Thursday, April 27, 2006

Secrecy for the sake of secrecy

A National Archives audit has found that a controversial CIA reclassification program -- in which previously public documents are reclassified and withdrawn from view -- improperly classified about a third of the records.

Auditors for the Archives who reviewed a representative sample of thousands of formerly public records found that 24 percent were pulled despite being "clearly inappropriate" for reclassification, and another 12 percent were "questionable" as candidates for reclassification.

"In short, more than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with," said Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, who ordered the audit and imposed a moratorium on the reclassification efforts last month.

The effort was also far larger than previously disclosed:

In February, the Archives estimated that about 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages had been withdrawn and reclassified since 1999. The new audit shows the real haul was much larger -- at least 25,515 records were removed by five different agencies, including the CIA, Air Force, Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Archives.

But that's not the best part. This is:

Auditors also found that the CIA withdrew a "considerable number" of records it knew should be unclassified "in order to obfuscate" other records it was trying to protect.

Some of the reclassification effort makes sense -- an otherwise innocuous document that contained the name of a still-active CIA agent, for example -- though that raises the question of why they couldn't have simply copied the document, redacted the name and left the copy public.

But much of it was nonsensical and some of it involved information that was merely embarrassing to some person or agency. And classifying nonsensitive records merely to conceal exactly what you are classifying is both indefensible and an open invitation to abuse.

J. William Leonard, who oversees classification efforts at the Archive, puts his finger on the problem:

"We hold people accountable, and rightfully so, when they engage in unauthorized disclosures of information," said Leonard, who led the audit. "But we also have that affirmative responsibility, each and every one of us, to challenge inappropriate classification decisions. And it's not done. It's simply not done with any degree of regularity in this government."

Exactly. The system is biased toward secrecy, with only weak remedial options. Not only is this corrosive to democracy; it devalues the entire classification system. Knowing that much of what is classified does not deserve to be, it's hard to get worked up when people leak classified information.

Make classification mean something. And the best way to do that is to put an end to stupid abuses of the "top secret" stamp.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smacks to me of "pre-emptive classification"...taking back that 1/3 because it might be politically harmful to those in power sometime in the future.
- Caracarn

4/28/2006 12:08 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Sometimes it's not even those in power, but institutional forces: the CIA protecting itself, for example.

And sometimes the logic seems strained. In the previous post that I link to, I listed some of the documents that were reclassified. In one case it was a description of how the British shared intelligence with us during World War II. This was reclassified, apparently, to try to mask the fact that the British share intelligence with us today.

4/28/2006 12:19 PM  

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