The secrecy conundrum

ADVERTISEMENT
The overclassification of government documents has been well documented by serious scholars, officials and students of the subject. There is daunting data demonstrating that as much as 90 percent of classified documents shouldn’t have been classified in the first place, and the slow, expensive, uncertain declassification of the Freedom of Information Act process exacerbates the problem. As a result, in Bacevich’s words, " ... insiders’ control of secrets ... insulates them from accountability and renders them impervious to criticism.”

The recent Snowden disclosures have underscored the threat of our practices of overclassifying government records as well as the potential for national security breaches. Snowden’s disclosures have already lead to responsible and useful criticism of the process of secrecy by media and government agencies, and there is a public interest in that happening.

The gross form of Manning’s and Snowden’s release of so many documents to so vast an audience created the impression — perhaps correct at least in part — that their conduct was reprehensible. The government response was also gross, treating both men as traitors subject to draconian punishment. On reflection, more precise whistle-blowing, starting inside first, would make sense. And more balanced response from the government would also make sense.

"Leak" is a weak and imprecise word for what amounts to Manning’s and Snowden’s fire hydrant blasts; and cries of treason are a sledge hammer response by the government where a scalpel would be a more precise instrument of correction. Reform of our classification procedures would show good faith on the part of the government and might make the actions of future Mannings and Snowdens unnecessary. Are there ever really any secrets that are not revealed?

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C., attorney and author of In Confidence: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, published by Yale University Press, 2009.