In April 1971, CIA officer John Seabury Thomson paddled his aluminum canoe across the Potomac on his daily commute from his home in Maryland to CIA headquarters in Langley. When he reached the Virginia shore, he noticed a milky substance clouding the waters around Pulp Run. A fierce environmentalist, Thomson traced the pollution to its source: his employer. The murky white discharge was a chemical mash, the residue of thousands of liquefied secrets that the agency had been quietly disposing of in his beloved river. He single-handedly brought the practice to a halt.
Nearly four decades later, though, that trickle of secrets would be a tsunami that would capsize Thomson's small craft. Today the nation's obsession with secrecy is redefining public and private institutions and taking a toll on the lives of ordinary citizens. Excessive secrecy is at the root of multiple scandals -- the phantom weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of Enron, the tragedies traced to Firestone tires and the arthritis drug Vioxx, and more. In this self-proclaimed "Information Age," our country is on the brink of becoming a secretocracy, a place where the right to know is being replaced by the need to know.
For the past six years, I've been exploring the resurgent culture of secrecy. What I've found is a confluence of causes behind it, among them the chill wrought by 9/11, industry deregulation, the long dominance of a single political party, fear of litigation and liability and the threat of the Internet. But perhaps most alarming to me was the public's increasing tolerance of secrecy. Without timely information, citizens are reduced to mere residents, and representative government atrophies into a representational image of democracy as illusory as a hologram.
I've just begin reading the book, and it's a nice summation of what we've all been screaming about. A much-needed work.