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.

Senate panel holds secrecy hearings (CNN)

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.

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“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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Here’s a thought: set a date, and from that date on, every non-classified, non-confidential document has to be made available online.

    Would the expense outweigh the present expense of processing these requests?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Probably. The government produces a MASSIVE amount of documentation each and every day.