The Case for Revealing (Some) Classified Information

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It's more common to lose liberty after trusting government with too much power than too little, but state-secrets sycophants behave as if blind trust is the safer course.

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Malakh Kelevra / Flickr

Almost everyone in America agrees that it's necessary for the state to keep some secrets. I'd eagerly declassify all manner of information, but wouldn't want to make public the identity of CIA agents trying to infiltrate Al Qaeda, the software code used to run U.S. weapons systems, or the plans the U.S. military has drawn up to repel an invasion of the Hawaiian islands. Like a lot of journalists, I am nevertheless happy that some state secrets have leaked during the War on Terrorism. A lot of Americans don't understand why so many members of the media take that attitude. It makes them furious, for they appreciate the potential cost of leaks.

What fewer Americans grasp, because it is so much less intuitive, are the costs of state secrets. Excessive classification can jeopardize our safety, our liberty, and our system of government. Some leaks actually make us safer and help to protect our values. It's easier to see how if you imagine the world as champions of secrecy would have it. What would post-9/11 America be like if the government was able to prevent every national-security leak from reaching the public? Figures like Senators McCain and Feinstein talk as if we'd be better off.

Actually, it isn't so.

In a hypothetical America where state secrets never leaked, consider all the significant things that we wouldn't know. A massive wiretapping program to spy on Americans without warrants would never have been revealed, despite its illegality. The torture of War on Terror detainees would've gone on without anyone knowing. Innocents at Guantanamo Bay would never have been released, nor would we know that some were held without access to the International Red Cross, contrary to official claims. Americans would be totally ignorant of the fact that CIA drones are killing people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, among other places. The existence of an Obama Administration kill list with American citizens on it would be completely unknown to us.

There are other things we wouldn't know, if the champions of state secrets and foes of national-security leaks got their way. But the foregoing list is sufficient for our purposes. Think through what it would mean if all those things had stayed secret instead of leaking to the press. If America is going to adopt a massive, society-wide surveillance program, isn't that, at minimum, a subject for citizens to debate? In what sense would we be living in a representative democracy if neither the bulk of Congress nor the people was even told about a multi-country drone war waged in our names? Isn't the way the president handles American citizens suspected of terrorism something voters should evaluate before a reelection campaign? Isn't grappling with his policy especially vital if he sets the precedent of extrajudicial assassinations? Keeping those secrets would render citizens unable to debate or influence hugely significant policies.

Yet some insist all should've remained clandestine.

President Obama's supporters should understand better than anyone how much our politics would be constrained if everything classified as an official secret stayed that way. During the 2008 campaign, Obama criticized numerous Bush Administration policies that would've been unknown to the public if not for the fact that zealous national-security reporters brought them to light. Think about that. A man who handily won the presidency campaigned partly on the proposition that lots of formerly secret policies were actively doing harm to America's safety and reputation.

Obama's critics ought to discern the same lesson.

Take John Yoo, whose legal work in the Bush Administration helped enable the torture of human beings. He is often critical of Obama, but is somehow blind to the tension in his own arguments.

Wrote Yoo in The Wall Street Journal (emphasis added):

Recent leaks have blown the cover of the Pakistani doctor who sought to confirm bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad; revealed a British asset who penetrated al Qaeda and stopped another bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner; and assigned credit to the administration for the Stuxnet computer virus that damaged Iran's nuclear program (even identifying the government lab that designed it).

American intelligence will have a steep hill to climb when it asks for the future cooperation of agent-assets and foreign governments. Notably silent are the Democrats and media figures who demanded the scalp of a Bush White House aide, Scooter Libby, for leaks by another government official of the cover of a CIA operative who had left the field years earlier.

