William Leonard, who oversaw state secrecy under George W Bush, says successive US presidents have abused system
Successive US presidents, including Barack Obama, have abused the system for handling classified information to expand their executive powers, the former senior official who oversaw state secrecy under George W Bush has claimed.
William Leonard, who was entrusted with ensuring proper treatment of state secrets by government agencies in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said that over the past decade both the Obama and the previous Bush administrations had manipulated their classification authority to create new executive powers without congressional oversight or judicial review.
Leonard, the former head of the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007, said that what was at stake was "the abuse of the very form of government we are operating under, as unilateral executive powers go unchallenged."
He said: "Governments have decided under the cloak of secrecy to unleash the brutality of violence in our name and that of our fellow citizens. So extra judicial kidnapping becomes 'rendition', torture becomes 'enhanced interrogation', detainees are held on information that barely qualifies as hearsay, and assassination becomes 'targeted killing'."
Leonard told a high-level discussion group on secrecy and security convened by the Brennan Center for Justice in Washington that even language had suffered in this scramble for new powers. "It is as if Lewis Carroll, George Orwell and Franz Kafka were jointly conspiring to form official US policy."
The issue of how the US government treats state secrets has risen towards the top of the political agenda in recent days as the White House has come under intense pressure to make public the legal advice for the targeted killing program – the use of unmanned drones to assassinate terror suspects in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
The subject was given additional publicity last week during the course of a 13-hour filibuster by the Republican senator, Rand Paul, who demanded an assurance that Obama would not authorise drones to kill American citizens on domestic soil.
The issue of classification of sensitive intelligence material has also been central in the prosecution of Bradley Manning, the source of the massive WikiLeaks publication of US state secrets. The US soldier had asked for permission to present evidence at his upcoming trial that he said would show the classification system was broken, and that a large portion of the hundreds of thousands of documents he transferred to WikiLeaks were ranked "secret" when they were, in fact, anodyne.
The judge in the Manning case, Colonel Denise Lind, ruled the over-classification argument to be inadmissible at trial.
Excessive secrecy in government has now been recognised at all levels, from Obama down. In 2009 he effected an executive order that provided for information to be released to the public as soon as possible, and the following year he signed HR 553, the "reducing over-classification act".
Yet, at the same time as Obama has talked about enhancing transparency, he has also presided over one of the toughest administrations in terms of policing state secrets. There have been six prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act under his watch – more than under all previous presidents combined.
An investigation by the Associated Press recently revealed that the Pentagon, CIA and other government agencies are rebuffing public requests for information at a greater rate than at any time since Obama took office, all in the name of national security.
The endemic tendency towards secrecy was underlined at the Brennan Center event by two currently serving senior administration figures. Nancy Soderberg, a former US ambassador to the UN who now advises Obama on classification of national security information, said the system for handling official documents was not functioning.
"We are withholding documents we should not be withholding. The current classification system is outmoded and outdated, and entirely unsuited for the modern digital age."
Soderberg chairs the Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory committee set up by Congress to tackle the crisis of spiraling official secrets. In December the board produced a devastating report that said the present situation was unsustainable.
"It is a basic right," Soderberg told the meeting. "The government must be accountable to the public, and the public has to know what is being done in its name. But the system cannot keep pace with the number of digitised documents being created."
She said that between 2001 and 2011 the cost of administering the classification of official material had more than doubled, from $4.7bn to $11.4bn.
Robert Litt, the most senior legal advisor to the Director of National Intelligence who is at the coal face of classification issues in the current administration, agreed that too much information was being held secret for too long. But he ascribed it not to "evil or venality" but to a combination of a culture of secrecy among executive branches and "bureaucratic inertia".
"Nobody wants to be responsible for being the person who blows the cover of an [intelligence] asset that may lead to them being killed. Nobody wants to be the person who results in the loss of an important security capability that protects the public," he said.
He added: "In my view, it's fundamentally a cultural problem. We need more training of classifiers, and management buy-in, to move people away from the tendency to lean towards classification and get them to see the very real benefits of greater public information."