Everything Is Secret, So Don't Bother Asking

Did you know that in 2011 the U.S. government classified more than 92 million documents? Did you know that less than a generation ago, we got by with fewer than six million documents being classified? Along with this explosion in classification and state secrets, did you know that efforts to declassify documents -- to make them theoretically accessible to ordinary Americans -- have plummeted from 196 million pages declassified in 1996 to only 26.7 million in 2011?

Put simply, in less than a generation classification has increased by a factor of fifteen and declassification has decreased by a factor of seven. Boy, that makes me feel a lot freer and safer.

These facts and others that should raise the hackles of any red-blooded American are in this eye-opening article by Tom Engelhardt. Why should they raise our hackles? For at least three reasons.

First, classification is important; state secrets do need to be guarded. But more important than classification is government transparency. We the people need to know everything that we can know, because if we don't, we can't hold government and our elected officials accountable. Classification in a democracy must be used judiciously and sparingly, else democracy itself is imperiled.

Again, classification serves an important role. When I was in the military, I had a security clearance and access to sensitive information and areas. As an additional duty, I served as a unit security officer and also destroyed classified information. Having served during the Cold War and knowing of Soviet efforts to steal secrets, I well recognize the importance of being vigilant.

That said, our government has taken vigilance to new levels of extremity. And extremism in the pursuit of secrecy is no virtue.

So here's the second reason why over-classification is bad: by classifying nearly everything, you make the divulgence of the same a crime. You deter whistle-blowers and truth-tellers. You scare away an already generally compliant media from its vital role as a check on power. And it gets worse. Nowadays, even if something isn't formally classified, the government can claim that the leak of unclassified yet "sensitive" information can be dangerous, since it could expose a pattern of information that threatens state secrets and national security.

At the same time as it deters truth-tellers, over-classification helps those who'd use claims to secrecy to cover their butts. And perhaps most insidiously of all (and this is my third reason), over-classification contributes to a mindset in government that's best summarized as contempt for the people, as captured by the infamous quote by the fictional Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men that "You can't handle the truth."

But who can't handle the truth? Us? Or our government? Sadly, in the name of "transparency" our government is continuing to stamp "SECRET" on nearly everything that moves, further contributing to a sclerotic system that grows increasingly neurotic in an ever-expanding pursuit of secrecy.

And that doesn't sound like the kind of government accountable to the people that our Founders had in mind.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.