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ACLU to Congress: Cancer of Gov’t Secrecy Is Killing America

Aug 01, 20116 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

In a new report, the ACLU urges Congress to stop the 'secrecy poisoning' that protects surveillance but is killing American democracy.

American democracy is beyond sick, in fact it’s cancerous due to government secrecy cloaking the surveillance of American citizens. According to a new ACLU report, written by Mike German, a former FBI undercover agent, and Jay Stanley, “We are now living in an age of government secrecy run amok.” Hiding behind secrecy is “undermining the constitutional checks and balances,” making some of us wonder what the heck happened to the Constitution? The new report concluded, “Government secrecy is growing like a cancer in our democracy.”

The report is called “Drastic Measures Required: Congress needs to Overhaul U.S. Secrecy Laws and Increase Oversight of the Secret Security Establishment” [PDF] and it’s packed full of facts about how secrecy is out of control. “This sprawling-and growing -secret security establishment presents an active threat to individual liberty and undermines the very notion of government of, by and for the people.”

The misuse of the privilege by the executive branch, coupled with the failure of the courts to assess these claims independently, has allowed serious, ongoing abuses of executive power to go unchecked. And it has undermined our constitutional system of checks and balances by allowing the executive to evade accountability for illegal actions in court, leaving victims of government crimes without redress.

As the ACLU points out, while there is a provision stating, “no information may remain classified indefinitely,” if disclosure takes between 25 to 75 years, then that “is an unlikely deterrent to abuse, as those responsible would likely be retired from government service or dead before evidence of abuse is declassified.” It is not unusual for privacy and civil rights groups that challenge illegal government policies of warrantless surveillance to hit a brick wall of secrecy. For example, in the ongoing case of EPIC v. NSA, EPIC cannot get information from the National Security Council as it remains a FOIA-free zone. Then when EPIC continued to seek FOIA documents that could reveal how the “NSA is developing technical standards that would enable greater surveillance of Internet users,” a federal judge backed up the NSA’s claim that it can “neither confirm nor deny” Google ties. “The ‘Glomar response,’ to neither confirm nor deny, is a controversial legal doctrine that allows agencies to conceal the existence of records that might otherwise be subject to public disclosure. EPIC plans to appeal this decision.”

The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) reported on the skyrocketing costs to protect these secrets. “Over $10.17 billion in 2010, a 15% increase from 2009, and cost industry an additional $1.25 billion, up 11% from the previous year. A meager 0.5% of this amount was spent on declassification.” German and Stanley wrote, “With 76 million new classification decisions being made each year, it is clear that more drastic measures are required.” They are urging Congress to take action and claimed the following are the 6 ways secrecy harms America:

  1. Secrecy undermines democracy.
  2. Secrecy undermines constitutional checks and balances.
  3. Secrecy undermines security.
  4. Secrecy lets the executive branch mislead and manipulate Congress and the American people, often to achieve political rather than security objectives.
  5. Secrecy enables and encourages incompetence, waste, fraud and abuse.
  6. Secrecy Puts the Government Behind the Times in the Era of Open Information.

Has the ACLU not shown repeatedly that the power to hide behind claims of secrecy is too tempting not to abuse and that innocent Americans end up on watchlists for reasons that certainly are not terrorism-related?

Senator Wyden said of the ‘Secret Law’ of the Patriot Act, “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” Yet Senators Wyden and Udall continued to push, asking how is the government interpreting domestic surveillance law; how many Americans are having their communications monitored; and how many U.S. citizens are being spied upon via geolocational tracking? In reply, the Obama administration basically said too bad, so sad, can’t say, it’s a secret. Ars reported on the “fed stonewalling” done in a letter by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s aide Kathleen Turner. “It’s ‘not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed’ under the FISA Amendments Act, though she noted that statistics about the number of ‘disseminated intelligence reports’ containing information about Americans was available in classified materials. Similarly, she argued that she couldn’t provide any details about ‘compliance incidents’ without compromising confidential sources and methods.”

FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni previously said, “I don’t like to think of us as a spy agency because that makes me really nervous. We don’t want to live in an environment where people in the United States think the government is spying on them. That’s an oppressive environment to live in and we don’t want to live that way.” But it’s okay to give the thumbs up to FBI agents to move beyond electronic snooping to dumpster diving? In 2010, wiretaps jumped again, up 34%. And Project PM dug up more facts about how the U.S. has been conducting a secretive and immensely sophisticated campaign of mass surveillance and data mining. The group’s investigation showed off all sorts of sordid and sickening surveillance secrets for Romas/COIN. Even Disney Pixar is being pulled into the spying game!

So what happens if you are not a senator and, as Wired dubbed, you “scream bloody murder” about the way the government misuses and abuses domestic surveillance to spy on Americans? Do you end up on an electronic watchlist? Speaking up about our civil liberty and privacy rights should not entitle alleged government white hats to put on black hats and decimate your privacy by spying on you under the guise of “rights” given to them via national security secrets. But still, we are all having our communication monitored by the government’s full-pipe surveillance, just as we are the subjects of geolocation tracking. Like to know more? Too bad, “freedom slaves,” because it’s a secret. Is this not the oppressive environment to live in, the world that Caproni described?

I highly recommend you read the ACLU’s secrecy report [PDF]. Let’s hope the ACLU can help convince Congress to do what is right and see if America cannot recover from the cancer of government secrecy.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.