Secrets reign over security in Colorado governments

How much do American governments at all levels spend acquiring, storing, protecting and withholding information? That's unanswerable and unguessable — but the number, as Donald Trump might put it, is certainly "yuge."

Security freaks staff the vast, clumsy bureaucracies that constitute the federal government. Those who prowl the corridors of power understand publicly available information is useless to them. If your job involves disseminating information to the public, you're a powerless, low-level federal employee. You need at least a low-level security clearance or, better still, access to secret or top-secret information. And don't even think of releasing this incredibly sensitive, super-confidential, restricted-access info to anyone in business or the media ... unless, of course, you can benefit by doing so.

In 2014, 5.1 million Americans had some form of security clearance. As many as 4 million had "top secret" clearance, giving them access to multiple troves of tightly classified documents.

As Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden proved, secrets shared by 4 million people aren't secrets at all. They're bundles of data to be mined by information thieves. Like any cult, the security culture demands absolute obedience from its members. "Theirs not to question why / Theirs but to classify."

The most zealous and devoted acolytes are in the military, where Trump's scornful takedown of John McCain, praise for Saddam Hussein and talk of dismantling NATO count for nothing compared to Hillary Clinton's private email server.

"If I had done what she has done when I was on active duty," one horrified military retiree told me, "I would have been court-martialed, probably sentenced to prison, stripped of pension benefits and dishonorably discharged."

It wasn't so much the apparently nonexistent consequences of Clinton's act that bothered him, but her lèse-majesté, her contemptuous dismissal of cult norms.

The real reason for the server is simple: Clinton may have suspected State Department emails were anything but secure and, control freak that she is, figured a private server was better. She was right. In 2014, the government belatedly discovered Russian hackers had penetrated State's system in 2006.

In Colorado, local governments do their best to protect citizens from information. Just as doping athletes learn how to game drug tests, secretive officials use subterfuge and chicanery to avoid media scrutiny.

Does Mayor John Suthers want to meet with councilors privately? He can't meet with three or more at a time — that's a "public meeting." But two at a time? No prob — lock the office doors, sit 'em down, make your pitch.

Want to see emails between councilors and powerful folks whose interests may be affected by their actions? Want to explore the complex links between those who contribute to campaigns and those elected to office? Want to understand why, in a city government that employs dozens of attorneys and a handful of municipal judges, the city cheerfully operated an unconstitutional debtors' prison for many years?

Good luck. Whether information chains are contained in ancient stacks of paper or creaking servers in government basements, relevant data is hard to come by. The Colorado Open Records Act theoretically guarantees access to public information, but in practice it's useless. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Colorado an "F" for openness, lowest among the 35 states with laws similar to CORA.

Governments delay, redact, refuse to make information available digitally and charge fees for converting digital documents into paper. It's frustrating and infuriating for those of us in the media, virtually impossible for private citizens. It's our own home-grown Colorado security cult.

But maybe help is on the way. Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams has agreed to "work on the issue" of making public records available digitally. More hopefully, state Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, will re-introduce his 2016 bill (killed by the GOP majority) to update antiquated CORA details.

So if the Dems take over both houses of the Legislature, maybe they'll take their cue from Hillary and build doors, not walls.

But don't even think of CORAing Hillary's new White House server — you know, the one in Dick Celeste's basement.