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Let’s Have a (Very Public) Secrecy Summit

October 3rd, 2014 by dk

Can we have an open conversation about secrets? Most of us would agree that some secrets are necessary for national, professional, or personal security. A world with no secrets would not be better than a world where everything was secret. So where in between is best for all?

Eugene School District and its teachers’ union led the news last weekend, which is hard to do when there’s no news provided. They announced they had reached a tentative labor agreement, then offered no details of that agreement.

Tad Shannon, Eugene Education Association president and a former Register-Guard reporter, explained the blackout this way: “It’s got to be looked at as an entire package. We want to be able to give a presentation while the entire team is there.”

Tom Di Liberto, one of the union’s negotiators, was more explicit on his Facebook page: “Having the press or community start commenting on a tentative agreement out of context would just create more confusion and could mislead.”

I asked Shannon if he’d like to offer any further comments, but my email went unanswered.

Meanwhile, the University of Oregon Board of Trustees announced their search for a new president will be held close to the vest, and that vest will be Chairman Chuck Lillis’s. Even the advisory committee that has been formed may not become privy to any potential candidates until an offer is on the table.

Again, there’s good reason for the secrecy. “There’s a pretty good chance that the person we think is terrific isn’t looking for a job and we may have to convince them,” Lillis said. He also noted that the more open process used recently has not worked so well.

The question I wish we could explore is when secrecy crosses from necessary to excessive. Secrecy: sometimes OK. Cover-up: never OK.

I spent over three hours Wednesday in Washington D.C. watching the head of the Secret Service refuse to divulge any details about why and how a White House intruder got through the front door. (Short answer: It was unlocked.)

More importantly, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was unable to explain why the official reports from her agency “evolved.” First, we were told the intruder had no weapon. Then he did, but only got to the building’s threshold. Later, the Washington Post reported that the alarm by the front door had been disabled because it annoyed nearby ushers. Then we learned that the intruder actually dashed deep into the building. Shortly after the Congressional hearing, news broke that the Secret Service officer who finally tackled the intruder was off duty and just happened to be there.

For the only federal agency with “Secret” in its name, Director Pierson didn’t succeed in keeping many, thanks to Post reporter Carol Leonnig. Secret Service’s annual budget exceeds $1 billion, for which it produces one product: trust. The president, state dignitaries, and all Americans rely on that trust.

Protection protocols for the White House include Secret Service surveillance of Pennsylvania Avenue, a seven-foot wrought-iron fence, guards at the perimeter and the door, attack dogs, sharpshooters, door locks, door alarms, and an emergency intercom system.

Three additional safeguards have been added since: automatic door locks, an additional barricade in front of the fence, and Pierson’s stonewalling. What wasn’t offered, at least not publicly, was whether the non-performing agents will be fired.

Pierson resigned her directorship on Thursday, which had to happen. She and all Americans should all be glad the only sword fallen upon was metaphorical.

Let’s claim this as a teachable moment and convene a Secrecy Summit.

Without Leonnig’s investigative reporting, Secret Service house-cleaning would have stopped at rug-sweeping. But industrious and fearless journalists can’t be everywhere. As information can be distributed more easily, protecting information becomes more important. Just ask your children’s teachers.

Who gets to keep secrets from whom, for how long, and with what protections? If they use that shield of secrecy to mislead or dissemble, who will pay and who will decide?

We might all agree how and when secrets are permissible, but we’ll need to talk about it first.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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