Secret Affairs: Lincoln Caplan
For at least 40 years, the Catholic Church staved off scrutiny through secrecy. When the families of abused children filed claims against the church, it settled them quietly, had all traces of the lawsuits removed from official records, and "punished" the priests by moving them to other parishes where they could molest other children. By refusing to address the breadth of the problem in its ranks—some 1,500 priests have been accused—and by keeping the priests' transgressions from the public, the church made prey of its flock.
The scandal came to wide attention this year because The Boston Globe challenged a judge's confidentiality order, which had kept from public view all of the documents in a lawsuit against a Boston-area priest named John J. Geoghan. The evidence showed that he had fondled or raped nearly 200 young people and that he had been shielded by Boston's longtime archbishop, Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Geoghan was later defrocked and sent to prison, and the Boston archdiocese settled a series of suits against him for $10 million. When the judge ruled in favor of the Globe, an extensive cover-up spanning four continents began to unravel.
The Bush Administration has demonstrated its own penchant for secrecy. Its energy policy was drafted with the help of a secret list of corporate executives, and its attorney general issued new guidelines broadening the exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act. It would seem natural that there would be a backlash against such secrecy in the wake of the church scandal, but the story broke at a unique time in America's history. Since September 11, the administration has used the threat of terrorism to American national security as an excuse to keep more secrets from the public, not fewer.
Following last year's attacks, the government "detained" about 1,200 non-citizens, mostly Muslims, who were never charged with a crime. Despite a series of judicial rebukes—"Democracies die behind closed doors," the Sixth Circuit appeals court reminded the administration—the government has continued to hold dozens in secret. It closed all hearings about these suspects, withheld information about their cases, even deleted from court calendars the cases' names and docket numbers.
The government has also equipped itself with new means to fight the war on terrorism that have expanded the scope of its secret operations. The USA PATRIOT Act authorized law enforcement agencies to go beyond wiretapping phone calls; now the government can monitor incoming and outgoing e-mail as well. The act also authorized law enforcement agencies to inspect the most personal kinds of information—medical records, bank statements, college transcripts, even church memberships. But what is more startling than the scope of these new powers is that the government can use them on people who aren't suspected of committing a crime. Innocent people can be deprived of any clue that they are being watched and that they may need to defend themselves.
The government and its apologists portray secrecy as a wartime necessity: It is an element of surprise called for in responding to an exceptionally cunning sneak attack, and a sacrifice made to help defend the United States against an unprecedented threat. The immensity of the loss suffered on September 11 and the apparent magnitude of the ongoing peril make the acceptance of secrecy seem like a patriotic duty.
As the legal scholar Stephen J. Schulhofer has observed, however, the government's "range of new initiatives is vast" and many reflect bad compromises (sacrifices of liberty with little prospect of an improvement in security) or trade-offs born of opportunism (sacrifices made to guard against threats unconnected to terrorism). The Constitution is supposed to constrain our leaders—in James Madison's words, to "oblige" the government "to control itself." Yet when the government operates in secret, with its power unchecked by the press or the public, we are rash to rely on the government's self-control.
There is an important difference between employing secrecy to protect your church from a scandal of its own making and your country from a fearsome enemy, but the risk of becoming dependent on hidden and unrestrained means is the same. The Bush Administration has dem-onstrated that it can get carried away. What it could learn from the church is that secrecy embraced as a means of self-preservation may threaten the innocent as much as the guilty....