By BRYAN RAHIJA
Who needs college basketball when you could be debating government accountability? All eyes at POGO HQ this afternoon were fixed not on bracket-busting underdogs, but on a Sunshine Week panel moderated by POGO head honcho Danielle Brian on the balance between protecting national security and maintaining an open and accountable government.
The all-star panel touched on over-classification of government records, congressional oversight, whistleblower protections, the proliferation of security clearances, and contractors' increasing role in core government activities.
Jeffrey H. Smith, former general counsel of the CIA, said that the best solution for the current lack of congressional oversight is simply that Congress needs to use more of the powers it already has.
Dana Priest, the Washington Post reporter behind the "Top Secret America" series and the book of the same name, pointed out that part of the reason for the massive expansion of the contracting community surrounding intelligence agencies was that Congress gave the agencies billions of dollars to ramp up their activities—but with an understanding that agencies wouldn't make the government any bigger.
Liza Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, called for more accountability for how the government's current secrecy tools are used. There need to be more audits of classification decisions, and when agencies cite national security concerns as a reason for designating records as classified, they should be required to indicate specifically how making the document public would harm national security, she argued.
J. William Leonard, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), said that excessive government secrecy has a direct cost to the American people. "Excessive secrecy makes for bad government," Leonard said. He added that one solution for improving oversight of the intelligence community would be for Congress to empower the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to get involved with oversight of the intelligence community (a great idea, if you ask us).
Alex Abdo, an attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, brought the discussion back to John and Jane Q. Public. "One of the biggest costs of secrecy is loss of public trust in government," he said.
For her part, POGO's Danielle Brian reminded the crowd that the lack of whistleblower protections for contractor employees creates an incentive for those employees to leak information to the media, as opposed to raising concerns about waste, fraud, and abuse through government channels.
Excessive government secrecy? Now there's some real madness that should get the public fired up this March.
Bryan Rahija edits POGO's blog.
Image via POGO's Pam Rutter.