For those of you who already know me or about me, you know I used to be a counterintelligence agent. I worked with and about classified information. It was basically my job. What I’m about to say now is probably going to be taken as a bit of hypocrisy or at least with a sense of strangeness. You see, I don’t think most of what is classified these days really should be classified at all. I’m being nice by saying “most”, but in actuality, I mean none of it.
The first part of the problem is that we classify way too much. If some decision-maker thinks there’s a fear of our “enemies” finding out something about what we’re doing, he or she immediately feels that information needs to be classified. In my time, I’ve seen people feel the need to classify newspaper articles. Yeah, I’m serious. Mass-printed and mass-distributed newspaper articles. Someone in our government (and by someone, I mean a LOT of people) reads an article in a newspaper and then decides that information needs to be classified, so it gets made “Confidential”. Then someone up that chain reads the release, feels it’s even more dangerous if our enemies find ou about it and upgrades it to “Secret” or even “Top Secret.” Meanwhile, some farmer in Utah is reading that exact document with his morning coffee because it came from a newspaper, not from the CIA. Yeah, that happens a lot.
Which brings me to the philosophical part of the argument. If we were an autocratic government, or a dictatorship, or some country that basically lives its existence by doing evil deeds in the shadows, well, then, I would think we need to classify a lot of things. But that’s not supposed to be our government. We’re supposed to be a nation that exists as one where the people make the decisions. The people decide who goes into office. The people decide who creates new laws. And at a lot of times, we vote for a lot of the laws that run our very lives. At no time did we elect a dictator-in-chief, nor did we ever sign up for a Master-of-Secrets. We have a free press because our news people are supposed to be able to tell us what’s really going on so we can properly decide on the right people to keep representing us for the laws we would like to see enacted.
A perfect society should have no secrets. At all.
I know the immediate response to this is “but what about our enemies???” The thought is that we need to keep certain information from our enemies to make sure they don’t know what actions we are taking against them.
Okay, why are we taking actions against anyone to begin with? Cause they don’t like us? Cause they hate us? Cause they do dastardly things targeted at us?
What would change if we were more upfront about the information we collect? We have entire police agencies that operate mostly in the sunlight, yet they are still quite capable of stopping a lot of really bad people. Sometimes, they don’t tell the whole story of what they’re doing, and most of the time when that information has been revealed, it turns into a bit of a scandal, and the Monday Morning Quarterbacks indicate that they probably should have been a lot more honest about what they were doing. And even if that wasn’t the case, our police agencies collect information until they make the arrest. And then the courts are privy to the information. We generally don’t try people with “secret” information. The few times we have tried to do that, it has backfired horribly. And yeah, I know there are a couple of instances going on where we’re doing exactly that. Mark my words: Those will backfire horribly, too.
An important question to ask is why do we have enemies in the first place that we have to keep information from? I think if we dug deep enough, we could probably find some circumstances we did in the past that made things as they are. Some, maybe not. But that still doesn’t indicate a reason for having to keep information confidential from people we generally don’t trust. If the Iranians know that we have lots of cruise missiles on ships parked off their coast, knowing about it is probably not going to do them a whole lot of good. But even so, I’m not advocating telling our “enemies” about our troop movements, but about changing our mindset from one of secrecy to one of sunshine diplomacy. We are a very powerful country. If a potential enemy sees us on their doorstep, classifying stupid memos doesn’t change the fact that they’re going to realize that they’re being watched, and they’re being watched by a pretty powerful potential foe.
You see, the problem I perceive is that our secrecy is being used as a type of cloaked power that it was never designed to be. The press, our check on government, is told that it can’t find certain things out because of “national security” when most people know there’s absolutely no national security at stake in most cases that phrase is used. What’s generally at stake is embarrassing information that certain actors don’t want to reveal to the press because it might cause them to lose their leverage in the cloaked power of secrecy they currently maintain. A fresh slate means that people can make honest decisions based on honest observations. Way too often in the past, someone in power has stated that something cannot be revealed because “government knows better”, which is slang for “some moron in government thinks he knows better than you do.” Sorry, but I call them as I see them.
The biggest problem I perceive in my suggestion is that people will constantly cling to the old adages of Cold War philosophy, thinking that diplomacy is a weapon rather than a tool. We still think in terms of how another country can benefit us rather than how we can use this mega machine of democracy to develop more democracies and, in turn, fix our own. Because in case you don’t realize it, since 911, we’ve moved further away from democracy than we have in decades, and we’re still cascading down that path towards oppression. And most of us don’t even see it because we’ve been blinded by nearly a century of having gone the other way.
Government should never be used as a vehicle to drive over its citizens, but as an implement to take those citizens to somewhere better. Right now, we’re going through a pre-election period where absolutely NONE of the candidates are talking about that better road. Well, one of them maybe, but he’s being cast aside as inconvenient rather than as an actual player. Which means we’re going to have nearly an entire decade of continuing to travel down the wrong path without ever realizing we’re not even traveling to the place we set out to go when we first started.