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Strange Allies in the Battle Over Government Secrets

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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President Barack Obama's is the most transparent administration ever.

That joke almost writes itself. The same administration that named a Fox News reporter a co-conspirator in a leak case? The same administration that purged a video from its archives in which the State Department spokeswoman acknowledged it misled the press about Iran negotiations? The same administration that has invoked the Espionage Act against leakers more times than all other previous administrations? I could go on.

But for one important observer, the claim is not so ridiculous. Steve Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, told me Wednesday: "I realize I may be in a minority of one, but I think Obama's is the most transparent administration ever."

I don't agree with him, but it's worth hearing Aftergood out, particularly in a year when so many of the traditional players in the secrecy debate are switching sides. On Tuesday night, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was being fawned over by Fox News's Donald Trump super-fan, Sean Hannity. The next morning, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told a conference that the U.S. intelligence community classifies too much information.

Aftergood, who has been fighting the government to be more open since the 1990s, takes the long view when it comes to excessive state secrecy. "There are bursts forward and there are also retreats," he said, referring to how many government agencies posted sensitive data on the internet in the 1990s, only to see much of that information made secret again following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Nonetheless, Aftergood is pleased with the direction things are headed. "If you step back and look at the longer trend, it tends towards dramatically increased disclosure," he told me. "Including in the most sensitive areas of national security policy such as intelligence and nuclear methods. There is more information about current intelligence operations available to the public than ever before."

So let's put some meat on those bones. Under Obama, the government has disclosed for the first time the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal, the overall amount of the intelligence budget, the legal justifications of its top-secret drone policies, as well as the memos that justified and withdrew the legal imprimatur for the CIA's enhanced interrogations.

On declassifying recent U.S. history, the Obama administration has built on President Bill Clinton's work. For example, the CIA for years fought in court to ever disclose the Presidential Daily Brief, even decades after they were issued. This year they announced they would begin to declassify them for the Nixon and Ford administrations.

If Presidents Clinton or George W. Bush had implemented these policies, it would have been a much bigger deal. But Obama has done all of this in the era of mega-leaks, where low level people like Private Chelsea Manning or NSA contractor Edward Snowden are able to disclose troves of secrets to the public.

Obama's initial response to those mega-leaks is one of the reasons why so few people take his boasts about transparency seriously. The military tormented Manning during his initial detention, with 24-hour monitoring on a suicide watch. Obama's Justice Department has been unwilling to cut a deal with Snowden to allow him to return home from Russia. Then there is administration's decision to extend a Bush-era initiative to crack down on government leakers. That led the Justice Department to monitor electronic communications of AP reporters. It led to the decision to label Fox News's James Rosen as a co-conspirator in a leak prosecution.

Aftergood told me, however, that one of the reasons he gives Obama and Clapper high marks for transparency is because they adjusted to the new reality of mega-leaks. Speaking of Clapper, Aftergood said: "I think he has demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of public perception on this issue and he has taken action on it. He said again today the current classification system is ill suited to our current operations and he has directed a review of classification policy by all intelligence agencies." 

That's particularly high praise coming from Aftergood for a man who has spent much of his tenure setting up new ways to monitor intelligence professionals to catch the next Manning or Snowden. But Aftergood is a reformer. As he told me, "transparency is a means to get good government, not an end in itself." 

One gets the sense that Assange would disagree. After all, when the people at WikiLeaks disclosed the internal documents from the Democratic National Committee that seemed intended to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign, they also included people's credit-card information. That kind of material is very different from the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks released that detailed secret deals the U.S. military was making with Middle Eastern autocrats, which served a public interest. Back then, Hannity wanted Assange arrested. Today, he conveys his sincere wishes for Assange to one day be free. 

It is ridiculous that Sean Hannity would make Julian Assange a star witness in his prosecution of Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information. But in a year when Steve Aftergood has kind words for James Clapper, anything seems possible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net