US government secrecy making historical research difficult

Commentary: By redacting all documents, no matter how benign, the government is throwing its past down the memory hole

The U.S. postage stamp for Ethel L. Payne, an American journalist who covered the civil rights movement for the Chicago Defender and later became a commentator for CBS News.

While much has been made of the government's current penchant for secrecy, few have noticed that this atmosphere now shrouds government history as well.

Working on a biography of a noted Washington journalist, I placed a routine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2011 for her FBI file. The timing of my application seemed propitious. Two years earlier, President Barack Obama had signed an executive order to speed declassification of materials and had issued an encouraging FOIA memorandum.

"All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure," he wrote, "in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government."

In fact, the FBI promptly mailed me the requested file. When I opened it, however, I found the material so extensively redacted that it looked as if the photocopier had spewed mostly blank pages. I immediately appealed to have the file, now decades old, unredacted. I cited the president's memorandum and noted that the subject of my book, Ethel L. Payne, was an African-American. I presumed this administration might be more sympathetic to exposing past FBI transgressions against blacks.

Payne, of course, was only one of many African-Americans who were targets of FBI investigators in the past. Among its many domestic surveillance activities, the FBI ran the Ghetto Informant Program, an operation that recruited informants and researched what was sold in, according to FBI parlance, "Afro-American-type bookstores." The bureau even targeted black lawmakers such as Ron Dellums, a U.S. congressman from California and a friend of Payne's.

The FBI opened a file on Payne in 1973 on the basis of information its New York field office obtained, alleging subversive behavior on her part. Agents were able to determine only that she worked for the Chicago Defender, then one of the most prominent black newspapers; was a past president of the Capital Press Club, "composed of approximately 100 black news representatives"; and was scheduled to appear at a National Urban League convention — hardly the activities of a subversive.

It will not be long before the government will include all of its historical past among its secrecy prerogatives.

Even though it is likely that the hidden material in the file is benign, the FBI continues to stonewall my request to reveal those portions of the file that have been blanked out. Those sections would be key in understanding not only Payne as the subject of government investigation, but also how the FBI made its determination as to who would be the subject of its surveillance. This is the stuff that matters. For how can we tell the story of our government's activities, right or wrong, when the manner by which it conducted its business is kept from us decades later?

"Dollars to doughnuts they have redacted all of that because it would make them look terrible," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, told a reporter when hearing about this case. "And that is no reason to redact anything. I can't imagine anything in this woman's file would be of a nature that would have any impact on current issues that the Department of Justice faces."

Redacted document from the FBI file of Ethel Payne, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the author.

The Department of Justice's Department Review Committee took two years to hear my appeal. Finally, this fall it informed me it was upholding the FBI’s decision to keep most of the file secret. If I am dissatisfied with the decision, the chairman of the committee assured me, I may file a lawsuit as indicated in the letter sent to me two years ago.

I am not alone in coming up against this wall of secrecy. In the late 1990s, a historian published an in-house history of CIA operations in the 1950s and '60s while he worked for the agency. In 2009, when he heard that someone had submitted an FOIA request for his study, he did so as well. When it came, he told historians at a recent gathering, 90 percent of the report's pages were redacted.

Obviously my publisher and I would be thrilled if the FBI changed its mind regarding my appeal. But my own work is less important here. Rather than wage currency to pastries — to use McCaskill’s colloquialism — my woes reflect a larger trend. The paranoia that drives the government to fear any disclosure is creating a culture of secrecy so extensive that even my routine request ends up in a docket of appeals and, perhaps, a courtroom.

It will not be long before the government will include all of its historical past among its secrecy prerogatives.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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