Abuse of the classification system to control public debate is pervasive, and probably getting worse. Something needs to be done about it.
Only a subset of classified material would really be of use to a potential enemy. Additional material is properly classified for “sources and methods” reasons: the information itself isn’t sensitive, but revealing that we know it might reveal where the bug is or which attache is selling us secrets.
But those two categories together do not exhaust what can properly be classified according to the statute. Any information the release of which would tend to impede the foreign policy of the United States is properly classifiable. If GWB and Condi have decided, for example, to suck up to Pakistanis, then sucking up to the Pakistanis is the foreign policy of the United States, and any information that might embarrass the Pakistani government can lawfully be stamped “Top Secret.”
When I was young and irresponsible, I worked for the Justice Department, analyzing drug policy. In that capacity, I was put through the full security mumbo-jumbo and received a Top Secret clearance and, on top of that, clearances for various very highly taboo Codeword categories. (The initiation ceremony involves being dipped in the blood of … well, I could tell ya, but then I’d have to kill ya.)
Having been cleared, what did I learn that it would then have been a felony for me to reveal? Nothing that would have helped the Russkis or the narco-bad-guys. But I did learn the names of assorted corrupt high-level officials in various of the Carribean banking havens Jeff MacNelly once lampooned as “Rinky-Dink and Tabasco.” No elaborate spying had been required to learn the names; apparently it was routine cafe gossip in the countries involved. So why, I asked, is this material classified? Not that I had any desire to reveal it, but I was curious.
The senior security guy in the Criminal Division set me straight: Yes, everyone knew that the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese Finance Minister, or Central Bank president, or whoever it was, was crookeder than a dog’s hind leg. He knew, we knew, the Prime Minister knew, the Prime Minister knew we knew, we knew he knew we knew, ad infinitum. Maybe the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese voters didn’t know; that was their lookout.
But it was our policy to make nice to Rinky-Dink and Tabasco (honest, I forget which contrylet we were talking about). If it were revealed publicly that the US Government had knowledge that Mr. So-and-so was on the take, that would embarrass the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese government, thus impeding U.S. foreign policy. Ergo, properly classified.
There’s a story Khruschev used to tell, back when he was General Secretary of the CP-USSR (i.e., dictator). In the story, an Old Bolshevik goes crazy, and runs through the halls of the Kremlin shouting “Khruschev is a fool! Khruschev is a fool!” Naturally, he’s promptly arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced, to twenty-three years’ corrective labor: three years for insulting the Party Secretary, and twenty for revealing a state secret.
An enormous amount of classified information consists of state secrets of the Khruschev-is-a-fool variety. And the incumbent adminisration is completely free to decide that revealing any given bit of information would be consistent with our foreign policy, and reveal it. As Henry Kissinger used to say, “I never leak. I de-classify.” This is a huge problem, and an excellent reason not to have anything resembling an Official Secrets Act.
Excessive secrecy is a profound threat to national security, because secrecy helps cover up malfeasance, incompetence, and bureaucratic fumbling, e.g. with respect to the risk of terrorism at nuclear power plants.
Until the Democrats have candidates who can make that argument with a straight face, they’ll keep losing elections.
Update: Matt Yglesias find the Pundit’s Fallacy in the last sentence above. I attempt to clarify: it’s not that we need candidates who actually criticize secrecy policy on national security grounds; it’s that we need candidates who could criticize secrecy policy — or any other policy — on national-security grounds without looking silly or insincere in doing so.