Intelligence services from every foreign government in the world have likely mined the trove of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. Accordingly, when foreign diplomats engage with their U.S. counterparts, they are very likely armed with insider information on what the U.S. State Department knows, and how it does business. In other words, Bradley Manning — who's suspected of sharing the classified documents with Wikileaks — rearranged the chessboard.
For obvious reasons, it makes sense that State Department analysts and employees would study exactly what information was revealed in the cables. But they couldn't. In fact, they were explicitly forbidden from doing so on penalty of termination of employment. Why? Because the diplomatic cables are still officially classified, and it's illegal to access classified material unless you are on a "need to know" basis, or have the necessary clearance. So mindlessly enforced regulations put our diplomats at a needlessly foolish disadvantage.
During World War II the government classified a certain "silent flashless weapon" a secret. That secret weapon was a bow and arrow.
This isn't a new phenomenon. No one has ever described the classification policies of the American government as nimble, effective, or even comprehensible. During World War II, for example, the government classified a certain "silent flashless weapon" a secret. To discuss this weapon with anyone without clearance would be a felony. Today we know what that secret weapon was: A bow and arrow.
In what you can't help but describe as Orwellian, the government has even re-classified things already in the public domain. Quite literally, something you know today might be illegal for someone else to know tomorrow. The New York Times reported in 2006 that, as part of a reclassification program, intelligence agencies were rifling through the National Archives and removing things from the public record. (Among items too hot for the 21st century: A 1950 intelligence assessment suggesting that Chinese involvement in the Korean War was not probable.) The program was seven years old, which means it predated Sept. 11, and even the Bush administration. It's unlikely that the program has stopped under President Obama, but who knows? The reclassification program is itself a secret.
And they haven't confined themselves to the National Archives. Even Barnes & Noble has been known to pose a security threat. In 2010, every copy of Operation Dark Heart — a memoir of one soldier's work in Afghanistan — was purchased by the Department of Defense, on the grounds that it contained sensitive material, even though the U.S. Army had already read the book and cleared it for release. It gets worse: The Pentagon set all 9,500 copies on fire, then scrubbed the text and reprinted it, so anyone curious about what the government was so keen to protect could simply compare the original book and the revised one. (Take heart, though, the United States is not unique in this form of existential stupidity. In 2011, the British government did the same thing to a book called Dead Men Risen, about Welsh guards in Afghanistan.)
The cost of protecting all of these "secrets"? According to the Information Security Oversight Office: $11 billion dollars. That's double what we spent in 2001, and doesn't even include key spy operations. Since President Obama took office, there has been a 25% increase in spending on classifying things as secrets, and what has it gotten us? The most porous secrecy apparatus in a generation. Just ask Shakil Afridi, the physician who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden. Actually, you'll have trouble asking Dr. Afridi, because he's rotting in a Pakistani prison. He was arrested after someone leaked his story to the press.
What about the deep-cover spy who managed to penetrate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and personally thwart a terrorist attack? That story leaked almost immediately. It was really great press and a thrilling read. Of course, the CIA had planned to keep the operation alive a few weeks longer, but there are political considerations! It's unlikely that the British and Saudi intelligence agencies who helped us execute the daring operation were happy about the news. And ostensibly hostile foreign governments who might otherwise help us thwart terrorist attacks are thus unlikely to risk being outed as collaborating with the imperialist United States.
Calls for classification policy reform are old hat. And though Congress has taken an interest in plugging leaks from the executive branch (and the executive branch has been zealous in prosecuting leakers under the Espionage Act), the problem is far more fundamental. The U.S simply has too many secrets and too many people with access to sensitive material. If protecting the bow-and-arrow and the atomic bomb (an admittedly exaggerated pairing) are given equal priority under the law, leaks are never going to go away. But if the government trimmed its portfolio of secrets to the absolute minimum, and focused only on protecting the most essential intelligence and operations, it would find greater success.
And the government officials know that. The problem is funding. It takes a lot of people and a lot of money to declassify material. Presently, 375 million pages sit awaiting declassification. Considering the nation's dire economic situation, it's a fair question for lawmakers to ask: Do I fund bureaucrats shuffling paperwork, or do I fund public works initiatives? But effective oversight of the government requires access to information. We need to know where the money is going and what our government is doing. That's an economic solution unto itself. Every American citizen, to a certain extent, has a definite "need to know."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- How to be charismatic, according to science
- Don't argue about politics this Thanksgiving. Just don't.
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
Subscribe to the Week