By John J. Martin
Following the JFK Records Act of 1992, all remaining governments files pertaining to President Kennedy’s assassination were released to the public on October 26 of this year. This 25-year deadline for declassifying information has been a hallmark of intelligence communities for some time now, further solidified in the United States by former President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13526, which states “the duration of classification of a document […] shall not exceed 25 years from the date of the origin of the document.”
Some may hail Obama’s executive order as a shift toward greater transparency, but even assuming the best of intentions, the order was written under very naïve pretenses. The internet has made it increasingly difficult for government agencies to keep secrets hidden for such an extended period, and this trend will only grow exponentially in the coming decades. Instead of hopelessly fighting the unavoidable and having their secrets continually revealed by the media, intelligence communities worldwide should get ahead of the curve and release as much information as possible in the near future.
Peter Swire, former Chief Counselor for Privacy at the US Office of Management and Budget, was absolutely correct when he stated that the intelligence community is experiencing a declining “half-life of secrets.” He argues that governmental activities are becoming progressively harder to keep confidential; a classified document from 1963 might have taken decades until it came into the public eye, whereas a classified document from nowadays might only take a few years or even months for this to occur. Swire wrote his paper on this idea two years ago, and the events of 2017 have certainly helped to further validate his hypothesis. Leaks are becoming more common for two primary reasons.
First, greater direct access to and control over media through the internet has emboldened investigators and journalists to publicize classified information. While Dan Ellsberg struggled to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, online media outlets today are far less reserved when it comes to revealing such kinds of documents. Second, the anonymity that comes with acquiring and making public leaked documents through the internet has given hackers and whistleblowers a sense of security that they will not be caught and punished for their actions. The former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Richard Fadden has even stated that “it is almost impossible to find” people who leak confidential information.
The obvious driver behind this increasing disclosure has been technological innovation, mainly the development of the internet as a modern-day tool to obtain and disseminate information to mass audiences. Even if governments were to avoid digitizing top secret documents in order to thwart hackers, the inconspicuous nature of online journalism would still encourage hard copies to be shared with little threat of criminal prosecution. This trend is not going to stop. Rather, it will continue to grow as technology advances further. Intelligence agencies cannot evade Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing power will double every 18 months for the indefinite future. This aggressive advancement in computer technology has allowed hackers to more effortlessly breach security networks over the years and, unless some cataclysmic event occurs, leaking will only become easier.
Intelligence agencies have three potential ways to respond. They could ignore the trend, and keep fighting against hacktivism and document leakage in general with their current laws and resources. This method would gradually become more ineffective over time, though, and those few individuals who are caught may end up being scapegoated by the government despite having valid reasons for leaking, such as Chelsea Manning who spent seven years in prison for releasing videos highlighting war crimes committed by US soldiers. Alternatively, intelligence communities could try to strengthen their cybersecurity, which seems like the most likely route they will take. However, governments are notoriously bad when it comes to meeting basic standards of security for their online services and databases, so one could anticipate such a plan failing over time. This leaves one option, which would be for intelligence communities to simply release on their own terms the millions of non-life-threatening confidential documents that they presently shelter.
This method might come across as extraordinarily dangerous or defeatist to those involved in national security, but it is important to again consider the alternatives. The media currently churns out dozens of articles annually, illuminating various instances of government corruption and overreach revealed through leaked documents. The most infamous of these cases often portray the government as secretive and authoritative, neither of which are flattering images.
Given that this trend will only get “worse” from the perspective of the intelligence communities, why delay the inevitable? Release as many confidential documents as possible now – barring ones that’s release would threaten people’s lives – before the media gets to them first through unauthorized means. In the courtroom, this tactic is known as "stealing thunder," and it would allow intelligence agencies to win public support by coming across as more transparent. At the same time, the tactic would undermine the media’s ability to criticize the government through perpetual unbecoming scandals, as leaks would naturally become less common under this system of transparency. Intelligence agencies might be willingly losing the battle against leaks if they do this, but they will ultimately emerge as the victors in the long run.
John J. Martin is the Global Transparency Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John earned his BA in International Relations from New York University.