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CURMUDGEONRY
Confidential, Classified, and Covered Up
The abuse of secrecy by government officials.

by Barnabas
April 14, 2004

"Doing well at war entails deceiving your enemies and ganging up on them. No general or admiral in his right mind ever wanted a fair fight. Contrast this ethic with its ordinary meaning of fair play, straight dealing, and regard for your neighbor, and you realize the degree to which war turns ethics upside down." 
Barnabas, May 29, 2002.

"The White House originally resisted releasing the article, part of the President's Daily Brief, or PDB, citing the sensitivity of intelligence information. It characterized the document as a historical summary with little current information on which the president could have acted."
washingtonpost.com, April 11, 2004

The paragraph about the release of the presidential brief evokes the famous cliché, brilliant when first asked by Senator Howard Baker but since rendered comic by repetition: What Did the President Know and When Did He Know It? In its attempt to not-answer the question, the White House said (if the report is accurate),

1) The President doesn’t know anything as a result of this worthless and irrelevant document.

2) This worthless and irrelevant document must remain classified.

The doublespeak involved is so habitual, yet so obvious, that those who said it must have stopped listening to themselves long ago.

If you are tempted to explain to me What They Really Meant, you make my point. At their level of responsibility, at the world’s power center, they should keep their mouths shut if they haven’t the skill to make what they really mean and what they actually say coincide. In strategic terms – and I care about strategy too – a secret is as good as blown as soon as critics or enemies suspect there is a secret.

For very limited purposes, such as the prosecution of a war or of a criminal investigation, classification of documents is a necessary discipline to protect the principle of surprise. But then the government cannot have it both ways and retain a moral defense for its secrecy. The government is corrupt whenever it uses its power of classification to gain or hold domestic political advantage.

So here are three simple guidelines for the proper use of government secrecy in a free society.

1) Secrets must be very few and limited to the government’s war-making and constitutional investigative powers. The lazy notion of "might be sensitive" is illegitimate. We’re dealing with must be, not might be.

2) If a secret must be made, it must be kept. If it doesn’t have to be kept after all, it didn’t have to made in the first place – and the government is supposed is know the difference.

3) Classification must never be politically motivated.

This is not about political philosophy, but about governmental competence. The last I saw, no political party has cornered the market on incompetence. There seems to be enough of that to go around.



About the Author:
Barnabas doesn't remember being punished for trying to lie, but he does remember being made to feel ridiculous.


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