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.
The culture of secrecy that pervades Washington borders on the absurd. American officials say they cannot discuss "classified" U.S. counter-terrorism tactics that are well-known worldwide - from water-boarding to drone strikes to data mining.
The White House refuses to release the legal memo it used it used to justify the killing of an American citizen in a drone strike in Yemen. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court will not publish summaries of the rulings that made data mining legal. And Feinstein will not declassify a redacted version of her committee's 6,000 page report on the Bush administration's use of enhanced interrogation techniques.
From drone strikes to eavesdropping to torture, the American public is not allowed to know the rules and results of U.S. counterterrorism policies.
At the same time, a sprawling secrecy industrial complex does. More than 4.9 million Americans now have government security clearances. Another 1.4 million have "top secret" clearance.
As always, politics lies beneath the surface. For a Democratic or Republican president, another major terrorist attack in the United States would be politically devastating. Erring on the side of overzealous counterterrorism and under-zealous disclosure is smart politics.
But as Obama himself argued in a speech two weeks ago, the time has come for the United States to move forward. A "perpetual war," he said, "will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways." So will perpetual fear and perpetual secrecy.
The post-2001 rise of private contractors like Snowden must end as well. Major U.S. civilian government agencies -- from the CIA to State Department -- have become dependent on contractors to operate.
Instead of increasing the size of government, the Bush administration made contractors a cornerstone of the American counterterrorism effort.
Today, the federal government pays contractors $300 billion a year, according to the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. Many are believed to operate in intelligence agencies.
"The government workforce has pretty much stayed the same over the last 30 to 40 years," Scott Amey, the group's general counsel, told Reuters on Monday. "But we've supplemented that with a contractor workforce that has grown dramatically."
Contracting has become a huge profit center for defense contractors and Wall Street alike. Snowden's firm, Booz Allen, was purchased by the Carlyle Group in 2008. Last year, 99 percent of the Booz's $3.8 billion in revenue came from government contracts.
The rise of Booz and Carlyle is part of a broad, long-term shift of money, talent and authority from the public sector to the private sector. The National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, all rely heavily on contractors to operate. Roughly 480,000 -- one-third of the 1.4 million people with security clearances -- are contractors.
Neither government nor the private sector is perfect, but they function differently. Government is inherently cautious and bureaucratic. The private sector focuses on efficiency and speed. Wherever possible, secrets and core government functions should remain in the hands of government agencies, not for-profit companies.
Yes, certain details of our counterterrorism operations must remain secret. And our elected leaders may be telling the truth when they say the NSA's surveillance procedures are strictly limited. But our September 11-inspired culture of secrecy -- where terrorists lurk in every corner -- is overblown.
Redacted versions of FISA rulings, the Senate report on torture and descriptions of American drone strikes can be released without endangering our security.
Government's most feared powers -- from execution to imprisonment to spying on its citizens -- must be transparent and tightly controlled. Washington must answer to the public, not tell Americans it knows best.
This article also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.
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