Renewing a debate over secrecy, and its costs

Scott Shane reports: In recent years, the United States has pioneered the use of two innovative weapons, drones and cyberattacks, that by many accounts have devastated Al Qaeda and set back Iran’s nuclear effort.

Now those programs are at the heart of a bipartisan dispute over secrecy, with Congressional Republicans accusing the Obama administration of leaking classified information for political advantage and Democrats lodging their own protests about high-level disclosures.

Prompted in part by recent articles in The New York Times on the use of drones to carry out targeted killings and the deployment of the Stuxnet computer worm against the Iranian nuclear program, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a joint statement on Wednesday urging the administration “to fully, fairly and impartially investigate” the recent disclosures and vowing new legislation to crack down on leaks.

“Each disclosure puts American lives at risk, makes it more difficult to recruit assets, strains the trust of our partners and threatens imminent and irreparable damage to our national security,” said the statement, a rare show of unity.

The protest focused on the dangers of leaks that the Congressional leaders said would alert adversaries to American military and intelligence tactics. But secrecy, too, has a cost — one that is particularly striking in the case of drones and cyberattacks. Both weapons raise pressing legal, moral and strategic questions of the kind that, in a democracy, appear to deserve serious public scrutiny. Because of classification rules, however, neither has been the subject of open debate in Congress, even as the Obama administration has moved aggressively ahead with both programs.

“The U.S. is embarked on ambitious and consequential moves that will shape the security environment for years to come, whether they succeed or fail,” said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Secrecy cloaks not only the operations, but their justification and rationale, which are legitimate subjects of public interest.”

Mr. Aftergood said drones and cyberattacks were “extreme examples of programs that are widely known and yet officially classified.” That, he said, has prevented informed public discussion of some critical questions. Should the United States be inaugurating a new era of cyberattacks? What are the actual levels of civilian casualties caused by the drone attacks, and what are the implications for national sovereignty?

“Keeping these programs secret may have a value,” said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and Bush administration Justice Department official who writes about national security and the press. “But there’s another value that has to be considered, too — the benefit of transparency, accountability and public discussion.” [Continue reading…]

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