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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

An Epidemic of Secrecy   


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life

By Ted Gup

Doubleday

322 pages; $24.95

As if we don't face enough outrages, Ted Gup has documented still another one, and it is exceptionally important.

"Nation of Secrets" traces the surging trend toward secrecy and closed dealings by government, courts, universities and even the press.

This is bad enough in principle. After all, the culprits mainly are "our employees paid by our taxes to conduct our business." However, what should truly rile average citizens is Gup's alarming compilation of how secrecy restricts consumer access to vital everyday information about crime, health care, food safety and other high-stakes matters.

"Today America is a nation of secrets, an increasingly furtive land where closed doors outnumber open ones and where it is no longer 'the right to know' but 'the need to know' that is the measure against which access is determined," Gup writes.

His specifics are frightening. "In hospitals and clinics, life-threatening defects in medical devices go unreported." A federal agency monitored problems with 215,350 medical practitioners, but the public can't see the information.

After Hurricane Katrina, "the search for hundreds of children missing..was stymied by government's refusal to share information from its evacuee database."

Gup rightly stresses an undercovered trend toward sealed court settlements, "predicated upon promises of silence," which are increasingly replacing public trials. In 1972, 9 percent of federal civil cases went to trial. In 2002, less than 2 percent did.

Out-of-court settlements have involved tires, cars, prams, airplanes, appliances and medicines, he says, adding that "with that secrecy comes the increasing risk that public perils will be suppressed."

Among his specifics are cases alleging the failure of schools to protect children from abuse by special-ed teachers, death from exposure to dangerous materials at a chemical company and wrongful killing by police.

Many incidents are absurd. When reporters including Hedrick Smith and Neil Sheehan donated papers to the Library of Congress, many documents already used in their journalism were "treated as classified and removed beyond public reach." The Department of Energy's Office of Declassification was renamed the Office of Classification.

Gup, a veteran investigative reporter who now teaches at Case Western Reserve University, faults universities too for forsaking the "presumptions of openness." Colleges, he writes, "have concealed financial mismanagement, bloated executive salaries, recruiting violations, plagiarism."

Many campus crime victims can't learn what happens to their accused attackers, whose cases often are heard by confidential campus boards.

Naturally, Gup wants to rally the press toward greater aggressiveness. But, he points out, journalists can come across as hypocritical, given their overuse of anonymous sources, withholding of sensitive stories and institutional protectiveness. In 2005, for instance, Time Warner declared that the remarks of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, at a gathering attended by numerous journalists, were off the record.

For all his obvious outrage, Gup writes fairly and reasonably, never yielding to shrillness. He defends the need for secrecy in some cases of national security, privacy and medical records, and he admits he himself has withheld information he thought could hurt "genuine national interests."

But he makes a compelling argument that too much secrecy "profoundly undermines the respect due true secrets."

Perhaps his most powerful argument is that excessive secrecy could impede rather than advance the battle against terrorism. While many of his examples date from heightened concerns after September 11, he stresses that secrecy already was on the rise beforehand.

"Some believe," he writes, "that greater coordination and a less rigid grip on secrets" among rival agencies "might have uncovered and even foiled the plot." We are at war today at least in part because of secret assessments he calls "a testament to the abuse of secrecy by those at the highest levels."

"If and when there is another terrorist attack on American soil," Gup warns, "secrecy may well prove an impediment to an effective and timely response."

Gup eloquently concludes, "Nothing the architects and masons can conceive of could be a more fitting tribute to the victims of 9/11 than restoring..and defending the values of openness and transparency that are the hallmark of a healthy democracy."