DURING THE ADMINISTRATION of President Ronald Reagan, reporters and others making Freedom of Information Act requests often found themselves stymied by a maddeningly comprehensive information classification scheme that, according to its intelligence-agency proponents, was designed to better safeguard the nation’s surveillance apparatus.
Dubbed “mosaic theory,” the controversial approach posited that all sorts of seemingly harmless disclosures could, when taken as a whole, severely damage U.S. intelligence capabilities. The threat, as a federal judge later put it, was that, “Thousands of bits and pieces of seemingly innocuous information [could] be analyzed and fitted into place to reveal with startling clarity how the unseen whole must operate.” Reporters and civil libertarians fumed as dozens of what they regarded as legitimate FOI requests were denied.
Subsequent administrations were less keen on aggressively invoking mosaic protections, and the issue gradually faded. The 9/11 attacks changed all that. In the decade following that terrible day, President George W. Bush and his successor President Barack Obama have each used mosaic theory to justify severely limiting information disclosures. Again FOI requests are being denied. Again, say civil libertarians such as MU’s Charles Davis, it is almost impossible to discern exactly why. “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,” says Davis, an associate professor of journalism. “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.”
In a recent study, Davis and co-author Michelle Albert, a recently graduated student in the School of Journalism’s master’s degree program, argue that mosaic theory justifies keeping all manner of information secret, regardless of whether it actually has an effect on national security. “We’ve found that if you take the government at its word regarding secrecy, they will keep going and going, keeping more and more information secret, and that is bad for democracy,” says Davis.
And while there will likely always be tension between national security interests and Constitutional liberties, Davis says there are steps the federal government can take to ensure that, even in times of crisis, public access to information is not smothered by mosaic reasoning. One way is to adopt an official definition of what constitutes a terrorist threat instead of relying on vague speculation and theories. Another is to scale back government exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act.
“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 the April 2011 edition of Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies.