The Secrecy System Breeds 'Toxic Distrust'
Over-classification of records hobbles the government
In USA Today, veteran Pentagon reporter James Rosen (not to be confused with Newsmax correspondent James Rosen) states the obvious about the controversies over alleged mishandling of classified information by Presidents Biden and Trump.
The document cases tied to the president and his predecessor dramatize what national security experts of every political stripe have known for decades: Far too many government records are classified. Most are classified not to protect sources and methods – the standard intelligence community rationale – but to protect intel analysts against embarrassment or to protect government "secrets" that the public should know.
The JFK assassination files are Exhibit A in this argument, Rosen notes.
A famous example is the classification of millions of documents ostensibly tied to President John F. Kennedy's assassination: Each release of a new trove, most recently last month, has prompted questions about why most of the documents were classified in the first place.
What’s in the JFK files?
Actually, one CIA memo released last month—about an undisclosed internal investigation of possible Cuban involvement in JFK’s assassination—is new, significant, and relevant to the causes of Kennedy’s death.
And 44 other JFK documents—still “denied in full”—relate to the CIA’s operational interest in suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the weeks before Kennedy was ambushed in Dallas.
But, like the many unimportant JFK records released on Biden’s order on December 15, all of these documents could have—and should have—been made public long ago.
Instead, secretive agencies insist on secrecy, Rosen writes, often with ludicrous results
When I came to Washington as a correspondent, I was surprised to cover Sens. Patrick Moynihan, a liberal Democrat from New York, and Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, co-sponsoring legislation to streamline the classification system. At a 1997 Senate hearing, each senator dramatically brandished and then read from recently declassified documents that were so innocuous, their readings elicited audience guffaws around the committee room.
Some of the declassified revelations in recent years —Operations Northwoods, MKULTRA, and COINTELPRO, for example—are no laughing matter. But Rosen’s point is indisputable.
You can draw a direct line from the needless classification of material stretching back well over a half-century, deep into the Cold War, to today’s toxic distrust of the government among tens of millions of Americans.
That straight line from the Cold War to today’s “weaponization” investigation passes through the JFK assassination files. After all, few things in American life will breed distrust more than a clandestine service resisting transparency on the assassination of a sitting president.
The CIA has hoisted itself on it own petard. When Tucker Carlson seeks to weaponize the JFK assassination story with an uncorroborated charge of CIA involvement, the Agency’s bizarre and suspicious demands for secrecy provide him with ammunition.
But as NBC’s Chuck Todd has noted, “Clearly the CIA does not care about those consequences.” When it comes to JFK files, the Agency would rather encourage conspiratorial speculation than come clean.
Rosen recalled the conventional wisdom of the 1990s: It was time to curb excessive secrecy.
In supporting the Moynihan-Helms bill, The Washington Post editorialized: “Government keeps too many secrets. It keeps material classified far too long. Excessive secrecy is expensive, breeds popular distrust of government and withholds from historians, researchers and the voting public information that is important.”
That was 25 years ago. In the U.S. government’s war on secrecy, secrecy has won. Transparency and accountability have been systematically undermined. Distrust and suspicion and ignorance have flourished. Democratic dysfunction seen in today’s headlines is one result.
Rosen closes with this point:
History suggests that the bulk of the restricted documents found in both presidents’ personal possession contain information already in the public domain – or information that should be in the public domain. Unfortunately, Americans likely won’t learn this key fact until it is much too late to matter.
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Unfortunately, we don't have a government of, by, and for the people. We live in a national security state.