Let’s go back in time to the mid-1980s, and to several families who lived near Brookhaven National Laboratory. One of these families by chance had their well water tested. What that test disclosed prompted others likewise to arrange analyses of their homes’ well water. All were confronted with the same, grim result: their drinking water was contaminated with cesium and strontium, “low level” nuclear waste and dangerous carcinogens. The underground plume carrying this contamination came directly from BNL’s own dumpsite, an unlined landfill used since the ’40’s for most waste disposal there.
Brookhaven Lab, however, replied to these homeowners’ pleas with their standard “not to worry,” that they had everything under control, and besides, there was no proof that the well water contamination originated at the publicly inaccessible BNL. They boasted of how carefully they monitored themselves, and offered self-generated reports of the success of their environmental policies. Calls, however, for independent inspections by an objective agency, any objective agency, BNL repeatedly refused.
It helps to understand that BNL was owned by Associated Universities, a group of prestigious colleges and universities from all over the US, but was essentially a federal facility, and, BNL argued, was therefore immune from local scrutiny. They enjoyed strong support in their position from the US Dept of Energy, which regularly channeled all kinds of funding to BNL.
Enter the then presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, who decided to write letters about the standoff, and the pollution not only of residential water supplies but also the Peconic River, to all the campus newspapers of Associated Universities. When eagerly published by the campus editors (no secrecy here), quite a stir arose among students and alumni at such institutions as Columbia and MIT. Sudden agitation over BNL’s connection to their universities put their administrators and trustees on edge. Within days, BNL finally yielded to regular inspections by the county health department.
Things had been kept secret so well and for so long that no one could anticipate just how bad things were. BNL was quickly found to be a Superfund Disaster Site, a distinction shared with such environmental horrors as Love Canal. The cleanup at BNL finally started, and continues to this day. But why did it have to come to that? Why such excessive secrecy by our own government? Why was the community the last to know about the risks they suffered?
Fast forward a decade later to the mid 1990s. On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800, enroute to Rome with a scheduled stopover in Paris, exploded as it ascended from Kennedy Airport and crashed in the Atlantic Ocean just off Eastern Long Island. All 230 people in the Boeing 747 jet perished. The controversy endures over the FBI’s finding that fumes in the jet’s fuel tank caused the explosion.
Let’s consider one of many, oddly hidden, Flight 800 events covered with yet more unwarranted government secrecy: FBI and other government divers embarked the morning after the crash in a number of small boats to the site in the Atlantic where the wreckage had gone down. But when they got there, they waited. As they sweltered in their dark wetsuits under the steaming hot, July sun, their craft bobbing in the light waves, they waited even more. Why? For President Clinton to sign his executive order that all “whistleblower” protection for the divers was immediately cancelled. This order was ready for signature at his directive in the early morning. One can imagine what distractions may have drawn the president away.
When signed, it meant that the divers could be prosecuted if they revealed anything improper, that they might discover in their investigation, to anyone but their federal chain of command. Whistleblower laws were passed in the first place to encourage government workers to report to special inspectors, or even to go public, and be immune from reprisals, if they find government corruption or misconduct, or in other words, to cut down on unnecessary secrecy. In any event, once the divers had word that this executive order canceling whistleblower protection was signed, then they descended. Again, why such secrecy?
Now fast forward to today, and note the culture in our government on every level to keep us either misinformed or uninformed. Our school boards routinely meet in sessions closed to the public, for almost all business, even though the law limits such sessions for only when the agenda is for very limited purposes, such as discussion about litigation or personnel issues. So why the secrecy? Why does the Riverhead School Board consistently violate the Open Meetings Law? Why is there a standing rule among that board’s members to make no comments to the press or public about virtually all that they do?
Enter the governor of New York for yet another example, who a couple of years ago formed a commission with sweeping powers to investigate corruption in Albany. As this commission’s work began to uncover simply too much corruption in too many places, the governor suddenly cut their funding and shut them down, pleading the necessity of deal-making with fellow pols. We know that some of the evidence the commission had obtained proved instrumental in the recent convictions of the NY Assembly and Senate leaders, but other evidence has been withheld, filed away somewhere, with a federal prosecutor’s announcement that there’s not enough to prosecute the governor as a criminal, and cases involving the defunct commission are closed.
Does that mean there was evidence against the governor, but not enough to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt? What became of the commission’s gathered evidence relating to other public officials? We’re never to know. Again, why such secrecy?
It’s interesting that many who challenge this secrecy are called extremists or over-the-top zealots. But that’s when we can benefit from the wisdom of New York’s Mayor LaGuardia: “As long as people talk about great American standards, they’re applauded, but when they put them into practice, they’re radicals.”
In too many instances, we are favored with furtive antics from some (certainly not all) in OUR government whom we have hired to serve and share with the public. At question is how to tackle what’s increasingly clear: “We the People” are time and again, “outta the loop.”
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
Send Greg an email.