NEW YORK — Somewhere in the shadows of federal bureaucracy, there was an issue about the drinking habits of Augusto Pinochet.
The National Security Archive, an advocate for open government, had for years tried to gain access to intelligence files about the Chilean dictator, his human rights abuses and his ties to the United States. In 2003, the Defence Intelligence Agency declassified documents that included a biographical sketch of Pinochet assembled in 1975, two years after he seized power. Parts of the sketch had been blacked out, “redacted,” for national security. The archive had no trouble discovering that the missing information included Pinochet’s liking for scotch and pisco sours.
“The sketch been published in full by the government in 1999,” notes Tom Blanton, director of the archive. But, he says, “all it takes to change that is a single objection.”
The censoring of government reports isn’t new, but since Robert Mueller turned in his report last month on alleged ties between Russian officials and Donald Trump presidential campaign, “redacted” has joined “collusion” and “obstruction” as a national buzzword. Attorney General William Barr’s announcement that he would release a “redacted” version of Mueller’s findings, expected Thursday, will likely set off a long debate over what’s behind the darkened blotches.
Barr’s stated guidelines range from protecting intelligence sources to the privacy of those not under investigation. But over the past few decades, the government has redacted everything from the most sensitive information to the most harmless trivia.
“We believe there are real secrets, common-sense secrets, like names of people in the field who would be killed or specifications of weapons of systems,” Blanton says. “But redactions also are overused.”
David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says any government official who ever had a security clearance will say the same thing: Whether under Clinton, Bush or Obama, “the problem of overclassification is rampant.”
“It’s partly the consequence of what is safest for the government to do,” Cole says. “If you make a mistake and disclose something you shouldn’t have, that mistake is public. If you decide to keep something secret that doesn’t need to be secret, that mistake is private.”
The secrecy reflex is as old as the country: The American government itself was created behind closed doors, and windows. Framers of the Constitution gathered at the Pennsylvania State House from May to September in 1787 and, anxious to speak freely, were so resolved to keep the …read more