There were no cameras around to record whether President Obama was winking when, on his first full day in office, he signed an executive order and two presidential memorandums declaring that “every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”
But surely he must have been. No White House in my lifetime — not even that of the infamously secretive Richard Nixon — has been more of an attack dog when it comes to preserving governmental secrecy.
Nixon unsuccessfully tried to put Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, in jail. But Obama’s administration has filed criminal cases against at least six current or former government employees accused of leaking classified information to reporters.
Leaking classified information sounds serious, unless you know how promiscuously Obama’s administration slaps the words “top secret” on stuff: for instance, the Justice Department memorandum offering the legal justification for the White House’s decision to kill the American-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in his hiding place in Yemen.
We’re not talking about a cable explaining how the government knew where Awlaki was hiding or who helped find him. This document is a collection of arguments about musty U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving Fourth and Fifth Amendment cases. The only thing that might be damaged by its release is the reputation of the lawyers who wrote it, and the White House they work for.
Protecting the reputation of government officials, in fact, seems to be an emerging theme of the Obama administration’s policy on classified data. The government was shamelessly open about its motives when it refused to release a 31-year-old CIA history of the Bay of Pigs invasion, telling a federal judge that the document was “a polemic of recriminations against CIA officers who later criticized the operation.”
The government couldn’t argue that the history would reveal national security secrets, because it doesn’t contain any. It’s the final book in a five-volume study of the disastrous 1961 CIA-backed invasion of Cuba. The author, CIA historian Jack Pfeiffer, purposefully kept all classified information out of the last two volumes of the study so he could use them as the backbone of a general-audience history of the Bay of Pigs that he planned to write after his retirement.
The CIA, however, balked at his plan and battled him in court for years to keep the entire study secret. After Pfeiffer died of a stroke, the National Security Archive – a Washington-based research center – took up the legal fight. And, inch by inch, it has beaten the CIA back. The first four volumes of the history, including the three based on actual classified documents, have all been declassified.
But the CIA remains adamant about the fifth volume, and earlier this month got a federal judge to agree that it should remain secret rather than “risk public release of inaccurate historical information.” (As opposed, I guess, to providing “inaccurate information” — that is, lies —about current policy, which American governments do on a regular basis without judicial interference.)
You might think that if the CIA is still fighting a scorched-earth battle to keep this study locked up three decades later, it must contain some truly lurid secrets, of murders or torture or ghastly secret weapons. You would almost certainly be wrong. Though the contents of the fifth volume remain secret, enough general information has emerged during all the legal infighting that we know the general outlines.
It’s a bunch of intergovernmental backbiting between the Kennedy White House and the CIA over who, exactly, was most to blame for the Bay of Pigs. Was it John F. Kennedy and his braintrust, who kept chipping away at the level of U.S. support for the Cuban exiles who were to carry out the invasion? Or the CIA, for lousy execution of a plan that wasn’t very good to begin with?
Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, thinks the CIA is too embarrassed to release the report because everybody will see what a petty little character assassin its author Pfeiffer was. I disagree. I think the CIA is embarrassed because the report will show that some of its top officials were smarmy careerists willing to turn on their own colleagues in order to kiss up to the Kennedy White House.
But it doesn’t matter which of us is right: Either way, secrecy is being invoked not to protect U.S. national security but the reputations of the people charged with carrying it out. And that’s not only wrong but absurd, 51 years after the Bay of Pigs when almost everybody who was involved is dead. Somebody needs to remind President Obama that he issued an executive order declaring that “no information shall remain classified indefinitely.” And then Obama needs to remind the CIA.