Investigations are underway to determine how the Big Loser’s administration secretly accessed communication records of journalists and Congress members, their aides, and families. Well and good. We should know whether the Has Been Guy’s actions were targeting those he saw as political opponents and whether he was assaulting First Amendment freedoms. But we also ought to be considering the important topic of governmental secrecy in general.
The Big Loser was concerned about “leaks,” a broad term that—when invoked—seems to imply that the disclosure of the leaked information is an existential threat to the Republic. Instead, we should start any such discussion with the question of why the information was secret in the first place. For a proper democracy with accountability, the default position should be governmental openness. There should only be secrets if there are strong justifications for them. Instead of railing against leaks, we should first consider how, if at all, the now-public information was justified as being deemed secret and what harm has come from the information’s exposure to the cleansing power of sunlight.
The disclosure of confidential matters that harm national security should be prevented, but how often has that happened? Should we really put into one basket a leak about clashes among White House advisors, a leak of our president’s conversation with his counterpart from Mexico, and a leak about troop movements during wartime? If you follow the news, in your lifetime you have heard about leaked information thousands, probably many thousands of times. Think back. How many of them have truly harmed the United States? Quick, name ten. How about five?
Many politicians have an instinctual desire to keep hidden from the public all sorts of information even when it does not contain national security secrets. We should realize that a disclosure that embarrasses a government official is not the same as a disclosure that harms national security. We should be skeptical of why such non-classified information is secret.
We should look into the elaborate classification industry that keeps information hidden from us. The first reaction by many to the disclosure of classified information is that it is shameful, criminal, harmful, and unpatriotic, but we, especially those who proclaim to be conservative, should have another response to the classification industry. A generation ago, a commission studying government secrecy gave a perspective, which while true, is seldom considered. The commission stated, “Secrecy is a form of government regulation. Americans are familiar with the tendency to overregulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of the regulation.”
If we saw every government secret as a regulation, if we saw the classification industry as a giant government bureaucracy, we might question secrecy more. Is it really possible that so much must be classified? According to an annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration a few years back, over 55 million items were classified—mandated to be kept confidential–in whole or in part in one year alone. If you believe that the federal government overregulates in other areas, surely you should think it also does so in the secrecy business.
Commissions studying our classification regime have time and again found rampant overclassification, with some of the studies concluding that 50% to 90% of what is classified could safely be released. And here is a striking fact about overclassification: while we hear concerns about the disclosure of classified information, students of the classification industry have reported that they know of no instance when a government official has been disciplined for classifying information that should not have been.
Our most famous leak may have been of the Pentagon Papers. The government went into hyper-crisis mode. It tried to upend the First Amendment and suppress the Papers’ publication. It brought criminal charges against those who brought them into the public light. It, in essence, said that if ever a leak harmed national security and put the country into danger, this was it. After all we were then fighting the Vietnam War. Later, however, President Nixon’s Solicitor General confessed that the Papers were an example of “massive overclassification.” The Papers were analyses of documents that had been written years before the Papers’ publication and posed “no trace of a threat to the national security.”
I am hardly the first person to note what we all know: that secrets have a way of getting out; that keeping secrets has never been easy; that secrets are like organisms that find a way to get free. Centuries ago Dr. Samuel Johnson said what still remains true: “Secrets are so seldom kept, that it may be with some reason doubted whether a secret has not some volatility by which it escapes, imperceptibly, at the smallest vent, or some power of fermentation, by which it expands itself, so as to burst the heart that will not give it way.”
Because so much is labeled secret and because human nature apparently abhors secrecy, it is not surprising that classified information finds a way to escape. Add to that that about 4.5 million people have access to classified information, it is hardly surprising that there are leaks of classified information. Indeed, it is surprising that there are not more. Moreover, since so much of the information is needlessly labeled secret, it should not be surprising that even leaks of classified information will often not harm national security.
We do, however, pay a lot for this bureaucratic secrecy system. The Information Security Oversight Office estimates that the federal government spent over $16 billion on our classification system. But wait. There’s more. The ISOO estimates that private industry spent an additional $1.27 billion because many defense contractors and other industries are part of the wide-ranging secrecy business. (Why isn’t this regulatory, expensive bureaucracy a target of conservatives?)
(continued June 16)