Historians and an investigative journalist discussed the history of secrecy within the executive branch and called the Bush administration one of the most secretive in U.S. history at a panel discussion Tuesday night.
Moderator John Friedman, who compiled and edited the recently released book “Secret Histories: Uncovering the Past and Influencing the Present,” said Americans are living in a society of secrecy that is detrimental to democracy. Panelists, who all contributed to the book, emphasized that the number of documents being classified by the Bush administration has increased significantly in the past five years.
“We have the most secretive presidency in our history,” Friedman said, explaining that it is the job of bureaucrats in the government to classify documents and prevent embarrassing information from reaching the public.
Friedman, who spoke at the Jack Morton Auditorium, also said that the American government spends around $7 billion a year in order to keep documents secret.
Panelist Peter Kornbluh, an analyst for the National Security Archive in Gelman Library, said the Clinton administration was very open to revealing classified documents of previous administrations, compared to the Bush administration. The National Security Archive, which is not affiliated with the government, works to declassify historical government information through the Freedom of Information Act.
“The amount of documents being classified by this administration has gone up 30 percent,” Kornbluh said.
Kornbluh also said that while countries such as Canada and Britain are even more secretive than the United States, it does not excuse excessive secrecy in the U.S. executive branch.
“We still have a lot of work to do here,” he said, imploring the government to be more open to the public.
Panelist Edwin Black, an investigative author who has written five best-selling books, acknowledged the need for governments to keep secrets from the public in some instances. Black has made a career by uncovering conspiracies in the corporate world, and he discussed his investigation into the link between IBM computers and Nazi Germany at length.
“Not all government secrets are bad things,” he said, adding that governments sometimes need to keep information secret to protect national security interests.
Mark Feldstein, director of GW’s journalism program, sponsored the event along with the magazine The Nation. Feldstein said the history of government secrecy is becoming more relevant because of the secretive tendencies of the current administration.
“The issues (discussed) are more relevant today than they have been (in the past) given the war in Iraq,” he said, pointing to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal as an instance where government secrecy has kept the public in the dark.
While only a small group of students attended the event, Feldstein said that he hopes those who did listen in on the panel “come away with an understanding of history . and how it effects the present.”