Speak Your Piece: Government ‘Secrets’ Are Just Plain Embarrassing
Editor’s Note: Homer Marcum is a legendary newspaper owner from Kentucky. From 1975 to 1988, Marcum owned The Martin Countian, a rough and tumble weekly newspaper in the eastern Kentucky coalfields. He now works as director of communications for the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville, Tennessee. We invite readers to Speak Your Piece through the Daily Yonder.
By HOMER MARCUM
Ever wonder why the United States government keeps so many secrets? If you follow the news closely, as I do, your interest has no doubt been aroused by current events: What did Attorney General Gonzales know and when did he know it?, concerning whether or not Americans might be prosecuted based on how they vote. (Apologies to former Tennessee senators Howard Baker and Fred Thompson for politically immortalizing the original question, but its use is arguably as valuable today as when Americans wondered what Richard Nixon was doing behind closed doors.)
Homer Marcum of Greeneville, TN
If you read Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, the behind-the-press-secretary’s-comments look at the Bush presidency, again you have to wonder: Why all the secrecy?
I wondered that myself as a young clerk in Uncle Sam’s Army while I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, during the Vietnam War. Once I'd gotten the dreaded “Greetings" letter from the president himself, it didn’t take much time at all for the Army to convert me and a company of young men like me to soldiers, excess bodies waiting stateside for the war to end.
Many of my contemporaries at Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Third Corps, were alike — we'd gone to college to be teachers, and when the draft lottery was enacted, our numbers were too low. My birth date of Dec. 5 was drawn 50ish, and I wondered then: Who pulled the numbers? I wasn’t watching, and I would have liked to have done that myself.
After basic, mine at Fort Knox, Kentucky, we were shipped off to our various duty assignments. I was sent to Fort Hood, where I was given the permanent Army job description of Information Specialist, a 71Q30. But when I got to Fort Hood, all the reporter jobs at the post newspaper had been taken. Sergeant Major Sidney G. Poe, who asked if anyone could type, plucked me out of a pool of new soldiers awaiting assignment. Boy, could I type.
I spent the remainder of my forced labor working for SGM Poe in the G-1 section, Army-speak for personnel. As the Army goes, I figured I had it made. No bullets. A regular job. Post headquarters immediately across the street. Colonels and generals strutting all about. It was a dream assignment for a draftee; we even worked in the same building where Elvis himself had been assigned after he was drafted.
Of everything I learned in the Army, perhaps of most value was what I learned about government secrets. Twice a year, a sergeant, I recall that it was Sgt. Sebates, would pilfer through the locked file cabinets ““ of which I had earned the right to use the key when duty called ““ looking for “Confidential" and “Secret" documents that were no longer of any value to the government.
The army, having rules for everything, had a very precise method for controlling “Confidential" and “Secret" documents. Somebody with authority ““ it certainly wasn’t me ““ deemed those pieces of paper worthy of protection and classified them either “Confidential" or “Secret" or some other higher classification. Their existence was recorded in a log and an appropriate cover was placed over them. As I recall, “Secret" was red.
Supposedly, the FBI or some other government agency, maybe it was the army’s SID (I think that stood for Special Investigation Division), which was just down the street, was to do a background check on each person before granting a “Secret" clearance. The regulations were very clear: You were only to read those documents if you have a Right To Know. Since I didn’t have a right to know secrets, my only involvement was to file them.
But Sgt. Sebates had the job of deciding which documents were no longer needed, and after he had culled the files and filled various garbage cans with them, he would strap a 45-caliber pistol to his side and declare, laughingly, “Now, Marcum, don’t you try any funny business. If you read any of these documents, I’ll be forced to kill you."
We’d then march across the street with our barrels-full of secrets to the cinderblock structure known as The Burn Building, which contained a John Deere-sized shredder fed by a long motorized conveyor belt. Sgt. Sebates would unlock the building, turn on the light, flip the switch to crank up the giant shredder that sounded like a jet engine and give me noise-canceling headphones. “You stay in here and shred all these documents and I’ll stand outside and guard the building and smoke," Sebates said. “Remember what I said." Again he’d laugh, pat his pistol and shut the door.
And there I stood, alone with all of Fort Hood’s expired secrets.
Naturally, I read every one. I declared to myself that if Sgt. Sebates caught me I would tell him that I was checking to make sure that nothing of value was being shredded, and, therefore, I had a Need To Know.
And what did I read? State secrets that all the Soviets would take us from within if they knew? Great new weapons that were about to be unleashed? A plan of attack on Cuba?
“Sgt. Jones took a Jeep without authorization, drove it across the Mexican border to a house of ill repute, where he was arrested”¦and we successfully kept the story out of the newspapers."
“Captain Kelly got drunk and drove a tank into a dump truck”¦and we successfully kept that out of the newspapers."
Document after document contained that phrase: “”¦kept it out of the newspapers." The “secrets" weren’t important. They weren’t matters of national security or of life and death. They were embarrassments, and government workers toiled diligently to keep these embarrassments from coming to light.
Sgt. Sebates never caught me reading those great state secrets. But I have remembered my hours inside The Burn Building. After I left the army, I assumed that everyone in government had secrets they wanted to keep out of the newspapers for the same reason. They didn’t want to be embarrassed.
As a reporter, I made it my job to find out.
Thirty-five years have passed, and I find that the government is more paranoid than ever in its struggle to keep information out of the newspapers. It’s the media’s responsibility to find out. Too bad they’ve fallen down on their job. My guess is a lot of Jeeps have been stolen and cat houses visited that taxpayers need to know about. Or wars fought without good reason.
Where’s Sgt. Sebates when America needs him?