Everything to Hide

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An audit by the National Archives finds that more than a third of 25,000 once-public government documents that have been reclassified since 1999 did not contain sensitive information of the sort that justifies keeping material secret. Of the rest, reports The New York Times, "many had already been published or contained old secrets with little practical import." Furthermore, "even withdrawing those documents that included truly significant secrets may have done more harm than good by calling new attention to the sensitivity of records that researchers had read and photocopied for years."

The CIA has a solution to that problem: classify everything. The wrongly classified material included some completely innocuous documents that CIA reviewers decided to remove from public view "simply to obscure the removal of other documents they judged to be genuinely sensitive."

A couple years ago in Reason, Matt Welch revealed the Bush administration's Nixonian penchant for secrecy.

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  1. I really think anything older than 25 years (maybe even older than 10 years) should be legally required to become completely public.

  2. What’s the reason for the startlingly arbitrary-sounding time limits, Timothy?

    Statute of limitations? (heh.)

  3. May protocols be DASHED, gentlemen! If those documents get out the Kaiser will learned our secrets!

  4. I think it has more to do with hamfistedness and stupidity than evil. I mean, do you think anyone actually knows what’s in all umpty-ump documents? Nah, just classify ’em all…

    And there is some logic to the CIA’s actions, cynical as they are. As the example goes, if you never encrypt any of your telephone communications, and then suddenly one day you encrypt one call, guess which one your enemies are going to be especially interested in analyzing?

    Timothy – I agree that there should be a time limit, but 25 years might be a little short. Some people are still alive after 25 years; some people are still in office after 25 years; some conflicts are still going on 25 years later.

  5. JD – that’s the point. If someone knows that the truth of their indiscetions isn’t going to be revealed until after their death, then why be concerned?

    I understand the need for “need to know basis” information and security clearances and all that, but there has to be some transparency and disclosure to the public.

  6. As the example goes, if you never encrypt any of your telephone communications, and then suddenly one day you encrypt one call, guess which one your enemies are going to be especially interested in analyzing?

    as a better example, if you start declassifying some documents, but choose not to declassify a relatively small number then curious troublemakers (like me & FOIA Queen Cathy Young) are going to be laserfocused on what is held back.

  7. First off, I strongly prefer having a good intelligence-gathering apparatus to none, or worse, a poor system that yields incoherent and false results.

    An important part of having and maintaining such an apparatus is being able to prevent the disclosure of the sources and methods used to gather intelligence.

    An arbitrary time limit makes no sense at all here — say a member of al Qaeda knows details of a planned attack, and has a revelation that his faith does not require him to participate in this attack. If we have a ten-year rule, he would know (and trust me, he’d be told!) that ten years after coming forward with the information, his name and other pertinent details will become part of the public record.

    Unless he’s decided that his life is less important than that of the targeted infidels, he’s going to keep his yap shut, because his life (and those of people he cares about) will be forfeit the instant that information becomes available.

    All of this said, I can tell you from personal knowledge that most of what gets classified does not involve source and methods at all, and some of it is simply public information with some insightful analysis added. This stuff I have a harder time justifying indefinite classified status for.

  8. I pick some arbitrary time limit because, after some point, it just won’t matter anymore. The world changes, and the world changes faster than it used to, so at some point whatever you’ve gathered even if it was sensitive at the time can’t possibly be any longer.

    Too much leeway means a lot of things that should be public record get classified. With some sort of expiration (granted, totally arbitrary), and I’m totally open to the discussion of merits/times, you at least have a guarantee that at some point in the future you’ll be able to find out exactly what the government did. Might be too late for action, but at least you’ll know. Should anything, at all, from 1968 still be classfied? I bloody well doubt it.

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