Senate Holds Secrecy Hearings
The AP reports on the testimoney of retired AP legend Walter Mears before a Senate panel trying to craft new government secrecy laws. Mears argued that making too many things secret makes it harder to protect things that should be secret.
The more information the government tries to keep secret, the greater the chance that what should be kept secret will be leaked to reporters, according to a retired Associated Press newsman and executive. “Overdone secrecy raises, rather than reduces, the risk that really vital secrets will be breached,” Walter Mears, former AP executive editor and vice president, said in prepared testimony for a Senate hearing Tuesday. “Without sensible priorities for withholding information, things that shouldn’t get out will get out.”
Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter, was among five witnesses appearing before the Senate Judiciary terrorism, technology and homeland security subcommittee. The panel is looking at legislation designed in part to force government officials and agencies to respond more quickly to requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Too often, security becomes an excuse for shielding embarrassing information and secrecy can conceal mismanagement or wrongdoing,” Mears said, recalling former President Nixon’s effort to use national security as an excuse for the Watergate cover-up. “Forgetting history risks repeating it.”
A bill by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, would require agencies to give people seeking documents a tracking number within 10 days and to set up telephone or Internet systems allowing them to learn the status and estimated completion date. Agencies that didn’t respond within 20 days would lose all exemptions to FOIA requests except for national security, personal privacy, proprietary information or a ban in another law.
The overclassification of government documents has long been a pet peeve of mine, mostly for the reasons Mears outlines. I support making classification harder to impose and making declassification more automatic. However, while I laud the motive behind the Cornyn-Leahy proposals, I fear that passage would flood the government with burdensome document requests. While fast processing of requests by journalists and curious folk would be nice, it is likely not worth the tremendous increase in the bureaucracy these deadlines would require.