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Government Secrecy Claims Too Broad, MU Study Finds

Mosaic theory interferes with public’s right to know, MU expert says

Nov. 02, 2011

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst, hurstn@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Since September 11, 2001, the global war on terror has changed the way the U.S. government regards secrecy and transparency. Journalism researchers from the University of Missouri are concerned about the impact this may have on information freedom in the future. Charles Davis, an associate professor of journalism studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has found that more and more government agencies are using the “mosaic theory” to rationalize keeping government information secret. Mosaic theory is a legal theory used to uphold the classification of information, saying that a collection of unclassified information might add up into a classified whole. Davis finds this trend disturbing.

“It is important there be critical examination of government secrecy claims when the government uses mosaic theory to make broad assertions in favor of secrecy,” Davis said. “We’ve found that if you take the government at its word regarding secrecy, they will keep going and going and keeping more and more information secret, and that is bad for democracy.”

When the government uses mosaic theory to defend secrecy, it implies that terrorists are able to gather small bits of information from many different sources and put that information together to use as actionable intelligence, which could ultimately endanger national security. Davis says that by using this broad theory, the government argues that it can keep all manner of information secret, regardless of its significance or insignificance toward national security.

“Claims about general terrorist threats – that terrorists could somehow access records disclosed only to certain members of a certain agency – lose more of their meaning each time they are used as a rationale for secrecy,” Davis said. “The threat of terrorism is applied to such a wide range of situations that it is increasingly difficult to determine what exactly counts as a legitimate threat.”

Davis says the federal government should adopt an official definition of a terrorist threat instead of using vague speculation and theories to hide any and all information it deems dangerous to release. Davis also believes that government exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should be significantly narrowed.

“Federal fears have to be tempered by the public’s right to know,” Davis said. “If FOIA’s provisions for exemption are narrowed, then the public will retain its right to know, and the government will still be able to act in accordance with national security interests. The public’s interest in knowing should be given a degree of importance in clashes between government secrecy and calls for transparency. Right now the government says ‘just trust us’. That doesn’t cut it.”

This study was published in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies.

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