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Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review: An Inquiry into the Dynamics of Government Secrecy

Author: Steven Aftergood
June 13, 2013


"[U.S.] secrecy policy is founded on a set of principles so broadly conceived that they do not provide unequivocal guidance to government officials who are responsible for deciding whether or not to classify particular topics."

On his first full day in office, President Obama famously committed his Administration to "creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government." This commitment was itself unprecedented. Never before had an incoming President singled out openness as an essential, even paramount, quality of good government and adopted it as his virtual trademark.

In an implicit rebuff to the secrecy policies of the previous Administration, the President said such openness would have to be "created" — it did not yet exist. But he assured Americans it would come to pass. "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."

This presidential pledge at first seemed to herald a new dawn of open government. Freedom of information advocates anticipated sharp reductions in official secrecy and substantial reforms in the classification system by which the government determines whether to withhold national security–related information from public disclosure. Soon, however, as idealized scenarios of openness went unrealized and familiar patterns of official secrecy persisted and grew, the President's commitment came to inspire disappointment, then criticism, and finally bitter mockery.

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