Pursuit of `Top Secret' goes way over the top

August 27, 2006|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

The conventional wisdom has it that John F. Kennedy was the first television president.

Meaning not that he was president when the medium began to affect the nation, but that he was the first to understand its potential and exploit its power. The signature illustration is the famous debate with Richard M. Nixon. People who watched it on television felt the handsome, vigorous Democrat trounced the ailing, haggard Republican. Curiously enough, many of those who only heard the debate on radio gave the edge to Mr. Nixon.

Forty-six years later, I submit to you that we are undergoing a similarly seismic moment in presidential communication: George W. Bush is the first Information Age president.

Like Mr. Kennedy, he arrived a little late; he was not in office when information access became the currency of daily life. Yet, he was the first president to understand the potential and exploit the power of that development. Unfortunately, he does so to our detriment. Although Mr. Kennedy used television to expand presidential influence, Mr. Bush has controlled information toward a more dubious end: the curtailment of that great threat to imperial power, the informed electorate.

Last week The Washington Post ran a fascinating story based on a report from the National Security Archive, a research library at George Washington University. According to the report, the Bush administration has been blacking out of previously public documents information on the nation's strategic military capabilities. Officials are doing this, they say, in the name of national security. Got a question on the Minuteman missile? Tough. Curious about the Titan II? Too bad.

Now, maybe you wonder what the problem is. This is sensitive information we're talking about, right? Can't have that falling into just anybody's hands, right?

The thing is, it's already in "anybody's" hands: It dates back half a century to the Cold War. We're talking about memos, charts and papers that have over the years been cited in open congressional hearings, reported in newspapers, used in history books. We're talking about information our government long ago deemed innocuous enough to provide even to its former enemy, the Soviet Union.

And now - "now!" - we're supposed to believe it's suddenly so sensitive it has to be classified Top Secret? Please.

This is a classic case of locking the barn after the horse has escaped - and died of old age. More to the point, it is a classic and absurd example of the present regime's mania for secrecy, its obsessive need to control what, when, how and why you and I learn about its activities.

Anyone who doesn't see a pattern here has not been paying attention. From its 18-hour blackout of news that the vice president had shot a man, to its paying a newspaper columnist to write favorable pieces, to its habit of putting out video press releases disguised as TV news, to its penchant for stamping Top Secret on anything that doesn't move fast enough, this administration has repeatedly shown contempt for the right of the people to know what's going on.

At a time when information is more readily available than ever, this government is working like 1952 to enforce ignorance.

And the people, too many of them, shrug and say "okey-dokey." As if we learned nothing from Abscam, Iran Contra, Vietnam, Watergate. As if it's OK for an arrogant and paternalistic government to decide for us what we get to know.

Well, it's not. An informed electorate is the lifeblood of democracy, the ultimate check on despotic ambitions.

One wonders if most people get this. One suspects that most people do not. How can you get it and not be outraged? How can you get it and not feel fear? Apparently, some of us don't understand the stakes here.

It's not just information they're trying to control.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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