A week has passed since the release of voluminous government records by
WikiLeaks, and since the subsequent reportage of most of it in the world press.
So far, the sky has not fallen. Commentators have taken sides—some calling the
release treasonous, others defending it for informing the public about serious
After all the sound and fury, an important lesson should be learned. Who controls the narrative, the flow and timing of information, controls (and may manipulate) the “truth.” Now government controls information about how it governs, to a reckless degree. Five national commissions studied our classification procedures in the last half-century, and all concluded that most — up to 90 percent — of the information classified confidential should not have been. Those commissions were nonpartisan, non-political, well-informed. The last was chaired by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Presently, over 4,000 federal government officials have the power initially to classify documents. The classification system costs us $7 billion a year to classify 17,000 documents a day, 16 million per year. In addition, over 3 million employees have the power to declare a derivative classification if they use, excerpt or paraphrase a classified document — they do so 5,000 instances a day, 50 million documents a year. The natural tendency is to err on the side of safety and overdo it. Categories of classification are subjective, and different classifiers draw different conclusions. With no sunset provision to undo these classifications, and an uncertain, slow and expensive FOIA system, documents tend to stay classified.
The Wiki experience shows how silly some of the secrecy has been shielding idiosyncratic behavior of eccentric officials, and how enlightening some of the disclosures have been — our wasting money by giving it to corrupt officials in Afghanistan.
What the lesson of Wiki ought to be is to open most government records in the first instance, where there is no clear and present danger that their release will hurt our national interest. The burden ought to be on those classifying confidentially to make the clear case for secrecy, and the presumption should be for openness.
This is the third blog on this subject. Goldfarb’s book, In Confidence — When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, was published in 2009 by Yale University Press. Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author.