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Federal election law has required the public disclosure of campaign donors for nearly 40 years. This year, outside groups are playing a powerful role in the presidential election, but they disclose nothing about their donors. That is despite what the Supreme Court said in its controversial Citizens United ruling two years ago. NPR's Peter Overby has that story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Citizens United opinion. On decision day, he read a nine-and-a-half minute summary in court. Here's an official recording of it. Kennedy was introduced by Chief Justice John Roberts.

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CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: In case 08-205, Citizens United versus the FEC, Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the court.

OVERBY: And Kennedy began reading. He got to the part that made headlines: The court said corporations can pay for ads expressly promoting or attacking candidates.

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JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY: Political speech is indispensable to decision making in a democracy, and this is not less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.

OVERBY: But that wasn't the whole decision. The group Citizens United had challenged the disclosure mandate, saying it wasn't helpful to the public. Kennedy shot that down.

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KENNEDY: We reject Citizens United's challenge to the disclaimer and disclosure provisions. Those mechanisms provide information to the electorate. The resulting transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and different messages.

OVERBY: In the written opinion, the justice was even more blunt. He wrote this: With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Unquote. And Kennedy brushed off Citizens United's other argument that disclosure put its donors at risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KENNEDY: If an association offers evidence that its members will face threats or reprisals, it may be able to show that the disclaimer and disclosure requirements are unconstitutional as applied to that association, but Citizens United has offered no evidence here of threat or reprisals.

OVERBY: But never mind what Kennedy said. Secret money has become the real growth area in campaign politics. Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, joined with a handful of other conservative social welfare organizations and spent more than $30 million on ads attacking President Obama through the end of May. Crossroads then announced a new ad buy of $25 million. Tax records show that its donors have included between a dozen and two dozen contributors of at least a million dollars each. A couple of the contributors gave as much as 10 million.

This handful of anonymous donors accounted for nearly 90 percent of all the money raised by Crossroads GPS in 2010 and 2011. So what about Justice Kennedy and his call for effective transparency? Bill Maurer is a lawyer with the conservative legal group Institute for Justice. In fact, he wrote its amicus brief in Citizens United attacking the disclosure mandates.

WILLIAM MAURER: I think what Kennedy was talking about was sort of, you know, the almost platonic view of disclosure that people will receive this information and make some sort of rational decision about what to do about it.

OVERBY: But Maurer says modern reality isn't so platonic, and that donors face everything from personal threats to corporate boycotts.

MAURER: I think that there is a rather transparent attempt to use disclosure laws to bully people into silence.

OVERBY: Zephyr Teachout is a Fordham University law professor. She says that American politics traditionally favors public and disclosed speech and debate, and this assault on disclosure is something new.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I think disclosure is extraordinarily important. If you don't actually know how power works in a society, it's next to impossible to work with it or fight it depending on what you want to do.

OVERBY: Critics of disclosure say its value to voters is marginal. Teachout says when it comes to political advertising, voters actually want to know.

TEACHOUT: Whether those attacks are funded by Goldman Sachs, by a union, by Exxon Mobil, if you knew where the source of that attack came from, it changes how you read the attack.

OVERBY: The debate will grow louder as more legal challenges to disclosure are filed. Meanwhile, voters this year will see more ads than ever before financed by six-, seven-, maybe eight-figure contributions from anonymous donors. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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