Yet the greater threat to security comes from Mr. Obama's micromanagement of the drone campaign. Poring over the files of kill-list nominees recalls Lyndon Johnson's role in tightly controlling bombing strikes during the Vietnam War. During Operation Rolling Thunder, Johnson held Tuesday lunches when he and his advisers picked targets to avoid attacks that might provoke Soviet or Chinese intervention. This misuse of presidential time produced a myopic focus on tactics. Photos of LBJ hunched over maps said it all: Staring at individual targets prevented him from seeing the broader strategic picture in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Worse yet, it encouraged the military to set aside its judgment in favor of the president's political preferences.

Yoo starts this excerpt by complaining about national=security leaks. But by the third paragraph, he asserts that an even "greater threat to security" is the method the Obama Administration is using to assemble its kill list. Unmentioned is the fact that he wouldn't know about that method -- "Mr. Obama's micromanagement," as he puts it -- but for a New York Times article describing it. And that story was published thanks to high-level leaks (probably authorized) about formerly secret protocol.

Unwittingly, Yoo has made the argument for transparency. But for the national-security leaks that formed the basis for the kill-list story, we'd be completely ignorant about an Obama Administration practice that Yoo regards as an even "greater threat to security" than the leaks themselves! In a world without leaks, protocol chosen by the president would never be subject to outside critiques. The citizenry would never be informed about shortcomings as they decided whether to reelect or oust him from office. Given Yoo's avowed opinions, he ought to be praising the Times for revealing a War on Terror protocol needful of being challenged and changed. After all, he found it important enough to mention in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Americans who get furious every time classified information appears in a story are within their rights to disagree with the judgment in a given case. But they ought to recognize the actual motive at work.

Less than perfect secrecy for the state doesn't just permit citizens to get information they ought to have when voting and subject various executive branch actions to outside review and criticism. It also acts as an imperfect but nevertheless salutary check on illegal and immoral behavior. Power corrupts, and the corrupted go farther in their misdeeds when guaranteed secrecy. Americans ought to be thankful when a bureaucrat, having seen illegal or immoral behavior, blows the whistle. Alas, the Obama Administration aggressively tries to destroy such people.

None of this is a defense of the opportunistic way that Obama Administration officials leak information, exploiting the rules governing state secrets to advantage themselves in the political realm. It is a warning: Cracking down on leaks could easily make us worse rather than better off. The Americans who get furious at the press every time classified information appears in a story are within their rights to disagree with the judgment a publisher makes in a given case. But rather than angrily claiming that journalists prize pageviews above national security (as a critic told me yesterday on Twitter), they ought to recognize the actual motive at work.

As many in the press and many others besides see it, revealing certain kinds of classified information helps America. It's champions of excessive state secrets who imperil us more than even a truly damaging leak could, for their excessive, oft-abused classification scheme makes presidents less accountable to the public, prevents bad policy from being criticized and corrected, and makes it easier for government officials to behave illegally, immorally or even tyrannically. Transparency advocates are called naive, and yet they regard the state-secrets crowd as naive for indulging in the child's fantasy that if only we give a paternalistic leader our trust, he'll destroy our enemies in secret and never turn use his extraordinary power in malign ways. They invest extraordinary trust in politicians, urging us to maximize the president's discretion even though everything we know about human nature and history suggests he'll go too far. It's far more common to lose liberty after trusting the government with too much power rather than too little, but the state-secrets sycophants behave as if blindly trusting is the safer course.

Neither absolute secrecy nor total transparency is the answer. Some state secrets should be guarded. Some leaks should be punished. Since secrecy designations are abused in exactly the cases where transparency is most vital, current law isn't an adequate guide to what information benefits the public more than harms it if publicly revealed. The way to shift America's norms, so that leaks are less frequent and less popular with the public, is to declare far fewer things to be state secrets, reserving for that designation only the most sensitive information.

Given how many illegitimate secrets the government is keeping -- illegal behavior, information it strategically leaks for propaganda purposes, the many classified documents released by WikiLeaks that did no harm to national security -- a crackdown under present conditions would risk doing far more damage to the United States, for reasons already outlined, than the status quo.  

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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