James Eli Shiffer
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An inspector general report at the Pentagon concluded in 2013 that its computer systems were dangerously vulnerable to hackers.

At least 49 large military drones have crashed in the United States since 2001, one of them nearly smashing into an elementary school in Pennsylvania.

Even after learning of the practice, the military continued to force victims of sexual assault out of the ranks after wrongly and illegally diagnosing them with ­mental problems.

The public didn't learn about these alarming facts from Pentagon news briefings or public service announcements. They were revealed by journalists (MuckRock, the Washington Post and the San Antonio Express-News, respectively) exercising the right to know what their government is doing.

Even the Department of Defense has to obey the Freedom of Information Act, the nation's premier sunshine law, which directs federal agencies to share their records with the public.

The Pentagon, though, thinks that FOIA reaches too far into its files. So they want Congress to make a large swath of what the military does secret.

On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders are working out their differences on the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that lays out the Department of Defense budget but also includes policy. The Senate version has a provision that exempts "military tactics, techniques and procedures" from FOIA.

"The effectiveness of United States military operations is dependent upon adversaries, or potential adversaries, not having advance knowledge of the tactics, techniques, and procedures that will be employed in such operations," the Department of Defense wrote in support of the provision.

"If an adversary or potential adversary has knowledge of such information, the adversary will be better able to identify and exploit any weaknesses, and the defense of the homeland, success of the operation, and the lives of U.S. military forces will be seriously jeopardized."

The Senate bill passed 85-13, with Minnesota's two Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, voting in favor of it.

The generals' concern sounds legitimate. No one wants to broadcast information that will threaten the lives of U.S. troops.

Here's the problem, though. The military already has enormous authority to protect truly sensitive information. It's called classifying documents, and it's been used for decades.

A coalition of groups led by the Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to congressional leaders late last month urging them to scrub the secrecy clause. Otherwise, the Pentagon will have new power to cover up all sorts of scandals, waste and misbehavior.

"DoD officials could potentially abuse their ­discretion to withhold information about the military's handling of sexual assault complaints, its oversight of contractors, its drone program, and other matters of compelling public interest," the letter said. The undersigned included a spectrum of interests, including Amnesty International USA, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the American Civil Liberties Union and Downsize DC.

Here are a few other things we've learned about the military, thanks to FOIA.

The Department of Defense sold weapons to Bahrain's regime in the midst of the Arab Spring (ProPublica).

Pentagon workers and contractors with high-level security clearances downloaded child porn at work (Boston Globe).

Bungling by submarine crew members led to a mid-sea collision that caused $104 million in damage (The Day of New London, Conn.).

On the 50th anniversary of FOIA this summer, Congress updated the law and President Obama signed it. There's a new mandate for openness and accountability in Washington.

The 2017 authorization bill gives the Pentagon $602 billion to spend. Shame on Congress if they give them secrecy as well.

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.