Who Loves the Sun?

Speaking with Steven Aftergood, activist against government secrecy

The best little secrets aren't kept from Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. As the man behind that institution's Project on Government Secrecy, he has spent close to 15 years grappling with and defining the many ways the USA hides information. Aftergood has also sued the government to force disclosure of the yearly intelligence budget four times. He won once outright for the 1997 budget but got smaller satisfaction in the most recent suit for fiscal data from 1947 to 1970 when only the numbers for 1963 were released.

How did this thing get started? In fine Washington fashion, I received a thick stack of documents from an anonymous source in 1991. They described a nuclear-powered rocket.

Called Timberwind, right? Yes. It piqued my interest and got the juices flowing. And it inspired activities and the publication of a newsletter in effort to comprehend the scope of national secrecy.

Steven Aftergood
photo: FAS
Steven Aftergood

How did it come to suing the CIA? The intelligence budget is the great white whale of government secrecy policy. People have been arguing for disclosure for the past 30 years. Prior to the Republican takeover of Congress it was routinely on the agenda of the intelligence committees. And after the Clinton administration said there was no reason not to declassify, CIA director George Tenet could no longer refuse to do it. It took lawsuits anyway--disclosing the budgets for 1997 and 1998--and then it went back into secrecy, resuming its place on the slate of reformers.

So it's like a dumb and stubborn pack mule that resists directions and simple commands. Yes. There are Newtonian principles governing it. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is also a kind of Zen politics at work. When you cease wanting disclosure, that's when it will come to pass.

Kafka would approve. No, it's ordinary absurdity.

Have you come to know any of the CIA's lawyers? Most of the action is by Justice Department attorneys who represent the government in Freedom of Information Act litigation. I can't say I have respect for them but they're doing a job and everyone deserves an attorney, even the CIA. I can't help believing they're on the wrong side.

How is it with the judges? I've had two in four lawsuits. My sense it they're impatient with the matter. They're constrained by a body of law quite unfavorable to FOIA plaintiffs. Any indignation over it is legally irrelevant.

They're just doing the job, eh? The rules have long ago been written. When litigation is successful it's all the more remarkable.

What you tell those who say, 'Who cares anyway?' The budget is the outstanding symbol of arbitrary unaccountable secrecy. It's a proxy for the larger debate over how much the government should be allowed to classify.

How has secrecy oscillated? The 90's were a decade of increasing openness. For one, there was the Web and the propagation of thousands of government sites, many of which offered substantial information. Clinton made a virtue of declassification. The unthinkable happened: You had cabinet secretaries announcing openness initiatives.

With the arrival of the Bush administration the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction even prior to 9-11. They made it they had a different definition for presidential authority. Nine-11 led to a further retrenchment, and affairs got quite a bit worse which is where we are now.

The Congressional Research Service has made a habit of trying to keep its "research" from the public. You've overturned that, embarrassing CRS by getting the reports through anonymous sources and backdoors, anyway. The rationale for their policy is difficult to discern. Taxpayers have already paid for CRS reports, so it's insulting on top of everything else. It's just ridiculous that we, not Congress, have to furnish them to the public.

Finally, what happened to Timberwind's nuclear rocket? It was transformed into an unclassified program. Then the military determined there was no mission for the technology and it was cancelled. We fired a lethal blast of sunlight at it.

 
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