Two recent front-page stories defined the important crosscurrents at play in our government’s policies surrounding secrecy and confidentiality.
The government’s law enforcement work detecting and arresting an American terrorist in Oregon last week was impressive. Not only was a horrible public tragedy avoided, but an international terrorist organization was infiltrated and its plans were thwarted. It was law enforcement at its best, in the confounding and shadowy world of terrorism. The FBI worked secretly, as it must in such situations, with anonymous tips and electronic surveillance. All to be applauded.

More complex is the ongoing WikiLeaks release of 250,000 diplomatic cables between our State Department and 270 American diplomats around the world. In publishing many of these documents — not all — New York Times editor Bill Keller stated that “the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy.” Some of the documents, whose release was criticized by the Obama “transparency” administration, were “secret,” some were not to be shared with other countries (NOFORN), some classified, some unclassified. Where confidential informants were identified or national security compromised, the Times did not disclose those documents. WikiLeaks will post all the documents online, and will send all of them to other countries.

Times declared that, despite government arguments to the contrary, “it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in [their] name.” Some of the “revelations” were clearly not worth classifying in the first place — Gadhafi’s voluptuous blonde nurse, Karzai’s dissembling practices, alcohol consumed at a Muslim wedding.

When should government secrets be kept and when revealed is a serious and recurring question of national import, and my recent book,
In Confidence, attempts to strike a rational balance between those competing needs. Critics of our government’s secrecy policies, from the right and the left, have argued that up to 90 percent of our classified government records need not be classified. Yet even an administration like the present one, which campaigned on promises of openness, has resisted attempts to change our secrecy policies. The tighter the pressures to be secretive, the greater the forces to reveal — it is a primordial phenomenon that gave rise to an organization as questionable as Wikipedia.

This subject needs to be a front-burner issue for both parties, and the WikiLeaks issue over the next week should assure that is so. It costs the government $7 billion a year to run a system that classifies thousands of documents daily, millions annually. The subject of government secrecy policy will be considered further in this blog as the rest of the documents become public.

Ronald Goldfarb, a Washington- and Miami-based attorney, is the author of In Confidence — When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, Yale University Press 2009.