Q&A: Ted Gup

Ted Gup, author of Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life on why “when everything is classified, nothing is classified.”


Mother Jones: Of all the things that the Bush administration will be leaving behind, in terms of government transparency and how secrets are kept, what do you think is the hardest one to fix?

Ted Gup: An attitudinal sea change. I think that’s the hardest one to fix. Presidential directives, bills, provisions can all be rescinded, repealed, amended, but attitudes linger. The hardest thing is going to be to try to reverse an attitude, a bunker mentality that equates secrecy with either security or heightened efficiency and that regards transparency as an invitation to mischief and trespass. This default position of operating in the shadows is going to be somewhat appealing to whomever inherits office. Secrecy doesn’t attach to particular parties; it attaches to power. All of the bull work is in place for whomever succeeds. That’s my concern. I think we could make a list: the presidential papers changes, the certain Patriot Act provisions, the frenetic proliferation of sensitive but unclassified documents. The SBUs have spread like kudzu and are choking off everyone’s ability to see what the hell’s going on in government.

MJ: What are the mechanics in that?

TG: The mechanics vary from place to place and from office to office. The handling of SBUs can be different in the same agency just across the hall, one from another. There are virtually no standards. You have tens, hundreds of thousands of people in government, and just as many among contractors, who feel totally comfortable writing at the top of the document “internal use only,” “official use only,” and a million other synonyms, all of which amount to “none of your business” to the public.

MJ: Has this attitude emanated from the administration specifically, or was it a broader shift in society?

TG: It’s a complex question. I think there are multiple influences. Let’s take just a couple of the principal ones. One of the principal factors fueling the proliferation of the abuse of secrecy and sensitive but unclassifieds is the administration’s adherence to the unitary executive principal. This administration more than any of its predecessors believes that it is its responsibility to collect power onto itself in the executive office when it comes to the conduct of war, foreign policy, the management of agencies and departments, regulations, etc. There’s no faster way or surer way to consolidate power and disenfranchise critics than to operate in secret. So this plays squarely into the promotion of the unitary executive. That’s one factor. Another factor is the post-9/11 security mentality, which views sunlight as toxic and imagines that somehow bin Laden is dependent upon our government documents, a “fact” that has never, ever been supported to my knowledge. So, that’s the second factor. The third factor is the natural predisposition of bureaucracies, both governmental and private, to exploit secrecy to whatever degree they are licensed to do so, and in this administration they’re given virtually carte blanche. And fourthly there is a major shift in public opinion and attitude to accommodate to the post-9/11 mentality and the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy. I think the public has simply become increasingly accustomed to being turned away from vital information and is protesting less and less. You have some squeaky wheels out there, but I don’t think they’re representative of the population at large.

MJ: Is there anything that will be the easiest to fix, if we get an administration that’s inclined to fix something?

TG: Well, this may not be the answer you’re seeking, but honestly, I don’t think that the problems or the issues relate to any single piece of legislation. I think that they really do relate to the mindset that after eight years is pretty deeply embedded. It is not going to be easy to reverse itself. Even when Pelosi came into power and the Democrats assumed the majority in both houses, there was a predisposition toward secrecy. I don’t mean to suggest that it is not an improvement over what preceded it, but we’re not looking at the kind of transparency that most of us were hoping for. You know if you are a reporter trying to find out what the hell’s going on in government now, you have a devilish time. It is murder to set up an interview. It is murder to get someone’s phone number. It’s murder to be able to get in and talk to someone without a handler being present to chill it, or who doesn’t insist upon questions in advance. I mean every effort is made to control information. Secrecy is just one of the toggles on their control board. The mindset is in place, and they’ve done a lot of hiring over eight years, not just political appointees. And they’ve done a lot of firing or driving people out who might have countermanded or resisted. So, institutionally, it’s not going to be simply a matter of flipping the switch to undo it. You’re going have to bring in people dedicated to transparency, and you have to demonstrate that there are rewards for candor.

MJ: Is that a plausible scenario?

