Tuesday, February 21, 2006

U.S. reclassifying National Archive documents

The government continues to exhibit its penchant for excessive secrecy:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 -- In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.

(snip)

Mr. Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret.

"If those sample records were removed because somebody thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed," Mr. Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the mind."

Things like this are why I'm generally unimpressed by the mere fact that a leaked document is classified. The government routinely classifies stuff that has no business being classified. Leaking such information is against the letter of the law, but it does not violate the law's spirit, nor is it unethical or treasonous.

To determine if a leak is wrong, you have to first determine if the information in question deserved to be secret to begin with. Allowing the government to keep every little thing secret makes it impossible to know what the government is up to, and thus impossible to monitor or regulate it. This can be poisonous to democracy.

For instance, here's an example of a "reclassified" document:

a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan, then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program.

Government information should be viewed with the presumption that it is a public record, and only classified if the administration can show sufficient cause. This is in fact the case:

Under existing guidelines, government documents are supposed to be declassified after 25 years unless there is particular reason to keep them secret.

But without oversight and review, nothing stops an official from classifying anything they want.

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