Here’s a riddle: How do you make it easier to push through legislation in Congress that is overwhelmingly opposed in the public without any political consequences?
Answer: Keep the votes secret.
That’s exactly what’s happened to an Obama administration plan to provide weapons directly to the Syrian rebels. The Senate committee that approved the plan was, unusually, allowed to classify their votes, presumably in order to insulate themselves from any repercussions from their constituents. Because really…why should elected representatives have to tell the people they supposedly represent how they are doing the job they were elected to do!?
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reportedly gave its approval last week to an Obama administration plan to provide weapons to moderate rebels in Syria, but how individual members of the committee stood on the subject remains unknown.
There was no public debate and no public vote when one of the most contentious topics in American foreign policy was decided – outside of the view of constituents, who oppose the president’s plan to aid the rebels by 54 percent to 37 percent, according to a Gallup Poll last month.
In fact, ask individual members of the committee, who represent 117 million people in 14 states, how they stood on the plan to use the CIA to funnel weapons to the rebels and they are likely to respond with the current equivalent of “none of your business:” It’s classified.
Those were, in fact, the words Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the committee, used when asked a few days before the approval was granted to clarify her position for her constituents. She declined. It’s a difficult situation, she said. And, “It’s classified.”
She was not alone. In a string of interviews over days, members of both the Senate intelligence committee or its equivalent in the House were difficult to pin down on their view of providing arms to the rebels. The senators and representatives said they couldn’t give an opinion, or at least a detailed one, because the matter was classified.
It’s an increasingly common stance that advocates of open government say undermines the very principle of a representative democracy.
“It’s like a pandemic in Washington, D.C., this idea that ‘I don’t have to say anything, I don’t have to justify anything, because I can say it’s secret,’” said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank.
In our increasingly Orwellian country, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between parody and reality. But this is very real. And Harper is correct: it is a pandemic.
Everything is secret in Washington. Who are we at war with? That’s classified. Who is the government spying on? That’s classified. Are we bombing multiple countries on a regular basis with remote-controlled airplanes? That’s classified. Which senators voted for an incredibly unpopular and dangerous plan to give weapons to unaccountable Syrian militias as they fight in a chaotic civil war that should have nothing to do with us? None of your god damned business.
The US government in 2012 rejected public requests for documents more often than at any time since President Barack Obama took office, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
“The administration cited exceptions built into the law to avoid turning over materials more than 479,000 times, a roughly 22 percent increase over the previous year,” The Associated Press reports.
“The government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times – a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama’s first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.”
According to Information Security Oversight Office, the Executive Branch alone made 92,064,862 classifications decisions in 2011. In the same year, it cost the federal government $11 billion just to keep its own secrets.
The trend towards reckless classification in government will prove to be one of the most pernicious in the very near future. The one opportunity for Americans, in our ostensibly three branched government, to challenge the absurd levels of secrecy are the courts. Unfortunately, they have given the state incredible deference when it comes to state secrets privileges.