Case Studies Detail Damaging Culture of Secrecy

By Weinberg, Steve | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Case Studies Detail Damaging Culture of Secrecy


Weinberg, Steve, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Case studies detail damaging culture of secrecy

Reviewing "Nation of Secrets" by veteran investigative reporter Ted Gup is an assignment I wish I could have missed. You see, if those employed at government agencies, private-sector corporations and nominally not-for-profit institutions cared about the common good, they would practice transparency instead of secrecy as their default position. In such a world, Gup would not need to write a book called "Nation of Secrets."

Furthermore, if most journalists took seriously their job to ferret out hidden information while afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, they would invoke local, state and federal open-records laws far more vigorously than they do.

Instead, secrecy abounds in American society, while too many journalists do far too little to combat it effectively. Hence, Gup's book - which is thorough, thoughtful and practical - seems necessary.

The disturbing catalog of secrecy in Gup's book will sound familiar to regular readers of The IRE Journal, its sister publication, Uplink, and the IRE Web site. Gup moves far beyond cataloguing, however, to delve deep into the culture of secrecy that journalists and other U.S. citizens have allowed to grow.

The freshest, most practical parts of "Nation of Secrets" can be found in the case studies of the author's own battles against secrecy, as well as narratives of battles fought by others who care about a transparent society. Gup wrote lots of sensitive stories at The Washington Post and Time magazine. More recently, he has fought through barriers of secrecy as a freelancer writing about the Central Intelligence Agency and other bastions of darkness.

In the book's first case study, Gup highlights Melissa Mahle, who joined the CIA as a covert operative in 1 988. An Arabic speaker, Mahle received undercover assignments in the Persian Gulf. She found the secrecy seductive - never questioning how it could compromise democracy - until it began to work against her.

Even before her personal downfall, Mahle noticed the ramifications of secrecy within the agency. "The dichotomy of it is us-against-them," she told Gup, "but inside the building, it's a different game. Does that mean we use secrecy against each other? We certainly do. One of the tried-and-true tactical moves is if you are running an operation and all of a sudden someone is a critic and tries to put roadblocks up to your operation, you classify it and put it in a channel that that person doesn't have access to, and that's an abuse of classification." The result: ill-advised or downright illegal operations continued, shielded from constructive criticism.

After Mahle reported herself for violating a CIA rule regarding contact with foreign nationals, she hoped she could resume her operations. Instead, the agency dismissed her. Now she is forbidden from discussing the details ofthat dismissal and has experienced agency censorship of a book she wrote about her government service. She has learned, she told Gup, about the "strong inclination to use secrecy to cover up failure and to cover up bureaucratic practices that would not withstand scrutiny."

After sharing the Mahle case study, Gup offers the first of three chapters on the mindlessness of national security, as document after document is classified secret for no legitimate reason. If a report by a careful consultant tells the Defense Department that U.S. soldiers are needlessly dying in Iraq because of inadequate body armor, the attitude should be to disclose the shortcomings, prosecute the manufacturer and solve the problem. Instead, the attitude is to hide the report. To those familiar with classification abuse, it sometimes seems that the most common designation ought to be CYA, or "cover your ass."

In 1992, Gup broke a story about a government bunker buried beneath the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Members of Congress were to be sheltered there if an enemy destroyed Washington, D.

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