Policy Debate: You Decide

Secrecy and Openness in the War on Terrorism

During the 1950s and 1960s, in the early decades of the Cold War, the federal government argued that secrecy was essential to ensure national security. Information about a diverse range of government activities was routinely classified so that the public had no access to it. The 1973–74 Watergate scandal marked a sea of change in this culture of secrecy. The Watergate hearings revealed that under the mantle of national security, the government had initiated unlawful activities and engaged in unjustifiable invasions of individual privacy. As a consequence, new legislation opened the bureaucracy up to greater public scrutiny, and the 1974 Freedom of Information Act allowed individuals to request access to classified information.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush defended the need to reimpose greater secrecy in the interests of national security in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. If you’d like more information on the events of September 11th, please visit: http://www.history.com/topics/9-11-attacks. After September 11, the administration removed hundreds of thousands of public documents from the Internet. The administration also refused to reveal the identities of more than 1,100 people held in custody—but not charged—for suspected terrorism. And in a move designed to weaken one of the most important tools promoting public disclosure, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive to government agencies to use greater caution in responding to freedom of information requests. The issue of secrecy and the war on terrorism reignited in late 2005 when the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been conducting unauthorized wiretaps on U.S. citizens since 2002. Although administration officials defended their actions as constitutional and essential to fighting terrorism, critics across the political spectrum charged that such eavesdropping was not lawful.

Supporters of enhanced secrecy contend that standards of openness prevalent in peacetime must give way during a war. Although most of the war on terrorism is not visible to the public, the need for secrecy may be even greater than in other wars in which the United States has been involved. Terrorists rely on publicly available sources of information to plan their attacks. Apparently innocuous information about the location of facilities, such as nuclear power plants or water treatment facilities, provides terrorists with vulnerable targets. Furthermore, counterterrorism is a delicate task. If the sources of information on which counterintelligence agencies rely become public, these sources may become unavailable in the future. For example, until 1998, the government tracked the activities of Osama bin Laden through calls he made on his satellite phone. When this knowledge became publicly available, bin Laden apparently stopped using the phone, making him much harder to track.

Critics contend that the administration has gone too far in its quest for secrecy. They charge that the administration has claimed a right to secrecy on issues that have nothing to do with national security, as in its refusal to divulge the proceedings of its energy task force. Even in matters of national security, the administration has gone overboard, according to critics. Without access to information, Congress cannot exercise its oversight responsibilities, which are vital to democratic accountability. And the secrecy surrounding those jailed as part of the terrorism probe distorts the American system of justice, since few of these individuals were actually charged with a crime. Finally, critics charge that secrecy will eventually erode public confidence in the government, thus undermining the war on terrorism. Thomas Kean, the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, stressed the importance of open government to national security, arguing, “The best ally we have in protecting ourselves against terrorism is an informed public.”a

a. “The Dangerous Comfort of Secrecy,” New York Times, July 12, 2005, p. A20.

Why do some supporters argue that greater government secrecy is necessary since the terrorist attacks in 2001? What do you think of these arguments?
2. Which federal agencies are relevant to the U.S. government’s efforts to protect against terrorist threats? Why?

Submit to Gradebook:

First Name:
Last Name:
Your Email Address:
Your Professor's Email Address: