That the U.S. government has a problem with classifying information—the process of identifying and protecting documents and discussions that must be kept secret to preserve national security—was established long before President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal returned the subject to the headlines.
Eight blue-ribbon U.S. government commissions have addressed the subject since World War II, Elizabeth Goitein, a veteran transparency advocate, told me. Each of them deemed that overclassification, as she put it, “is rampant.”
Classifying information is a key part of how the U.S. government functions and is able to carry out sensitive tasks, but the problem is that too much national-security information—from the trivial to the politically inconvenient—gets labeled “confidential,” “secret,” or “top secret,” meaning that only those with the corresponding government clearance can access it. It’s understandable for missions such as the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden and for sensitive discussions about U.S. national-security or foreign policy. But then there’s also this, from a diplomatic cable in 2006:
Dagestani weddings are serious business: a forum for showing respect, fealty and alliance among families; the bride and groom themselves are little more than showpieces. Weddings take place in discrete parts over three days. On the first day the groom’s family and the bride’s family simultaneously hold separate receptions. During the receptions the groom leads a delegation to the bride’s reception and escorts her back to his own reception, at which point she formally becomes a member of the groom’s family, forsaking her old family and clan. The next day, the groom’s parents hold another reception, this time for the bride’s family and friends, who can “inspect” the family they have given their daughter to. On the third day, the bride’s family holds a reception for the groom’s parents and family.
That paragraph, found among the cables leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010, was classified “confidential.” Disclosing it was technically a crime.