Government secrecy still remains

Posted Jan. 24, 2010, at 4:56 p.m.

No less than journalists, academic researchers strive always to find and report the truth. Telling the truth as we understand it is our raison d’etre. Secrecy, on the other hand, is the enemy of truth. And in a democracy whose vibrancy depends on openness, transparency, truth-telling and revelation of nontruths — all key elements in holding elected leaders accountable — government secrecy can undermine the republic.

For that reason, and one other, which I relate below, I welcomed the Jan. 11 BDN editorial “Obama on Secrecy” that sought to hold the Obama administration accountable to honor its promise of greater openness and transparency.

The other reason requires some explanation. In 1978 I began research for a new book which was published in 1986. The book, “Innocence is not enough: The Life and Death of E.H. Norman,” was a biography of the Canadian diplomat whose fame for Americans began and ended with his apparent suicide in 1957 when serving as Ambassador to Egypt. Norman was born 101 years ago.

In order to research his life, I received permission from his widow to access all U.S. government files about Norman through the Freedom of Information Act. I received thousands of pages from the FBI, the Justice Department, the Department of State, Army Intelligence, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The U.S. held so many files about Norman because shortly after World War II he had been identified as a possible communist and then during the McCarthy era he was named by several former communists and U.S. officials as a communist. A good portion of my biography dealt with the accuracy of those claims.

When I received a first batch of documents from the CIA in 1980, I was also informed that there were 66 additional documents concerning Norman that would not be released because their release might damage national security. I appealed and the appeal was denied. I made another request to the CIA but was again denied. I went ahead and published the book in 1986, but since that time I have repeatedly requested, appealed and reappealed, but with the same unhappy outcome.

My most recent request to the CIA was made in 2009 — 52 years after Norman’s death — because I believed that with the arrival of the Obama administration and its pledge of greater openness, I might finally learn what was contained in those 66 CIA documents whose release would apparently compromise U.S. national security.

I even called on Rep. Mike Michaud’s office and Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office, the search for truth should always be nonpartisan, to use what influence they had to make certain that at long last this obsessed Ahab, me, would finally get to see his great white whale. Again my request for the 66 documents was denied, as was my appeal.

The Obama administration’s “Open Government Directive” promises “unprecedented and sustained level of openness and accountability in every agency,” but the object lesson for this hapless researcher, drawn from 30 years of asking for openness and getting nowhere, is that the government habit of secrecy remains unbroken and that certain government agencies, such as the CIA, are exempt from obeying the “Open Government Directive.”

On the eve of completing my biography of Norman some 25 years ago, I received a midnight phone call from James Jesus Angleton, the legendary head of the CIA’s counterintelligence division for nearly two decades, but retired, unwillingly, by the time he phoned me. The call was unexpected and I had no idea how he got my phone number in Fairfield, Maine.

In his raspy, cigarette voice, Angleton told me then, among other things, “A file has no age,” meaning that the passing of time will not result in the release of secret documents and, hence, result in researchers and the public finally learning the truth.

Angleton is dead but, alas, his eerie words apparently still resonate in Obama’s Washington.

Roger W. Bowen is president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz. He lives in Prospect Harbor.

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