The Atlantic

The culture of secrecy in Washington has become absurd.
David Rohde
June 15, 2013 – 9:20 AM ET

An odd thing is happening in the world’s self-declared pinnacle of democracy. No one — except a handful of elected officials and an army of contractors — is allowed to know how America’s surveillance leviathan works.

For the last two years, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) have tried to describe to the American public the sweeping surveillance the National Security Agency conducts inside and outside the United States. But secrecy rules block them from airing the simplest details.

Over the last few days, President Barack Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have both said they welcome a national debate about the surveillance programs. But the president and senator have not used their power to declassify information that would make that debate possible.

“I flew over the World Trade Center going to Senator Lautenberg’s funeral,” Feinstein said this Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” referring to New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. “And I thought of those bodies jumping out of that building hitting the canopy. Part of our obligation is keeping America safe.”

Feinstein is right, but our obsession with preventing terrorist attacks is warping our political debate and threatening basic rights. Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents has exposed two destructive post-2001 dynamics: the rise of secrecy and contractors.

First, secrecy. In the initial years after September 11, the focus on thwarting another major domestic terrorist attack was understandable. Twelve years later, there have been only two major al Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks inside the United States: the 2009 killing of 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas, and the April Boston marathon bombing that killed three. No evidence has emerged of terrorist groups infiltrating American executive, intelligence or defense agencies.

Yet documents released by Snowden show that the amount of surveillance information that the government collects is ballooning. The American public has no clear sense of how the metadata is used by the government, how long it is held and which agencies have access to it.

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