MotherJones MA93: Our secret agents

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John Pike and Steven Aftergood, researchers at the Washington, D.C.- based Federation of American Scientists (FAS), make a living talking about what government officials can’t–be it Star Wars, the Pentagon’s “black budget,” or nearly a century’s accumulation of classified documents.

Pike (left), FAS’s Space Policy Project Director, has emerged as the country’s top independent expert on Star Wars research. Aftergood (right) publishes the monthly Secrecy & Government Bulletin, a frequent source of media scoops on classified information.

What secret information would you most like the new administration to declassify?

Aftergood: Something no one has even asked for, rather than more details on the Cuban Missile Crisis or Watergate. I suspect there are unreported scandals we don’t know anything about. But I don’t expect it will be any easier to uncover them.

Why not? Can’t we expect some reform in government secrecy?

Aftergood: Secrecy serves the interests of the executive branch against the legislative–that’s a temptation against reform. And regardless of what the new administration wants to change, there’ll be resistance from bureaucracy. The Nixon administration declared that most documents could be declassified within ten years. Carter shortened that to six years. All these were executive orders from the president, but they never happened. Even explicit directives aren’t enough.

What’s on the FAS agenda now?

Aftergood: Rather than trying to penetrate the machinations of the Bush administration, we’ll promote the need for urgent change. That means less research, more advocacy. It’s not going to change until there’s a demand for change.

Now that Bush is history, what’s the outlook for Star Wars?

Pike: The reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Clinton has said he’ll spend as much on Star Wars as Bush. And he’s chosen a secretary of defense who doesn’t represent much of a change from the last one. The one change they are going to make–dismantling the formal Strategic Defense Initiative office–will make the situation worse by reducing the visibility of the program.

So what will keep SDI going?

Pike: Star Wars has gone on for so long that it’s got a tremendous institutional and political constituency behind it. National security issues may be a bigger topic now, but it’s not clear who’s going to bell the cat.

Then you’re a pessimist?

Pike: No, I’m a realist.

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This feels like the most important fundraising drive since I've been CEO of Mother Jones, with staggeringly high stakes and so much uncertainty. In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," I try to unpack the reality we all face and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support Mother Jones’ nonprofit journalism: We need to raise $400,000 to help cover the vital reporting projects we have planned, and right now is no time to pull back.

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