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How Are We Supposed to Know What the Government Does?

The most important reason that the media exists is to tell the public what’s happening and what the people in power are doing about it. That’s increasingly difficult when the decisions that matter are shrouded in multiple levels of secrecy.
May 20, 2013, 7:40pm

Photo via Flickr user DonkeyHotey

You should probably be afraid, at least a little, of the federal government. The reason for this doesn’t have anything to do with conspiracy theories about fluoridation or the Obama administration hoarding ammo to keep it out of the hands of True Patriots. It’s simpler than that: you should be worried about the US government because it is huge and well funded and powerful and, most importantly, you don’t know what it’s doing.


The civics-class version of government—that there are three branches, each with its own checks and balances and blah blah blah—is hopelessly outdated. For one thing, the legislative branch is paralyzed by partisanship and a set of rules that make it impossible for it to do anything but stop laws from getting enacted. For another, as documented by the Washington Post in 2010, the governmental agencies that are in charge of “national security” have grown like not-all-that-benign tumors, consuming billions of tax dollars, constructing massive top-secret facilities, and employing hundreds of thousands of people whose job descriptions you don’t have the security clearance to know. The national security state is vast and unknowable, practically its own branch of government at this point, with its own secret history. Millions upon millions of documents are classified, many unnecessarily. By some counts, there are more pages of classified documents in the US than there are unclassified—and the government spends $12 billion a year keeping all that information under wraps.

Against this, what are ordinary people supposed to do? We could tune all of this out and only notice the massive but mysterious network of intelligence gathering and decision making when it butts into our everyday lives—like when the TSA searches your bag without your consent as you travel across the country, or when a manhunt in Boston reveals how much cops resemble soldiers now—or we could dig through documents and poke and prod the unelected officials who know what’s going on and hope they let a nugget of information drop. Except you probably don’t have the time to investigate the government, and that’s what journalists are for.


The most important reason that the media exists—maybe the only good reason—is to tell the public what’s happening and what the people in power are doing about it. That’s increasingly difficult when the decisions that matter are shrouded in multiple levels of secrecy, and officials who reveal that information are prosecuted for crimes. The First Amendment's protection that lets journalists write whatever they want isn’t enough—they need to be able to be free to gather information that gives them the ability to write something that’s not just a reworked government press release.

That’s the context in which people have been getting upset about the Department of Justice subpoenaing the Associated Press’s phone records while investigating a leak, and it’s why it should be even more outrageous that the DOJ called Fox News’s James Rosen “an aider and abettor” in a crime for getting a source to reveal classified information to him.

In the first case, the DOJ looked at phone records as part of an investigation not into the AP itself, but into which official gave a reporter information about counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Even though the AP delayed reporting what it had at the government’s request, it’s possible that the story made it more difficult for the US to catch the bad guys, and some people have argued that the DOJ was investigating a serious breach of federal law and acting legally and in the government’s best interest.


The investigation of Rosen is even more worrying if you think that the press should be in the business of reporting on the government. Rosen wrote a story in 2009 that revealed the CIA thought North Korea would perform more nuclear tests based on information the agency had gotten from inside North Korea. For this, the DOJ aggressively pursued Rosen and Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the government employee who leaked the information to him, even going through the reporter's personal emails. Rosen wasn’t charged with a crime, but unlike the AP investigation, the FBI accused him of engaging in criminal activity in an official document—for trying to find out what the government was doing and thinking, which is his job.

When most of the US’s overseas operations are deliberately hidden from public view, leaks and the reporters who are smart and connected and lucky enough to cajole them out of sources are the only way we have of knowing what the hell is going on. Just to give an example of how this works: McClatchy got its hands on some classified intelligence reports on drone attacks recently, analyzed them, and published the results, and now we know, definitively, that the campaign of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan is way less accurate than Obama administration's officials claim. That’s how journalism works. That’s the only way information emerges into the light of day.

The government wants to stop this process because if people know about its decisions, presumably they can second-guess or criticize those decisions. The Obama administration likely figures it has nothing to gain from transparency and has ditched the idea of accountability to the public entirely. How else to explain the administration’s quote about letting the press be “unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism” at the same time it's prosecuting any government employee who says anything at all to a reporter? If the administration was serious about letting the press do its job, why is it supporting a “media shield” law that wouldn’t protect reporters who are reporting on matters of national security?


The problem won’t be solved by voting Obama out of office. For years, the national security state has grown like some kind of ugly animal in a terrarium, fed by executive orders and ever-expanding budgets, and when it’s threatened by reporters like Rosen, it defends itself. It’s no longer concerned with defeating the version of al Qaeda responsible for 9/11, since that war is largely won. It just keeps growing and growing and creating new reasons for itself to exist, along the way treating the media like unfriendly viruses trying to infect it. Change the names of the people in charge, and the self-perpetuating security state will still be in place, churning out reams of documents no regular taxpayer is allowed to see.

The spy agencies, by the way, cost those taxpayers $75 billion a year. It’s not clear what they buy with that money, because any further information about that budget is classified, since it’s a matter of national security. Presumably, to try to find out more would be a crime.


More on the policies of the Obama administration:

Big Money's Obama

Obama Governs Like Bush on Reproductive Rights

Obama Wants to Kill the Penny and so Should You