from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2004, Issue No. 95
October 30, 2004


Though it has gone largely unremarked by supporters and opponents alike, John Kerry has an extraordinary Senate record as an investigator and overseer of some of the government's most controversial, complex and secretive activities.

He has repeatedly exposed abuses of the government secrecy system, and has often prevailed in overcoming unwarranted secrecy.

One high point of his Senate career is his chairmanship of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, which culminated in a 1200 page final report in 1993.

Perhaps it is a sign of the anemic state of American democracy that this monument of government accountability is out of print and forgotten. But it is a remarkable document -- lucid, passionate and decent.

Among other things, the Committee report is a testament to the power of openness and declassification and to clarify and to heal.

The Kerry Committee's achievements included "the most rapid and extensive declassification of public files and documents on a single issue in American history" as of 1993.

A decade before the 9/11 Commission wrestled with the White House over access to the President's Daily Brief, members of Senator Kerry's committee sought and gained limited access to PDBs in the first Bush Administration.

"Nothing has done more to fuel suspicion about the government's handling of the POW/MIA issue than the fact that so many documents related to those efforts have remained classified for so long," the Kerry Committee report concluded.

"The Committee believes that its legacy will be that it removed the shroud of secrecy which for too long has hidden information about POW/MIAs from public scrutiny."

Though it pulled few punches and displayed a willingness to find fault with individuals and agencies inside and outside of government (and to praise others, such as then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney), Senator Kerry's Committee was still able to function effectively on a bipartisan basis.

Of course, the policies of a hypothetical President Kerry cannot be reliably predicted based on the practices of Committee Chairman Kerry.

But it is noteworthy that as a Senator, Kerry demonstrated an exceptionally vivid understanding of the pitfalls of executive branch secrecy and the essential function of government accountability in a democracy.

The executive summary of the 1993 Report of Senator Kerry's Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs may be found here:

Chapter 4 on Intelligence is posted here:


The documented increase in government secrecy under President Bush is partly driven by the heightened state of security associated with military action and the threat of terrorism. But it also reflects a seeming disdain for public deliberation and official accountability that predates September 11, 2001.

The President's secrecy policies are within the parameters of the law and the Constitution -- with the exception of the refusal by the CIA and the Justice Department to release historical intelligence budget information, which violates the Constitutional statement and account clause, we believe.

But Bush Administration secrecy places a premium on strong executive branch authority at the expense of congressional oversight, freedom of information and even such mundane things as making the President available to answer questions from the press. As a result, the character and the possibilities of citizenship in our democracy are increasingly constrained.

In a small but telling example, the telephone directory for the Department of Defense, which for many years used to be for sale at the Government Printing Office Bookstore, has been deemed "for official use only" in the Bush Administration and is no longer available. A wall between the public and its government that did not previously exist has now been erected.

(The White House's own telephone directory is also stamped "for official use only," though it may be purchased by anyone for $35 from the private Bureau of National Affairs. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy, which handles information and materials as sensitive as any in government, makes its telephone directory available on the web.)

Many of the Bush Administration's official policies and pronouncements on secrecy may be found here:

A recent, mostly critical discussion of Bush Administration secrecy policy is presented in "Groups raise concerns about increased classification of documents" by Gregg Sangillo, National Journal, October 23:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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