ACLU Warns Against Creating System of 'Too Many Secrets,' Calls Openness and Accountability Crucial to A Free Society

August 24, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Citing concerns over a growing tendency to shield government information from public scrutiny, the American Civil Liberties Union today called upon lawmakers to ensure openness in government as a key House panel met to consider the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

“The Commission’s report lays a foundation – but the structure must be built carefully and deliberately,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “In an age where the tendency is to overclassify, we must enact measures that ensure that the American public is not kept in the dark about the government – especially when there are no real national security reasons to justify concealing that information.”

The ACLU raised its concerns in analysis presented to the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. “Greater openness, real accountability to both Congress and the public, and protection of whistleblowers is vitally necessary to challenge old assumptions and ensure better analysis and performance,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel and author of the analysis.

Edgar also said that substantive reforms – including a reduction in excessive secrecy, an increase in real public and Congressional oversight and stronger efforts to incorporate dissenting views into analysis – must be adopted to prevent future intelligence breakdowns. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission report recognized that excessive classification and not civil liberties protections almost certainly represents the greatest barrier to effective information sharing.

While tools like the Freedom of Information Act exist to enable public access to government information, there has been a growing trend to increase the number of exemptions to public scrutiny under the guise of protecting national security. The ACLU noted that such actions actually harm public safety, as these steps to shield government and industry result in little or no public pressure that would prompt action to fix any security flaws.

The growing tendency to create a system of ‘too many secrets’ is further evident in the public’s attempt to gain information on the Patriot Act. In two legal challenges to controversial provisions of the Patriot Act brought by the ACLU and other groups, the government has submitted secret evidence that it is refusing to disclose to the public and even to the attorneys in the case, and is also using gag orders to keep one of the proceedings secret.

In the ACLU’s challenge to the government’s ability to issue National Security Letters, the government demanded that the ACLU redact a sentence that described its anonymous client’s business as “provid[ing] clients with the ability to access the Internet,” and also insisted that the ACLU black out a direct quote from a Supreme Court case.

“The government refuses to tell the public how it is using many of its new powers, and is gagging those of us involved in legal challenges,” said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson. “This unprecedented level of secrecy in antithetical to our democratic system.”

The ACLU’s statement for the record is online at:

More information about the ACLU’s lawsuits can be read at:

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