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The Strange Politics of ‘Classified’ Information

Bonaparte went ahead and created his bureau anyway: the forerunner of today’s F.B.I. World War I gave that bureau a new raison d’être, transforming a small band of detectives into a modern intelligence operation, charged with investigating wartime loyalty under new laws like the 1917 Espionage Act. After World War II, a permanent classification system took hold. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies 1940 as the moment when ‘‘classified’’ began to mean ‘‘designated as officially secret; accessible or known only to authorized people.’’ Before that, to be a ‘‘classified’’ employee was simply to be a member of the Civil Service whose job could be sorted into some grade or rank.

Some of what was ‘‘classified’’ under the new system involved vital intelligence matters: military plans, weapons technology, the names of informants overseas. But government officials also claimed the right to conduct sensitive negotiations in confidence, and the system rapidly expanded to include routine bureaucratic business. This secrecy was a useful tool, but it became a crutch too — a way for federal employees to cover up mistakes or to inflate their own importance. ‘‘In a culture of secrecy,’’ the Moynihan Commission noted, ‘‘that which is not secret is easily disregarded or dismissed,’’ producing powerful incentives for government officials to classify pretty much everything. (And little incentive not to; why risk scrutiny?) Thus began the problem of overclassification, in which even humdrum exchanges end up labeled ‘‘Top Secret,’’ ‘‘Secret,’’ ‘‘Confidential’’ or at least ‘‘Restricted,’’ the four categories laid out by Harry Truman in his 1951 executive order establishing the modern classification system.

This could produce absurd results. In the 1950s, according to the historian Sam Lebovic, the Labor Department refused to say how much peanut butter the Army had purchased, for fear that enemy number-crunchers might figure out the size of the armed forces, a statistic that was already public. Vast amounts of information — some of it no doubt revelatory, some of it innocuous — remain similarly hidden. In the 1990s, the Moynihan commission estimated that 1.5 billion records dating from more than 25 years back remained inaccessible. In fiscal year 2014 alone, the decision to classify a document was made 77.5 million times. Year after year, the result is an astonishing backlog of classified material.

Even as the Freedom of Information Act allows some of that material to drip into view, many documents emerge heavily redacted, with entire paragraphs or pages blacked out according to one or another legal exemption. The nonprofit National Security Archive has fun matching up different versions of such documents, exposing the ‘‘inane and contradictory’’ outcomes that can result when different agencies review what’s acceptable for release. On one 1974 document, the C.I.A. redacted news that terrorists in the ‘‘Group of the Martyr Ebenezer Scrooge’’ planned to sabotage the Dec. 24 flight of ‘‘Prime Minister and Chief Courier S. Claus’’; the Ford Library found no national-security threat in revealing a Christmas joke.

Government officials recognized a problem early on. In 1956, the Defense Department estimated that about 90 percent of its classified documents could easily be made available to the public without damaging national security. Around the same time, Washington observers noticed another disturbing phenomenon: the government-employee ‘‘leak.’’ As Lebovic notes in his 2016 book ‘‘Free Speech and Unfree News,’’ the introduction of a permanent classification system had ‘‘transformed the practice and culture of journalism,’’ creating a Washington press corps dependent on tips and information from government employees. The new system also weighted the political scales in favor of officials adept at hiding unflattering facts and publicizing useful ones. At the F.B.I., the former director J. Edgar Hoover insisted that investigative files be kept secret, waging repeated battles to keep them away from the courts and Congress. But he also became a master of the leak, parceling out choice tidbits to reporters at strategic moments. The competing factions in today’s White House appear to understand this technique, even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions promises to step up the administration’s war on leaks.

During the 1970s, under the Nixon administration, this wobbly system of secrecy and leaks came near to collapse. In his 1971 Pentagon Papers opinion, Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court noted how longstanding tensions over the public’s right to know had produced a vicious politics of deception and subterfuge. ‘‘When everything is classified, then nothing is classified,’’ he wrote, ‘‘and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion.’’ Stewart meant this as a call for reform. In Trump’s Washington, where the struggle over classified information plays out in day-to-day politics, it sounds more like a description of business as usual. The year after Stewart’s opinion was issued, a break-in at the Watergate set off a cycle of leaks — and a scramble to protect secret information — that ultimately brought down the president.

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