Letting Us Help Keep Ourselves Safe

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Today, Thomas Blanton, director of The National Security Archive, which has filed more than 30,000 Freedom of Information and declassification requests over the last two decades, is testifying to a House Subcommittee about "the growing problem of government secrecy and the danger it poses to our security."

Blanton's slideshow and prepared statement are well worth reading in full (check out the graph showing "the Rise and Fall of Declassification," for starters). His basic point: Openness makes us safer.

The number one lesson of 9/11 is that the "relevant players" include the public, front and center. As the staff director of the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 found, "The record suggests that, prior to September 11th, the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities were fighting a war against terrorism largely without the benefit of what some would call their most potent weapon in that effort: an alert and informed American public. One need look no further for proof of the latter point than the heroics of the passengers on Flight 93 or the quick action of the flight attendant who identified shoe bomber Richard Reid." After all, the only part of our national security apparatus that actually prevented casualties on 9/11 was the citizenry […]

The entire 9/11 Commission report includes only one finding that the attacks might have been prevented. […] [T]he hijackers' paymaster, Ramzi Binalshibh … commented that if the organizers, particularly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had known that the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, had been arrested at his Minnesota flight school (he only wanted to fly, not to take off or land) on immigration charges, then Bin Ladin and KSM would have called off the 9/11 attacks. And wisely so, because news of that arrest would have alerted the FBI agent in Phoenix who warned of Islamic militants in flight schools in a July 2001 memo that vanished into the FBI's vaults in Washington. The Commission's wording is important here: only "publicity" could have derailed the attacks. […]

Yes, there are real secrets that must be protected, but the lesson of 9/11 is that we are losing protection by too much secrecy. The risk is that by keeping information secret, we make ourselves vulnerable. The risk is that when we keep our vulnerabilities secret, we avoid fixing them. In an open society, it is only by exposure that problems get fixed. In a distributed information networked world, secrecy creates risk—risk of inefficiency, ignorance, inaction, as in 9/11.

I quoted Blanton in a column about the Bush Administration's secrecy last August.

NEXT: Backdraft

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  1. the only part of our national security apparatus that actually prevented casualties on 9/11 was the citizenry

    Whatever one might think about the many issues in the war on terror, this point is to me the most important.

  2. AMEN
    Cue the ghost of Patrick Moynahan

  3. I hate to be a cynic about this, but isn’t the point of most secrecy to keep egg off the face of government workers making bad decisions, and not “safety” or “national security”?

    If that is the case, then it seems we’re doing little more than pissing in the wind when we (the public) point this out.

  4. the only part of our national security apparatus that actually prevented casualties on 9/11 was the citizenry

    The only problem with a well-informed and vigilant public is that it’s mutually exclusive with the ignorant, complacent, child-like public the gov’t would prefer. Is preventing the deaths of thousands of innocent people really worth that loss of control? No, didn’t think so …

  5. The only problem with a well-informed and vigilant public is that it’s mutually exclusive with the ignorant, complacent, child-like public the gov’t would prefer. Is preventing the deaths of thousands of innocent people really worth that loss of control? No, didn’t think so …

    Spot on, CodeMonkeySteve.

  6. “The risk is that when we keep our vulnerabilities secret, we avoid fixing them. In an open society, it is only by exposure that problems get fixed.”

    This is the idea behind Open Source Software, and why Linux is more secure than any Microsoft offering ever will be. Unfortunately, I think that politicians are unlikely to ever be a group that is tech-literate, and thus unlikely to ever learn that lesson and apply it to government.

    And let’s not forget the border guard who caught the guy supposedly heading to bomb LAX for Y2k. Just a guy doing his job, and following his senses. No fancy technology, big databases, or biometric national IDs.

  7. CodeMonkeySteve: [The only problem with a well-informed and vigilant public is that it’s mutually exclusive with the ignorant, complacent, child-like public the gov’t would prefer. Is preventing the deaths of thousands of innocent people really worth that loss of control? No, didn’t think so …]

    And, of course, “well informed and vigilant” would lead folks to want to be armed. Everybody knows the terrorists would take the people’s guns away and use them on them.

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