Bush: Sunshine, Go Away

The administration's, and the country's, dangerous obsession with secrecy


On Monday, President George Bush helped inaugurate Sunshine Week—an event first launched in 2005 to promote openness and transparency in government—by warning an audience at George Washington University that the free press was aiding terrorists in Iraq.

That aid had come, said Bush, in the form of a Los Angeles Times article on frustration in the military about the slow, bureaucracy-hobbled deployment of a new vehicle that would destroy roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using powerful directed electrical charges, or "man-made lightning." Though the article said little else about the specifics of how the device, called a Joint IED Neutralizer (JIN), actually worked, Bush said that "Within five days of the publication—using details from that article—the enemy had posted instructions for defeating this new technology on the Internet. We cannot let the enemy know how we're working to defeat him."

Yet, as The American Prospect's Greg Sargent pointed out the following day, the Times article was scarcely the first time the JIN had been publicly described, and none of the officials who spoke to the paper for the story expressed concern that any of the information it contained might constitute a security threat. In fact, an insurgent's best source of information on the technology might well be the JIN's own manufacturer, Ionatron, whose website features a handy roundup of news articles about their products, as well as a collection of technical papers on laser-generated electric charges. And if it's really true that insurgents were able to develop effective countermeasures "within five days" of learning whatever scant information they might have been able to glean from the L.A. Times piece—a claim tech reporter Noah Shachtman says "doesn't pass the laugh test"—it is hard to imagine that they wouldn't have quickly hit upon the same strategies once the Pentagon finally got around to deploying the devices.

That theme—loose links sink ships; chatty blogs make for long, hard slogs—seems to be a favorite for Bush, yet the other occasions on which he's invoked it have been equally dubious. Bush characterized the disclosure last December of a secret (and legally dubious) National Security Agency wiretap program as "a shameful act" sure to help America's enemies. Yet in hearings last month, when pressed on whether al-Qaeda terrorists were really unaware that the U.S. was attempting to intercept their communications, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could only lamely suggest that "sometimes they forget." Similarly questionable is Bush's claim that media reports about Osama bin Laden's satellite phone, which intelligence agencies had been tracking, prompted the jihadi leader to stop using it. As The Washington Post noted, bin Laden himself had been the source of several prior news reports about his use of the phone—and it was only after he apparently abandoned it that the L.A. Times published a story mentioning U.S. intercepts of his calls.

Bush is scarcely alone: In the March issue of Commentary, Senior Editor Gabriel Schoenfeld penned a lengthy piece calling for the prosecution under the Espionage Act of the New York Times reporters who broke the NSA wiretap story—prompting Slate's Jack Shafer to suggest that we might need a "Gitmo for journos" to house all the pen pushers who'd be at risk. And as the Prospect's Matthew Yglesias and Reason's own Matt Welch have pointed out, the "stab in the back" meme that paints media as a fifth column is a hoary standby of the Iraq War's most vehement supporters. (Interestingly, the argument offered by Jonah Goldberg that the media's release of images from Abu Ghraib was irresponsible because it was bound to inflame Iraqis didn't show up much on the right during the recent intoonfada, when editors who failed to print controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad were cast as cowards suppressing highly newsworthy images.)

But Sunshine Week also saw some actual sunshine. A Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union turned up reports from the FBI's surveillance and apparent infiltration of a Philadelphia anti-war group. And with the help of another FOIA request by the ACLU, the online magazine Salon published a full catalog of the photo and video images from Abu Ghraib prison collected by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. Both events are reminders that if disclosure is more risky in wartime, it is also more important, because this is when government is most tempted to go too far. And, as illustrated by the farcical attempt to reclassify documents already released into the public domain and this week's report from the National Security Archive at George Washington University on the chaotic hodgepodge of rules for dealing with "sensitive" but unclassified information, when it is most prone to err on the side of keeping too many secrets.

The price and condition of democracy is the risk of openness even in war. If fears about disclosure are typically overblown, there may yet be some real danger in allowing our enemies to know that our intelligence agencies are sweeping up vast numbers of domestic-to-international communications for computer analysis, or that our leaders may have at least tacitly condoned the monstrosities shown in the records from Abu Ghraib. There's more danger in not allowing ourselves to know that we do these things.