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Obama's disappointing secrecy

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That's the same surveillance program conducted for years in violation of a federal statute, the one that Congress last year legalized, rather than investigate. Had the program remained a secret, as the Bush administration wanted, we wouldn't know that our laws and liberties had been abused for essentially no gain.

The inspector generals' report about the recent NSA program pointed out a related secret NSA program, one involving massive data mining of domestic e-mail traffic. That program is not particularly controversial because no one knows much about it. Does it violate the Fourth Amendment or a statute? Is it over? Those unwilling to take the assurances of the Bush administration that it was kosher are left to wonder.

We don't know the full extent of these programs. This poses a huge problem.

We hear a lot about whether the Obama administration will investigate the Bush administration for this or that abuse, torture in particular. What about the abuses we don't know about?

It is time Congress established a select committee with subpoena power to force a full accounting of activities undertaken in the name of counterterrorism.

More than that is needed though. We need a national refresher on the theory of democratic government, which tells us that secret government is always undemocratic and generally unwise.

True, secrecy prevents enemies from learning about something that damages them. In the case of intercepting e-mails or phone calls, disclosure warns terrorists dumb enough to still use those forms of communication to stop. In the case of assassination, disclosure probably doesn't much matter since terrorists are already hiding.

In practice, however, secrecy has another purpose: It protects government agencies and elected officials from the consequences of reckless or immoral decisions.

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