Keeping the secrets

What government information should be kept secret? And who should decide?

Those questions don't have easy answers; they didn't in (supposedly) simpler times, and they clearly do not in 2006, already the unofficial Year of the Leak.

You can believe in the principles of openness and full disclosure, in the responsibility of the press to report what is happening in the corridors of power, and yet readily concede that there are some things that should be kept secret. Troop movements in wartime. The identities of covert CIA agents. What is called, in spook jargon, "sensitive sources and methods of intelligence collection." National security-related estimates and plans.

Keeping these secrets seem legitimate. The devil, of course, is in the details. Who decides what is secret and what is not?

I'd argue for a policy of maximum transparency when it comes to government information. Classify only the most vital secrets–the "crown jewels"–and harshly punish anyone who reveals them.

The other school of thought–subscribed to by many in the permanent bureaucracy in Washington–is to classify as much information as possible. Why take any chances? When in doubt, classify. (Here it may help to visualize that huge warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark crammed full of top secret crates and boxes as far as the eye can see). This desire to classify becomes almost pathological. Take, for example, the Washington Post report on Wednesday that:

The National Archives helped keep secret a multi-year effort by the Air Force, the CIA and other federal agencies to withdraw thousands of historical documents from public access on Archives shelves, even though the records had been declassified.

According to the Post, the CIA and other federal agencies "began recalling documents they believed were improperly released under a 1995 executive order requiring declassification of many historical records 25 years old and older."Some historians have protested that these withdrawn and reclassified documents posed no security risk.

This illustrates the problems of over-classification. When nearly everything is declared secret, how do you know what is really secret? When every other document is reflexively classified as secret, the real distinctions about what is vital (and should be protected from disclosure) and what is not become blurred. Tasked with reviewing mountains of paperwork, it would not be surprising if some of the wrong documents were declassified.

At the same time, there is also the nagging concern that, to quote one official, the reclassification is "being done for some sort of nefarious reason such as trying to cover up agency embarrassments."

To his credit, Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, has halted the document removals. Weinstein, a prominent Cold War historian, will get the results of an audit of the program this month.

Weinstein seems particularly well suited to judge the merits of the dispute. His experience with both U.S. and Soviet classified materials, and his training as a historian, should help in balancing the competing claims. Some on the Left will never forgive Weinstein for his conclusion (in Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case) that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent. I interviewed Weinstein in the mid-1970s while he was researching the Hiss case and was struck by his intellectual integrity. Weinstein had begun his study convinced that Hiss had been framed, but when the evidence led him in a different direction, he had the courage to publish his conclusions (knowing that he would face a hostile reaction from many in academe.)

Weinstein deserves the benefit of the doubt as he considers the question. There is some irony in the situation: as the CIA and other agencies seek to reclassify historical documents, the White House seems to have launched its own ad hoc declassification program. At the same time, someone is apparently leaking the details of U.S. war planning for a strike against Iran, and the fact that American clandestine operatives are on the ground there (or so reports Seymour Hirsch), which, it could be argued, is exactly the sort of sensitive and damaging information that should remain secret. It does suggest that the motives for keeping governments secrets, or leaking them, can be quite mixed. All the more an argument for openness and transparency.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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