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'Democracy in the Dark' Sheds Light on Government Secrecy

F.A.O. Schwarz Jr. and Danielle Brian

To find the earliest example of a “higher authority” deciding to keep information secret from its citizenry, all you have to do is turn to the Old Testament—as in the beginning, says Frederick “Fritz” Schwarz, famous for his work investigating Watergate-era intelligence abuses.

Remember that story, where God told Adam and Eve they couldn’t eat from the tree of knowledge but never gave them a reason why? Schwarz's latest book, Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy, uses the story of creation to begin a thorough chronology of how ruling classes have used secrecy to their advantage.

Jumping to the present day, there are too many examples of secrecy within our own government, which Schwarz points out is “inconsistent with democracy.”

Why is so much government work being classified? Why does the public only learn about some large-scale projects through information leaks?

This week, Project On Government Oversight and the NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice (where Schwarz is general counsel) hosted a discussion in Washington, DC, with Schwarz to talk about rising government secrecy.   

The discussion led to several questions about the way that leakers of information are treated by the government. POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian, who moderated the talk, steered the discussion on individual leakers to the disparate treatment between the cases of Chelsea Manning and former CIA director David Petraeus.

“It’s pretty obvious if you’re a high enough ranking [official], you simply get a wrist slap, like Petraeus,” Schwarz said.

He went on to applaud Edward Snowden, saying that he acted for “patriotic reasons,” despite being charged under the Espionage Act. Schwarz said that the Espionage Act has been misused and was originally intended “for members who directly helped a foreign nation,” unlike more recent leakers giving information to journalists.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has used the Espionage Act to go after media leaks more during Obama’s administration than all prior administrations combined.

Schwarz has drawn heavily on his experiences as a member of the Church Committee, which during the 1970s investigated illegal intelligence gathering activities by the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA).

But going after the intelligence establishment came with the cost of some government officials accusing the Committee’s activities as a threat to national security. That knee-jerk reaction resulted in the Committee losing some of its ability to do thorough investigations.

“In the last three to four months of our work, we were not free in a political sense, in a dynamic sense,” Schwarz said.

Topics: Open Government, National Security

Related Content: Government Secrecy, Democracy

Authors: Iulia Gheorghiu

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