligence gathering that began during the Clinton administration.
“We were incredibly slow to adjust to terror,” he said. “We were still stationing most people in foreign embassies as if the threat was state-sponsored. Terrorists don’t hang out at embassies.”
He chided the Bush administration for “cherry-picking” intelligence in making the case for the war in Iraq. But he was no gentler on Congress for not asking enough questions or reading the National Intelligence Estimate before the war.
When it comes to excessive secrecy, Gup said, party politics are irrelevant.
“What I care about is that citizens and representatives take the trouble to get information, and when denied, to insist on it,” he said. “I don’t care what they do with it; I do care that they’re concerned enough about the country to demand the information on which to make those decisions.
“Secrecy is now part of every institution and every level of government. Where (Americans) encounter irrational secrecy, they must make themselves heard. It’s not only their right, but their responsibility. We want to live in a country we have access to information. It’s not a radical view, it’s a conservative view. It is saving and protecting what is ours.”
Reach Charita Goshay at (330) 580-8313 or e-mail email@example.com.
For more information on Gup's book, go to www.nationofsecrets.org.