Monday, July 26, 2010


I've already linked to a couple of good things written about the Wikileaks Afghanistan story, but I don't want to let it pass without linking to Matt Yglesias's sensible comments about government secrets

The most famous example of this was Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, which as someone famously said when it was exposed, wasn't a secret to the Cambodians.  You can see an obvious echo of that in the Wikileaks material.  One of the big revelations, according to the NYT story, was that the Taliban has been using heat-seaking missiles (and forgive me if I have that not quite right -- military details are not my strength.  Also, I seem to remember reading elsewhere today that this "secret" was already reported.  Anyway, back to the discussion).  You see where I'm going here: this wasn't a secret to the Taliban! 

Now, in both cases, I can imagine reasons for governments to keep bad news quiet other than just making things look good (or at least less bleak) to voting citizens.  Governments sometimes have to lie, or at least not state the truth, in order for diplomacy to work...I don't think it's a crime for the United States to conveniently not officially notice that Israeli has nuclear weapons.  But we all know that governments are inclined to adopt a default position of classifying everything possible.  Indeed, that's probably even more true after eight years of Dick Cheney's influence, if numerous reports about his views on secrecy are correct. 

The obvious problem is that declassifying things, or even changing the standards for classifying future items, is a whole lot of work for a bunch of bureaucrats who almost certainly don't want to do it.  And it's unlikely that presidents who make that a priority are apt to be rewarded by anyone for it.  Still, Yglesias is correct about this, and it would be nice to see the one group that really does have an interest in more easily available information -- the press -- put more pressure on.

(OK, political scientists and historians have an interest in easily available information, too -- but pols have no reason to care what we want.  The press as an interest group is actually somewhat formidable). 


  1. I can see that the government may have reasons to classify certain information (diplomacy etc.) However, then it should follow that newspapers shouldn't feel any compunction against printing this information if it becomes known. We shouldn't see any government officials coming out to say that the NY Times is killing our boys in the field because someone printed their dinner menu.

  2. In spring of 1968, I was in a poli sci course taught by Prof Jean Edward Smith and for a paper examined the then recently released transcripts of the Senate's second hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin incident. My focus was on passages that had been censored in the transcripts of the original hearings, but were now (1968) declassified. My lifetime conclusion was that much of what was censored didn't help the enemy but hurt the democratic debate in the US by withholding relevant information. The only national secret being protected was that the US military and US politicians sometimes lied or were incompetent.
    Has anything changed?


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