A career as a secrecy watchdog
Steven Aftergood condemns the abuses of overclassification, excessive secrecy
- By Aliya Sternstein
- Nov 13, 2006
Presidential Authority to Conduct Warrantless Electronic Surveillance to Gather Foreign Intelligence Information (PDF)
Researcher Steven Aftergood’s shelves are crammed with books on government secrecy and thick binders filled with government documents. Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” occupies a prominent position on one shelf.
One particular set of papers that came to him in 1991 caused him to question the criteria that the government used to classify documents. Someone whose identity Aftergood learned only later — and still won’t reveal — mailed him documents about a classified program code-named Timber Wind. At the time, he had been researching nuclear reactor safety for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. He is now FAS’ director of the Project on Government Secrecy.
Timber Wind was a secret plan to develop a nuclear-powered rocket engine for missile defense. Aftergood began reading the documents and interviewing officials, including the Defense Department’s inspector general. Aftergood became convinced that the military was secretive about Timber Wind mostly because it wanted to avoid a public controversy.
An IG’s report later confirmed his suspicion that DOD had overclassified the program, which limited the debate about missile defense technology.
Aftergood’s investigation led DOD to increase its oversight of special access programs, which are the most restricted category of classified programs, and change its procedures for allowing and terminating such programs. It also set Aftergood on a new path of scrutinizing the U.S. government’s classification system. He wanted to learn more about what information gets classified, by whom and for how long. Although he takes the need for secrecy seriously, he said the government invokes it far too often.
“Secrecy has derailed U.S. policy on several major fronts, from the war in Iraq to the interrogation of detainees to energy policy,” he said. “All of them have been infected by secrecy to the detriment of national policy.”
That conviction is the basis for his e-mail newsletter, “Secrecy News,” which he publishes two to three times a week, or as events warrant. The newsletter covers topics such as information security and intelligence policies and contains links to hard-to-obtain documents that he publishes on the Web.
He files many Freedom of Information Act requests, cultivates sources, interviews policy-makers and fields contributions from an informal network of informants — all without an office assistant.
Privacy and, in some respects, secrecy are at the heart of Aftergood’s work.
He is aware of that irony. Aftergood said he believes that public access to information is the basis of a free government. On the other hand, he said, he knows that offering public access to all such information might impede legitimate government activity or weaken national security.
Aftergood said he considers himself rather conservative about disclosing information. “I tend to err on the side of caution,” he said.
One of the popular items on the Project on Government Secrecy’s Web site is the Congressional Research Service’s report on warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency. People have downloaded that document, not written for public consumption, as often as 40,000 times in a 24-hour period.
Aftergood said he would prefer that the government choose to post its records rather than waiting to be compelled to.
“The attitude needs to be that the release of public information should be a function of the government,” he said.
Aftergood’s work sometimes causes the government to change its policies, and that’s what motivates him to spend hours poring over the materials.
“He doesn’t just rely on continuous schmoozing but reads tedious government documents,” said Henry Kelly, president of FAS.
Even some officials inside the Bush administration who don’t always agree with Aftergood’s actions say they respect what he is trying to accomplish.
“Even though he and I may disagree on specifics at times, I find him to be an informed voice that has valuable insights,” said J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives and Records Administration. “I also recognize that there is information that has been inappropriately classified at times.”