The Secrecy Stockpile

We like to think that we live in an era of transparency, of the public’s right to know, of the Freedom of Information Act, of greater openness in government and business than existed in earlier times.

In some ways this is definitely true. The law now empowers private citizens to gain access to many government documents, at least under certain circumstances. Everyone acknowledges that openness — like democracy, diversity and relief from lower back pain —is a good thing.

Yet, at the same time, we have discovered that a domain of secrecy more immense than anything we ever imagined, exists side-by-side with this climate of transparency. The classified and secret files leaked by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and the subsequent howls of outrage from the U.S. State Department and the National Security Agency, have made us uncomfortably aware of this.

Most of the discussion in recent months has centered on the runaway snooping conducted by the government, far more extensive than the NSA or the Obama administration wished to admit. Reassurances that surveillance was limited to foreign threats were quickly overtaken by grim disclosures that the private communications of U.S. citizens and corporations were included, through one loophole or another, in the spying net. Transparency was given a new meaning: Instead of the public being able to see into the workings of the powers-that-be, the powers-that-be were enjoying untrammeled access to the doings of individuals like us who pose no threat to security.

Government secrecy is like a one-way mirror; they can look out at you, but you can’t look in at them. Indeed, we still are not fully aware of the extent of material to which we have no access.

Clandestineness seems to be habit-forming, too. The more you classify, the more you want to classify, and keep classified. Thus, from 1998 to 2011, the volume of new classified documents created annually had risen from 6 million to 92 million.

Nor can the Freedom of Information law compete with the power to control information. In 1997, 204 million pages were declassified, but since September 11 only an average of 33.5 million pages have been declassified annually.

All of this galloping secrecy is spurred onward in the name of national security. Yet, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued, the massive glut of classification actually impairs and undermines the very national security it seeks to preserve.

The hoarding of secrets, Moynihan said, locks vital knowledge away from politicians, policymakers, and the public, who need the best information to conduct informed debates and make intelligent decisions. The stockpiling of too many secrets renders the nation less secure, not more, because it forces us to make decisions based on poor-quality information. In our attempts to blind our adversaries, Moynihan pointed out, we end up blinding ourselves.

As a four-time U.S. senator and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Moynihan had an insider’s view of the syndrome of secretiveness in Washington that few could match. In the mid-1990s, Moynihan chaired a federal commission on government secrecy which sought to inject common sense into an increasingly disordered and self-defeating system.

The commission’s comprehensive report, delivered to President Bill Clinton in March 1997, recommended the imposition of strict limits on what could be declared secret. For example, a demonstrable need to protect the information in the interest of national security must exist; classified designations must “sunset” unless recertified by the agency as a continued secret; formal procedures for the classification and declassification of information should be established.

The report was a revelation. The very fact that such basic rules were not already in place was dismaying, to say the least. Yet, incredible as it seems, classification was — and still is — largely a matter of unthinking routine, institutional paranoia and mere whim. At its worst, it is a method for deliberately keeping information away from the public, to save government officials from embarrassment and, in some cases, the exposure of criminal activities.

To be sure, we recognize the need for secrecy. September 11 obliterated whatever illusions we may have had about America being out of the reach of the terrorists who ravage other parts of the world. We were all taught a lesson about the reality of the threats against us, and how vulnerable we are.

But secrecy without sense, classification without regulation, does not contribute to our security. On the contrary, it weakens it. The time has come to revisit and put into practice some of the reforms that the Moynihan Commission recommended.