Whether secrets or embarrassing reports, Pentagon says there's nothing to see
By Tom Vanden Brook | USA Today | Published: June 24, 2013
Edward Snowden may not agree, but the government does need to keep secrets to protect lives. The names of spies, for example. The movements of troops so that they're not ambushed by the enemy.
Snowden's leaks about the National Security Agency screening Internet traffic and data on domestic phone calls in its hunt for terrorists have triggered a new debate over government secrecy and public safety.
Americans are almost evenly split, 48 percent to 47 percent according to a USA TODAY poll, over whether they approve or disapprove of these programs to fight terrorism. Yet they believe, 49 percent to 44 percent, that the release of classified information serves rather than harms the public interest.
What about the release of information that's merely embarrassing? The Pentagon in recent months has delayed, or released at night, or denied all together reports that might make the brass turn red in the face.
Consider some recent examples:
• Last week, the Pentagon inspector general released more than a year after its completion a highly redacted probe of the West Point Superintendent. It found that Lt. Gen. David Huntoon had improperly used his aides to staff private charity events, feed a friend's cats and provide driver's lessons. He agreed to reimburse the employees more than $1,800.
The report, which had been sought by the Washington Post and other news organizations, was completed in May 2012. It was released last week after West Point's graduation ceremony and weeks before Huntoon's retirement. The majority of it has been blacked out.
• Earlier this month, the Pentagon waited until late on a Friday night to announce that the Army's top commander in Japan, Maj. Gen. Michael Harrison, had been suspended for failing to properly investigate an allegation of sexual assault against one of his top aides. Its release, intended or not, came when most reporters had finished working for the week and ensured that it wouldn't get much attention.
It also came within days of his scheduled move to a new assignment.
• An ongoing issue involves John Allen, the recently retired Marine general who was entangled in the adultery scandal that forced David Petraeus to retire as CIA director.
Allen, who had led all allied forces in Afghanistan, had been tapped by President Barack Obama to become NATO's top commander. At issue were emails Allen had sent to Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite whose complaints to the FBI about harassment from Petraeus' mistress, Paula Broadwell, made the affair public. The FBI referred the emails to the Pentagon inspector general to determine if there had been any wrongdoing on Allen's part.
After weeks of investigation, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little announced in January that the inspector general determined Allen had done nothing wrong. Little went on to say that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation."
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan watchdog group, questioned the objectivity of the Pentagon's Inspector General.
"The mere fact that they're withholding it raises questions about the legitimacy of the investigation," she said.
Yet the Pentagon continues to refuse requests by USA TODAY and other media outlets, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release the 21-page report, or a summary of the findings that it says clear Allen.
Jeanne Miller, the chief of the inspector general's Freedom of Information and Privacy Office, wrote to USA TODAY that its release "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
The Pentagon's message: Move along. Nothing to see here. Take our word for it.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, has seen enough, and she doesn't like it.
"It reeks of obstruction," Speier said. "It's pretty ridiculous to effectively say 'we have evidence, but we won't release it'. That's supposed to be good enough for us? It defeats the purpose of having inspector generals in the first place. That's not accountability."
Barbara Wall, USA TODAY's lawyer, appealed the inspector general's denial, writing that the U.S. Supreme Court requires that agencies weigh an individual's privacy interests against the public interest.
"An individual's privacy interest is diminished where — as in Allen's case — the subject of the records is a public official and the fact of an investigation into the individual is already a matter of public record," Wall wrote.
She concluded that "the report on General Allen would serve the public interest by providing insight into the Defense Department's handling of its investigation and its decision to clear him of wrongdoing."
Wall sent the letter on March 4. The Pentagon has not yet responded.