Never since Agent Max Smart and his Cone of Silence have Americans been so enthralled with the complex world of secrecy. Snowden and Manning’s disgorging of NSA secrets has spawned a techie battle of the wits and a market flooded with encryption tools and snoop-repellent tricks. Just this week the HuffPost tells the market impact story. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/13/nsa-backlash_n_4092804.html) Assuming that the records of these troubled times are made public in time, Snowden and Manning will go down as espionage trendsetters.
If there is good news in this unprecedented attention to the game of secrecy it is that people are paying attention to the power and elusive nature of information, especially information hidden from the public in the name of national security and/or patriotism. The long-term impact of their disclosures may never be measured. In the short term, we know that their whistle-blowing has made a difference. It has raised dormant questions about the fundamental tension between the need for secrecy and need for transparency — about what, how and who strikes the balance.
It is no secret that the secrecy ball is in the air.
When Barack Obama came into office access advocates cheered his promise that “we will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” In 2010 the President signed H.R. 553, The Reducing Over-Classification Act.
Among the requirements of H.R. 553 are these: a) a requirement that the Department of Homeland Security designate a Classified Information Advisory Office to disseminate educational materials and administer training programs to assist state, local, tribal, and private sector entities.” b) a requirement that the Director of National Intelligence establish guidance to standardize formats for intelligence products; c) annual training for employees with original classification authority, and d) requirement that federal Inspectors General assess the effectiveness of agency classification policies.
By Sunshine Week 2012 the federal Information Security Oversight Office could report a sharp decline in expenditures for secrecy. Stil,l veteran open government advocate Steven Aftergood was cautious, advising that “many classification decisions are still excluded from critical security and instances of over-classification are not hard to find.”
And then Manning and Snowden threw open Pandora’s Box of Secrets!
Alerted to issues, the public is demanding to know more about the balance between open government vs. security. Last month the Justice Department’s inspector general issued the results of a study to determine if the government’s tendency to over-classify documents actually hurts the very national security it purports to protect.
The DOJ inspector general concluded that the study “did not find indications of widespread misclassification.” Still, the report “did identify deficiencies with the implementation of the Department of Justice’s classification program, including persistent misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of certain classification processes by officials within Justice Department components.”
Open government advocates find some hope in the report. For starts, they hope that the report may help to alleviate the burden of backlogged FOIA requests. In spite of increased staff the FOIA backlog increased in one year (2010-2011) from 70,000 to 83,000.
A closer look at the internal bureaucratic processes that hinder or facilitate the flow of information by and about the government points out some basic facts: The mechanisms are not mechanical at all, but human. Humans not only set the policy, they interpret the policy and implement the process; they make the decisions about classification, interpret the rules, handle the requests, and deal with the public. Right now they are probably furloughed, even as the influx of FOIA requests mounts.
At the same time, information itself is at its core a human resource, produced, recorded, organized and made accessible by humans for use by humans.
Possibly that helps to explain why determining information policy is so intriguing and yet so troublesome.
Note: Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, provides a thoughtful and timely overview of the issue of government secrecy in his paper “An Inquiry into the Dynamic of Government Secrecy” (https://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/dynamics.pdf)