Classification and the Attack on Democracy

ClassifiedThe purpose of classifying documents is to protect the country. Or at least that’s the idea. In fact, according to the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operation, something classified as “top secret” is supposed to mean that disclosure “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” But that isn’t what is really going on. For example, none of the Snowden revelations meet this criterion. I think that documents get classified for the same reason video stores ask for your Social Security number: you never know.

The Brennan Center for Justice released a paper two years ago that has great significance today, Reducing Overclassification Through Accountability (pdf). The authors note two important reasons why overclassification of documents is a bad thing. First, it limits inter-agency sharing of data, which can actually make us less safe. Second, we supposedly live in a democracy, and all of this classification stops robust debate about what our government is and should be doing.

A good example of this second problem is a memo from an Atomic Energy Commission official in 1947 that stated that information about the effects of radiation on humans should be kept secret otherwise it might have an “adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits”! What is particularly interesting about this is that I’m sure this is the actual justification of keeping these spying programs secret. The reason isn’t that it will cause terrorists to start using Pretty Good Privacy. The reason is that if the public knows about such programs, there could be an “adverse effect on public opinion.”

I’m convinced that most documents are kept secret for the silliest of reasons. Humans like to have secrets. If there were a way to make it so that those who classify documents would lose all knowledge of and access to those documents, I’m sure there would be less classification. But instead, classifying documents just makes those on the inside feel more special and powerful. Here is an example of one such document:

A World War II-era report by the Navy titled “Shark Attacks on Human Beings” remained classified until 1958, when the Moss Subcommittee inquired whether the report warranted classification. The report “detailed 69 cases of shark attacks upon human beings; 55 of the attacks occurred between 1907 and 1940 and at least 5 of the remaining 14 attacks were covered in newspaper stories published prior to the report. The classified document also included an article entitled ‘The Shark Situation in the Waters About New York,’ taken from the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly of 1916.”

But as I said, this kind of thing is just silly. There is little to worry about if the Navy wants to pretend that publicly available information about shark attacks is really secret. The problem comes from the documents that are classified primarily as a way to avoid accountability. Here is a good example of that kind of thing:

In the 1960s, the FBI wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s telephone. Information about this activity was classified “Top Secret,” meaning that its disclosure “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” even though its sole purpose, in the FBI’s own words, was to gain information about King’s personal life that could be used to “completely discredit [him] as the leader of the Negro people.”

This takes us back to my article, Problem with Unenforced Laws. Those of us who are worried about privacy do not do so because we care about the rights of terrorists. The fact is that if allowed, the government will destroy the very core of our democracy. And the classification system is not primarily used to keep our country safe from those who would harm it. It is used to keep the government safe as it attempts to harm the country. And that just won’t do.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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