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Don’t ask me why it was top secret, or even restricted; our government has gotten the habit of classifying anything as secret which the all-wise statesmen and bureaucrats decide we are not big enough girls and boys to know, a Mother-Knows-Best-Dear policy. I’ve read that there used to be a time when a taxpayer could demand the facts on anything and get them. I don’t know; it sounds Utopian.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (1951), chapter 24
If the United States was ever such a Utopia, it isn’t now. The Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971, and are still classified. Does it matter? Ordinary citizens can certainly read them. Think again. Are you an ordinary citizen? Not if you work for the federal government or a contractor for the federal government and have a security clearance.
The same rules apply to all the classified diplomatic materials recently leaked by WikiLeaks. The federal government has warned everyone with a clearance not to read Wikileaks documents or talk about their content, or read their content in other venues. Occasionally, more extreme measures have been taken, such as the Army blocking major news websites, such as the website of the New York Times, that publish the material.
The government has a right to protect its information. But the government has spectacularly failed to protect its information, and now it is widely read and discussed, except by the United States government employees. This is pointless, and in some cases, damaging to U.S. interests.
As a Department of Homeland Security official put it (quoted on the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy Project blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2010/12/govt_response.html),
If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don’t, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we’ve been intentionally left out of the information loop.
One could argue that government employees, and employees of government contractors, are the people in this country most informed about government affairs. How can we formulate effective policy and make good, democratic decisions if they are muzzled and cannot contribute to public discussions?
What kind of government doesn’t want to be talked about? Not one I want to live in. A democratic government retains the right to withhold certain information to protect its citizens and its interests. But those rights should be exercised judiciously. When the information is no longer protected, then anyone should be able to discuss it.
This column first appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on March 29, 2011.