Breaking out of the Warehouse

Breaking out of the Warehouse:

At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the magical weapon-to-end-all-weapons, a "radio to God," is sealed away in a government warehouse, marked "Secret." This seems to be the reflexive reaction of governments to powerful, dangerous things. Having held a security clearance and read secret documents on a regular basis, I have often felt that the government vastly overclassifies -- and that it should find a way to get the information out, so that the citizenry can know what is going on. That is one reason this page is a longtime friend of Secrecy News, which always keeps pressure on the government to declassify robustly, and fights against new restrictions designed to keep unclassified information from the public.

America can benefit from increased openness, because it would make clear how little our operations and secrets are like those of genuinely vicious nations. Consider this childlike book found in the secret files of Iraq:

It looks like a schoolgirl's lesson book. The cover bears a repeating flower motif in hot pink and white. A few words handwritten in Arabic fill a small title field on its face. "Register of Eliminated Villages," Mr. Makiya translates aloud, running his fingers over the words.

The book, Mr. Makiya says, records the Baath Party's destruction of 399 Kurdish villages in the Eastern sector of Northern Iraq in 1987.
There's an interesting debate on the best way to secure and publicize the remnaing several million pages of the regime's secret files. Brave Iraqis trying to build something here want them: academics, who are afraid to send these resources back to a place where they may be destroyed if a hostile faction gets ahold of them, are resisting.

Another project is trying to resurrect the destroyed Stasi files:
There's no way to know what bombshells those files hide. For a country still trying to come to terms with its role in World War II and its life under a totalitarian regime, that half-destroyed paperwork is a tantalizing secret.

The machine-shredded stuff is confetti, largely unrecoverable. But in May 2007, a team of German computer scientists in Berlin announced that after four years of work, they had completed a system to digitally tape together the torn fragments.
That project isn't a pipe dream: the reason China has an atomic weapon today is that they were able to reconstitute shredded Soviet documents.

American secrecy is of a different type, not intended to conceal tyrannical acts, but to protect operational security and give planners a moment to think. The problem doesn't arise from a desire to conceal vicious deeds, but from a lack of interest: once a thing is stuck in the warehouse, it is forgotten.

That said, in a Republic the flow of information to the citizens should be as unimpeded as reasonable. We have a role as citizens in giving assent to the government, and advice through both elections and peaceful assembly and petition; we have also, therefore, a genuine need to know and to understand.

A robust, lawful and orderly declassification process is the way to match the needs of the Republic and the citizen, with the operational security requirements that protect our servicemembers, agents and officers. The impulse is to lock things in the warehouse, and never think of it again. We need to have someone whose job it is to always be reviewing those boxes, and thinking about which ones can be brought out into the sun.

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