Here a classified document. There a classified document. Everywhere a classified document. Discussions proliferate as to whether the Trump situation is comparable to the Biden situation, and then there is Pence.
Presumably, information is classified because release of it could damage, or cause serious damage, or cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. With all those classified documents floating around out there, you must be really scared; national security must be in danger. Wait a minute. You mean you have haven’t felt any different? You are no more scared than usual? How can that be?
The first reaction to the disclosure of classified information and perhaps its mishandling is that it is shameful, criminal, harmful, and unpatriotic. Perhaps, however, we should adopt a different perspective on classified information. A generation ago, a commission studying government secrecy offered a viewpoint, which while true, is seldom considered: “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. There is a lot to question. Of course there is no comprehensive index to classified material, but estimates are that over 50 million documents are classified each year. Calculations conclude that one million stacked sheets of standard paper would be over 300 feet high. This stairway surely not to heaven of carefully arranged paper could be over three miles high. And such a stack is created each and every year. This defies imagination, but is true.
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 those classifications are unnecessary. We periodically hear concerns about the disclosure of classified information. By contrast, 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 have been public.
We pay a lot for this bureaucratic secrecy system. The Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration has estimated that the federal government spends over $16 billion on our classification system. But, wait. There’s more. The ISOO estimates that private industry also spends more than $1billion because many defense contractors and other industries are part of the wide-ranging secrecy business.
A lot of this confidential information does not stay confidential. 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 noted: “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, it is not surprising that classified information finds a way to escape. Now if you 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. And that it is often mishandled. Indeed, it is surprising that there are not more problems. But the “good” news is that since so much of the information is needlessly labeled secret in the first place, leaks and mishandling of classified information seldom harm national security.
We should be concerned about disclosures that are harmful, but talking about the harm from leaks is not the right starting point. A foundation of a free and open society is that information about the government and its doings should be free and open. Openness should be the norm; secrecy should be the rare exception. If we are in a free and open society, we should expect information to be public. For a proper democracy with accountability, the default position should be governmental openness.
We should be regularly challenging governmental secrecy. That does not mean that the government cannot have information kept from the public, but there should be exceptional reasons for doing so, and we should be regularly examining whether the reasons given for hiding information are truly exceptional. Fifty million documents a year are surely not exceptional enough to warrant secret handling.
The disclosure of confidential matters and the mishandling of classified 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 and bureaucrats 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 information is secret.