TG: It is possible. I think it depends on who gets in. Right now there’s kind of a war between the press and the administration. The level of trust is extraordinarily low and the level of suspicion extraordinarily high, and with good reason and on both sides. The press has hunkered down for very good reason, because it’s being treated like a mushroom. You know the line—kept in the dark and fed shit. They have responded accordingly and it’s been guerrilla warfare. The press is going to have to learn anew that it’s possible to work in an environment that is not so toxic and to readopt those kinds of techniques. The relationship between the press and the Clinton White House during the later period was not a healthy one. There was a lot of hostility and a lot of suspicion. This administration has done systematically what no other administration had done. They came in with a corporate mentality, an ability to stay on script that was without parallel. They taught and spread that gospel through the administration and through the bureaucracy of Washington, and that stuff’s got to be unlearned. Whistleblowers is another aspect that needs to be addressed. We have to restore the protections of whistleblowers and also the encouragement and rewards. It shouldn’t just be that they don’t get crucified; it should be that they are again folk heroes, or celebrated for bringing critical matters to public attention, as opposed to traitors.

MJ: On the question of whistleblowers, is anything in that area a black-and-white policy question?

TG: When you get new people in, you’re going to have a breath of fresh air and there’s going to be a window when people will decide what direction to go. It’ll be determined by outside events, by the personalities that occupy those positions, and by the treatment they receive both from the press and the public, of the honeymoon period. If it’s a Democratic administration, and they have the benefit of control of both houses of Congress, there are both benefits and liabilities to transparency. There are benefits in the sense that there’s still a certain level of confidence. But there are liabilities because you can coordinate and manipulate better as the instruments of oversight are more under your control. You don’t have so many rogue operations. When the Republicans controlled both houses, the Bush administration could do just about anything it wanted and not fear that the oversight committees or hearings would bring things out that they didn’t want brought out. That certainly aided and abetted their efforts to promote secrecy.

MJ: What’s your take on the question of the shield law for journalists? How important do you think it is, and do you think it can happen?

TG: I’m not as well versed on it as I should be, and I’m not following it as closely as I did. I love the idea of a shield law; I don’t know of any journalist who doesn’t love the idea of a shield law. It’s all in the details. Some of the shield laws that were floating around sounded good, but when you looked at them, exceptions or exclusions or broadness in the language really invited some problems. I don’t think the question is if should we have a shield law. I think the question is what kind of shield law we should have. Yes, I’d like to see a federal shield law, but if and only if it provides genuine safeguards and doesn’t green-light prosecutors and judges and litigants from going after the press and getting things to which they should not be entitled. It’s not a simple kind of litmus test.

MJ: Anything else about the Bush legacy that you want to mention?

TG: Well, they were extremely effective in obfuscation. One of the things that will probably need to be addressed is in the treatment of history, i.e. the Presidential Papers Act. If they can act with impunity, if they know that what they’re doing is not going to see the light of day anytime in their lifetime, if they have the right to withhold information from the public, then presidents are given a vastly freer hand. It will be important to restore those provisions, those disclose provisions, those release provisions so that presidents are indeed held accountable and their information and papers are made public. This president and his administration were very cool about both the Presidential Papers Act and the loss of thousands and thousands of emails, which should have been protected. There are all kinds of ways, like when they vetted the archives, that they imposed some filters on history and between themselves and their future judges.

MJ: That sounds like it might be something the next administration, if it were so inclined, could do easily.

TG: Yes. They can also put in more resources in declassification. Right now all the resources are in classification and we need to get back into the declassification business, because that’s American history. And it’s also accountability. It isn’t just dusty stuff. If all these guys think that nothing is going to come out for 100 years, they’re going to act a whole lot more boldly. So we need to get back into the declassification business. This notion of overclassification is not just a bleeding-heart liberal issue. When everything is classified, nothing is classified. The real secrets start leaking out when there are too many secrets because people can’t remember what’s a real secret. There’s a very famous line by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy: “If you guard your toothbrushes and your diamonds with equal zeal, you’ll lose fewer toothbrushes and more diamonds.” And that’s where we are right now.