But since the end of World War II and the origin of the American national security state as part of bureaucratic reorganization to wage the Cold War, “national security” has become a catch-all concept encompassing broad swaths of what government does and extends almost without limit into the past and by extension into the future. There are documents of covert CIA activities in the 1950s that have never been released and may never be. The rationale is that even long-deceased people and largely forgotten events could give America’s enemies insight into how the US government conducts business. That is to say, to say the least, a very fine reed.
There are now nearly 5 million people who have security clearances and have access to classified information; just over a million of them are granted access to “Top Secret” material, and a much smaller cohort can access more specialized and compartmentalized information such as nuclear payloads or counter-terrorism intelligence. Having a security clearance is the government equivalent of having a driver’s license: without it, you cannot play a meaningful role in the federal government. The trade-off is that with one, you also can’t communicate openly about what the government is deliberating about and what information it is using.
The legal penalties for revealing classified information are severe, including prison terms, and have been applied repeatedly. These laws may even apply to negligence rather than intent, and the somewhat ambiguous nature of the laws governing how such material is published or information disseminated leads to even more reluctance on the part of officials with clearances – although it is also true that leaks are common. But while the leaks often offer real windows into otherwise hidden discussions and actions and often go unprosecuted, that’s not enough to offset the mountains of documents filed each month that remain perpetually hidden.
Permissions and filing erect a wall between the public and the government. Even congressional representatives do not have access to classified documents unless they serve on national security and military oversight committees. For decades, one of the many secrets held by the government has been the budget of intelligence agencies – all paid for with taxpayers’ money. Eventually, George Tenet, the director of the CIA under President Bill Clinton, supported the publication of overall intelligence expenditures (then around $26 billion and now over $80 billion), but opposed any precise breakdown of how that money was spent on the grounds that it could give vital information to America’s adversaries and jeopardize national security. Since 2007, the federal government has provided some granularity on which intelligence agency spends what, but sensitive data — such as the cost of spy drones — remains undisclosed.
With the end of the Cold War, there was a brief and modest thaw in the official attitude towards secrets, and Clinton issued executive orders aimed at limiting the volume of classified information and expediting the release of older documents. . Whatever window was opened, it closed after 9/11, which ushered in a second golden age of government secrecy and national security bureaucracy. The War on Terror meant more walls of information than ever before. President Barack Obama then sought to return to the abortive spirit of openness pioneered by Clinton, but the national security bureaucracy remained stubbornly hooked on the prerogatives of concealing information from public view or even from the view of other agencies and officials. Some of this may be for good reason, but in the absence of meaningful oversight and with most incentives dictating that overclassification is less risky for responsible agencies and bureaucrats, it’s hard to know if what is guarded so diligently should it be.
Too much secrecy even creates problems for the government. After 9/11, congressional hearings revealed that the intelligence failures leading up to the attacks were partly due to the lack of information sharing between the FBI, CIA, Pentagon and other relevant agencies, which were guarding things secret even from each other. One hearing was titled “Too Many Secrets: Overclassification is a Barrier to Sharing Critical Information.” Excessive secrecy and years-long delays in declassification not only prevent accountability and undermine government coordination. It’s also quite expensive: streamlining the classification process between agencies would cut the cost of nearly $20 billion to maintain a system well beyond the time those secrets are relevant. The Biden administration, to its credit, has tried to revive some of the stalled Obama-era initiatives to open up government, but it faces a fight from some members of the intelligence community.
No one doubts (or at least no one should) that certain secrets need to be kept. It’s not just the highly sensitive names of agents or the specifics of military capabilities. The executive privilege of withholding all that is said and done in the White House in real time is defensible. Current government officials, especially the president, should be able to debate and deliberate on all options, even those that would look extremely bad if actually implemented.
There is also a legitimate statute of limitations as to how long such discussions must be kept away from the public – although it may be much shorter than decades in current practice (it is technically 12 years in longer for presidential records, but this is extended if the information is deemed by the CIA to be sensitive or reveals sources and methods of intelligence gathering). Even there, however, living leaders would want assurances that they would not be legally responsible for ideas discussed but never put into practice; in a climate of gotcha, we should all be more mature in how we handle public disclosure of what were at the time private statements and bad ideas that were ultimately dismissed.
Ultimately, transparency is necessary to ensure accountability in a democratic society. This became demonstrably clear with the Church’s congressional hearings in the mid-1970s, which shed light on covert CIA actions to overthrow governments in Guatemala and Iran and botched assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. and others. Yes, many of us want security and don’t want to know if it’s maintained by reprehensible or fair means (à la “A Few Good Men”). But that’s not a good excuse. An informed electorate is also a responsible electorate; assuming the worst of the audience can often be valid, but infantilizing the audience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For now, we have a thicket of laws (and powerful spy agencies) that govern how government secrets are kept and stored and when, if at all, they can be disclosed. It would appear that Trump has failed to follow these laws, whether these laws need to be changed or not. But the Mar-a-Lago documents episode should be another wake-up call that the entire armature of government secrecy in the United States is deeply flawed, incredibly expensive, and hostile to transparent government accountable to both its elected representatives and the people. .