There’s nothing quite like watching systems deliberately made worse, all in the name of better propaganda.
One rapidly escalating trend among officials and government agencies is making more and more information, including decades-old material, either impossible to obtain or accessible only to journalists who are “trusted,” meaning they are deferential to authority and will put the best possible spin on what they are fed.
This is deeply disturbing in a society that tries to maintain the veneer of being a democracy, since it keeps important information from the public and is clearly intended to preserve the image of particular organizations and shield them from what is likely to be well-deserved criticism. Anti-transparency policies are tantamount to anti-accountability.
But at least as bad is the destructive effects on the sponsors of this dissimulation by omission. Yes, they may do better in the short term, but over time, they fall prey to the pathology of believing their own PR. They become convinced that their airbrushed photos and the adoring crowds that are carefully screened for their public appearances accurately reflect their performance and popularity. In more extreme versions, you wind up with Versailles behavior, for instance, when wealthy financiers lash out when anyone dares criticize them, because they’ve come to believe deeply in their own myth-making, that their success is the result of merit, as opposed to luck and conniving. By contrast, in competitive arena like sports, ruthless post-mortems, particularly of failures, are seen as critical for improving performance.
On Thursday, David Sirota recapped the results of a study that showed that the practice of access journalism is far more widespread than even the august Columbia Journalism Review realized. Readers probably assume that “access journalism” consists of giving exclusive interviews or leaks and to pet reporters that have established that they won’t bite the hand that feeds them good stories. From the perspective of the propagandists, this is a virtuous circle: not only can they reward reporters that play ball with them, but their captive correspondents become influential, even dominant, by virtue of having an information advantage.
But there’s another way this game is played: by blocking contact with journalists who dare to do their job rather than take dictation. Sirota explains:
As states move to hide details of government deals with Wall Street and as politicians come up with new arguments to defend secrecy, it was revealed this week that many government information officers block specific journalists they don’t like from accessing information. The news comes as 47 federal inspectors general sent a letter to lawmakers criticizing “serious limitations on access to records” that they say have “impeded” their oversight work.
The data about public information officers was compiled over the past few years by Kennesaw State University professor Carolyn Carlson. Her surveys found that 4 in 10 public information officers say “there are specific reporters they will not allow their staff to talk to due to problems with their stories in the past.”…..
Carlson has conducted surveys of journalists and public information officers since 2012. In her most recent survey of 445 working journalists, four out of five reported that “their interviews must be approved” by government information officers, and “more than half of the reporters said they had actually been prohibited from interviewing [government] employees at least some of the time by public information officers.”
In recent years, there have been signs that the federal government is reducing the flow of public information. Reason Magazine has reported a 114 percent increase in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rejections by the Drug Enforcement Agency since President Obama took office. The National Security Agency has also issued blanket rejections of FOIA requests about its metadata program. And the Associated Press reported earlier this year that in 2013 “the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year.”
These practices are yielding other dividends:
Carlson’s data from 2014 shows that three-quarters of journalists surveyed now agree with the statement that “the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”
Yet, despite that lament, the government’s efforts to keep information secret may be having its intended effect on the psychology of journalists.
An Indiana University study published earlier this year found that “the percentage of U.S. journalists endorsing the occasional use of ‘confidential business or government documents without authorization’ [has] dropped significantly” in the last few years. In all, the IU survey found only 58 percent of journalists support using such documents in their reporting.
In a disheartening bit of synchronicity, Lambert flagged a new article from the American Historical Association, Black Holes in the Predecisional Universe: Agencies Gain a New Justification for Secrecy, which describes how the CIA has scored a major legal win that allows it to withhold information, even decades-old information that Presidential libraries want to make public:
The National Security Archive was disappointed, but not surprised, that in a two-to-one decision the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, in May 2014, agreed with the Central Intelligence Agency that a volume of its 30-year-old history of the 53-year-old Bay of Pigs Invasion could “confuse the public” and should thus be kept secret. To win this argument, the CIA successfully convinced Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Stephen Williams (Judge Judith Rodgers identified multiple contradictions in her strong dissent) that any document the agency deems “predecisional” can be withheld ad infinitum.
The claim that the entire universe of “predecisional” documents–including any claimed “draft”–should be withheld from the public is in line with the agency’s information withholding strategy. The agency has found that it is much easier to withhold entire universes of documents than argue the merits of classification to protect US national security on a case-by-case, document-by-document basis.
The CIA got its first taste of “universal withholding” when Congress passed the 1984 CIA Operational Files Exemption. Unlike other Freedom of Information Act exemptions, which can be applied after agencies search and locate requested documents, the Operational Files Exemption creates a universe of documents that the CIA does not even have to search for. This means that if a historian requests records for, say, Operation Phoenix, the CIA-led assassination program conducted during the Vietnam War, the CIA will reply–less than completely forthcomingly–that its search has returned no results. Admiral William McRaven, the Joint Special Operations Commander who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid, knew about this transparency black hole: he ordered the FOIA-complying Department of Defense to purge its computers of all files on the Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden and send them to the CIA, where the Operational Files Exemption would keep them “safe” from search and review for release.
Of course, very few historians would argue that FOIA requests should disclose the names of undercover CIA operatives, their foreign sources, or many intelligence methods. But when the CIA’s use of this exemption is examined, it is clear that it goes far beyond these reasonable protections. The agency has stretched the limits again recently to begin arguing that even histories of the Clandestine Service, including its actions in Italy and Hungary more than six decades ago, are exempt from search and review under the Operational Files Exemption. By definition, a history cannot be an “operational file,” yet that is what the CIA is allowed to claim to FOIA requesters.
Troublingly, the CIA’s withholding of its Bay of Pigs history is an attempt to keep another universe of documents from disclosure: those it claims are “predecisional.” The CIA is seeking this expansion because key figures within the US government have begun reviewing the CIA’s classification decisions and overruling the agency’s claims for the need of secrecy. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), housed at the US National Archives, overrules government classification claims in more than 70 percent of the documents it reviews (including those of the CIA).
To avoid being overruled by ISCAP, the CIA has employed two tactics. First, it uses the Operational Files Exemption so that requesters cannot officially identify classified documents for ISCAP to review and overturn. Second, it has begun to stop withholding some documents because they are classified (which ISCAP could overturn) and instead withholds them because they are “predecisional” (which ISCAP has no authority to overturn). The CIA’s shell game is an affront to those who strive to compile an accurate history of US intelligence, foreign policy, and national security history.
The CIA also strives to obstruct the declassification efforts of holders of releasable universes of documents, including the presidential libraries. At the presidential libraries, the CIA has installed a Remote Archives Capture (RAC) system where it claims authority to digitize all documents at the libraries and first crack at keeping them secret–often using the Operational Files or “predecisional” exemptions–before letting the library, and other agencies, review the documents for release. The RAC system was installed, at least partially, in reaction to the presidential libraries acting with too much autonomy in their declassification decisions and in releasing to the public documents the CIA wished to keep secret.
We seem to be well on our way to having Ministries of Truth fixing history to fit current policy. After all, it isn’t a big step to go from excising unwelcome facts to inserting more flattering ones.