The Czech author Milan Kundera began his 1979 novel, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” by describing two photographs. In the first, two men are standing side by side, a Czech nationalist later executed for his views and the country’s Communist ruler. In the second, the dissenter is gone, airbrushed out. Today, if Kundera hadn’t written that opening to his book, only someone with a long memory or a penchant for research would know that the two men had ever shared a podium. In the world of Donald Trump and Robert S. Mueller III, we might say that the dissident was redacted from the photo.
In the 448 pages of the Mueller report, there are nearly 1,000 redactions, some adding up to only a few words (or possibly names), others blacking out whole pages. The House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler insists we’ve entered a constitutional crisis largely because Attorney Gen. William Barr won’t let Congress see the entire report. Yet on the whole, criticism of the incomplete nature of the report has proved less than might have been anticipated, perhaps because Americans have grown used to living in an age of redactions.
Such complacency should be cause for concern. For while some redaction is undoubtedly necessary in modern government, the secrecy that accompanies it inevitably redacts democracy as well.
Like its sibling deletion, redaction is anything but unprecedented when it comes to making U.S. government documents public. My generation, after all, received the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with significant cuts made in the very records on which it was based. And who could forget the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap in President Richard Nixon’s tapes? Later testimony revealed that it had undoubtedly been done to hide evidence connecting the White House to the Watergate burglars.
Still, even among such examples, the post-Sept. 11 period stands out. Consider the 28 pages about Saudi Arabia that were blacked out of the 9/11 Commission Report on the World Trade Center attacks. The 2005 Robb-Silberman Report on Weapons of Mass Destruction classified — and therefore redacted — entire chapters; six of its 74 recommendations were completely excised.
Military reports on the well-photographed abuses that Americans committed at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, came out with similarly substantial redactions. So too have the reports and books on the CIA’s use of torture at “black sites.” In FBI Agent Ali Soufan’s book, “The Black Banners,” an entire chapter on Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda figure who was waterboarded 83 times, was redacted by the CIA. It mattered not at all that Soufan had already testified about his efforts to stop the use of such techniques in a public hearing before Congress.
These examples reflect the unprecedented rate at which information has been removed from the public record in the last 19 years. Between 2001 and 2005, for instance, the number of classified government documents doubled.
“You’d just be amazed at the kind of information that’s classified — everyday information, things we all know from the newspaper,” said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
The courts agree. Judge T.S. Ellis III, who has overseen many high-profile national security cases, admitted to a “firm suspicion that the executive branch over-classifies,” and Judge Leonie Brinkema expressed her frustration at the “shroud of secrecy” that hampered the prosecution of convicted terrorism defendant Zacarias Moussaoui.
In the first days of his presidency, Barack Obama declared his intention to reverse the trend toward over-classification. He released the 2002-05 memos written to justify “enhanced interrogation techniques” put in place in George W. Bush’s administration. For a time, the rate of classification of new documents did indeed drop. Despite that, it proved impossible to stanch, no less reverse, the urge to redact. As Obama explained, “In a dangerous world, the United States must … protect information that is classified for purposes of national security.”
Now the Trump administration and the national security state are trying to prevent the actual reporting of information. In March, the president issued an executive order ending the Pentagon’s public accounting of drone strikes and the civilian casualties they cause. In Afghanistan, the American military will no longer report on the amount of territory under Taliban control, a metric that the previous U.S. commander there had called the “most telling in a counterinsurgency.” Trump has even displayed his aversion to basic note taking or record-keeping during White House meetings, as the Mueller report pointed out.
If blacking out information becomes an ever more accepted Washington paradigm, it will threaten the very idea of an informed citizenry, which lies at the heart of the democratic way of life. In Nadler’s jousting with Barr, he acknowledged the danger posed by a lack of transparency and accountability in government. “I am certain,” he said, “there is no way forward for this country that does not include a reckoning of this clear and present danger to our constitutional order.”
In the end, obscuring the grimmest aspects of our own recent history will leave American citizens unable to understand the country in which they live. As with that photograph in the Kundera novel, our children may in the future see the consequences of past acts without truly recognizing them, just as many Czechs who saw that photo Kundera described undoubtedly thought it represented reality.
The record of how democracy is being disappeared — sentence by sentence, passage by passage, fact by fact, event by event — surely rings a bell with Kundera. He summed up his own time’s version of the process this way: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Today, Americans are forgetting.
Karen J. Greenberg is director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law and the author of, among other books, “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.” Julia Tedesco helped with research for this article, a longer version of which is posted at TomDispatch.com.