Let’s Talk About Secrecy, Too

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)

Was the Declaration on the Fourth of July?

My personal Fourth of July routine has included re-reading the Declaration of Independence.

Only recently, however, have I learned that the Declaration of Independence, or at least widely accepted versions of it, contain revisionist history. The document we celebrate on July 4 has fifty-six signers. But the only signatures on the original Declaration, which was attached to the official proceedings of Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, were that of John Hancock as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson, who was not a delegate, as Secretary.

The Declaration of Independence on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum is different and does contain the fifty-six signatures. Although the Archives version says, “In Congress, July 4, 1776,” it was, in fact, executed later. On July 19, 1776, Congress resolved that that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment and that it “be signed by every member of Congress.” The signers, then, did not sign on July 4, 1776. Most signed on August 2, 1776. You might think that the revision is minor since the signatories had agreed on July 4 to adopt the Declaration; they only failed to put their John Hancocks on the original document. However, several members of Congress on July 4, 1776, were absent on the day the Declaration was adopted. Even so, they later signed the engrossed copy. Furthermore, several other signers were not even members of Congress on the Fourth of July. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was appointed as a congressional delegate by Maryland on July 4 (is it surprising that the Maryland legislature was working on a holiday?) but did not present his credentials to the Continental Congress until July 18. He still signed the parchment. Five other signers were not appointed until July 20.

The National Archives Declaration states that it is “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Such unanimity language does not appear on the original Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, because it was not unanimous. The New York delegation abstained on that date and sought further guidance on how it should vote from the New York State convention. Only eleven days after the Declaration was adopted did the New York delegates receive approval to vote for independence.

I have now realized that I have been reading both versions of the Declaration of Independence without noticing that they varied. The copy that is in reach above my desk is of the original one promulgated on July 4, 1776, without all the signatures and without the unanimity language, while the version I have most often read reprinted in newspapers and in broadsides is the historical re-write. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the most famous version of the Declaration is revisionist history, but it does not matter much which version you read because both contain the memorable language that we most often ascribe to Thomas Jefferson that begins “When in the course of human events. . . .”

Even after reading this text many times, I note the archaisms, but still admire the rhythm and the phrasing of the Declaration’s first section—“a decent respect to [not for] the opinions of mankind. . .”; “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established. . . ,” “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

When we think about the Declaration, we usually only contemplate the opening paragraphs, but I am also fascinated by the list of elegantly written grievances about the King to justify the Revolution. I have tried to remember, not always successfully, what specifics had occasioned the often-vague complaints. Some of my frustration at my lack of historical knowledge was relieved when, after many perusals of the Declaration, I read American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, who wrote, “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King, which is not surprising since even some well-informed persons of the eighteenth century were perplexed.” (Even so, I find it ironic today that the indictments included the assertions that the Crown had impeded immigration to our shores and prevented free trade.) Indeed, one of the assertions does not appear to be true. My own research into the American jury system for a book mirrors Maier’s conclusion: “Even the most assiduous efforts have, however, identified no colonists of the revolutionaries’ generation who were actually transported ‘beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses.’” Even Jefferson, it seems, was not above a bit of revisionist history.

Sometimes, however, in reading the Declaration I think about what I have learned about writing from Strunk and White in Elements of Style and similar books. The advice is consistent: Eliminate extraneous words; strive for clarity; be succinct. I look at the opening paragraph and think that it violates these precepts. It reads: “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”

If I had drafted the Declaration, it would have read: “We are declaring independence from Great Britain. Here is why.” Clear and succinct, but hardly memorable, and I recognize again Jefferson’s linguistic genius. (The spouse says that after finishing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, she can no longer hold Jefferson in the highest regard.) My conclusion has been tempered as I have learned that the Declaration was preceded by ninety or so state and local Declarations whose phrasings often were echoed in the Fourth of July proclamation and that Jefferson’s draft was frequently improved by the editing done by other delegates to the Continental Congress. But even so, Jefferson produced the draft that in its final form still lives centuries later. And it will and should continue to live as long as some still read it. On this Fourth of July, read it. All who consider themselves American should.