(AP) The more information the government tries to keep secret, the greater the chance that what should be withheld 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.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration set a higher threshold for FOIA disclosures, advising agencies to make sure the information they released would not jeopardize national security.
“Too often, security becomes an excuse for shielding embarrassing information and secrecy can conceal mismanagement or wrongdoing,” Mears said, recalling 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-Vt., 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.
“This bulwark of open government is under assault,” Cornyn said of the FOIA law. “Liberals and conservatives both recognize a dangerous trend toward over-classification of information, at enormous cost to the taxpayers and risk to our citizens.”
“No generation can afford to take these protections for granted, because they can quickly and easily be taken away. And once gone, they are difficult to get back,” Leahy said.
Agency officials should be wary of their reflex to err on the side of withholding information, according to another witness.
“National security is a very real and important concern that unfortunately leads to a certain level of reflexive secrecy,” said Meredith Fuchs, counsel of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “Often the secrecy reflex should have given way to the right to know and, indeed, the need to know.”
The hearing comes during “Sunshine Week,” a campaign for government openness spearheaded by more than 50 media companies, journalism groups, universities, and the American Library Association.