Privacy SOS

Want to know about US trade policy negotiations that will directly impact your life? Sorry, they’re classified

"Censorship" by Time3000 – Vector version of Image:Censorship.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama is currently attempting to convince skeptics in his party to vote in favor of fast track authority, which would grant the executive the power to force an up or down vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). (As I was writing this, the Senate voted to block its advance. UPDATE: They've now reversed course!) In plain English, this would mean congress could not make any changes to a powerful trade agreement negotiated with foreign countries before voting on it. The congress could only vote to approve or reject the agreement, even if it would do grave damage to US personal and collective rights.

Worse still, the Obama administration is keeping the details of the TPP secret from the public, calling the trade package a "national security" issue. Margot Kaminski writes in the New York Times:

When WikiLeaks recently released a chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, critics and proponents of the deal resumed wrestling over its complicated contents. But a cover page of the leaked document points to a different problem: It announces that the draft text is classified by the United States government. Even if current negotiations over the trade agreement end with no deal, the draft chapter will still remain classified for four years as national security information. The initial version of an agreement projected by the government to affect millions of Americans will remain a secret until long after meaningful public debate is possible.

National security secrecy may be appropriate to protect us from our enemies; it should not be used to protect our politicians from us. For an administration that paints itself as dedicated to transparency and public input, the insistence on extensive secrecy in trade is disappointing and disingenuous. And the secrecy of trade negotiations does not just hide information from the public. It creates a funnel where powerful interests congregate, absent the checks, balances and necessary hurdles of the democratic process.

Free-trade agreements are not just about imports, tariffs or overseas jobs. Agreements bring complex national regulatory systems together, such as intellectual property law, with implications for free speech, privacy and public health.

Ever since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the US government has invoked "national security" or "state secrets" to keep embarassing, politically damaging, or illegal programs or policies secret from the public. Very little information should be legitimately classified for security reasons. Time and again, deep state agencies and executives tell us we cannot know what's really going on in our government, and that it's for our own best interest. And time and again, it's revealed that the real reason for the secrecy is that disclosure would provoke public outrage or legal action or both.

The Intercept reports on the battle heating up in congress today over fast track authorization:

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., today blasted the secrecy shrouding the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

“They said, well, it’s very transparent. Go down and look at it,” said Boxer on the floor of the Senate. “Let me tell you what you have to do to read this agreement. Follow this: you can only take a few of your staffers who happen to have a security clearance — because, God knows why, this is secure, this is classified. It has nothing to do with defense. It has nothing to do with going after ISIS.”

Boxer, who has served in the House and Senate for 33 years, then described the restrictions under which members of Congress can look at the current TPP text.

“The guard says, ‘you can’t take notes.’ I said, ‘I can’t take notes?’” Boxer recalled. “‘Well, you can take notes, but have to give them back to me, and I’ll put them in a file.’ So I said: ‘Wait a minute. I’m going to take notes and then you’re going to take my notes away from me and then you’re going to have them in a file, and you can read my notes? Not on your life.’”

In 2012, the Intercept's Sam Knight reports, "then-U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk claimed that secrecy [around the TPP] was justified because openness and debate last decade killed talks surrounding the Free Trade Area of the Americas."

There you have it: the real reason for secrecy is not "national security," but to keep the public out of the business of making decisions that affect us.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.