Expecting one person to keep a secret is rational. Expecting millions to do so is delusional. The current system for classifying and keeping America’s secrets is out of control.
Former President Donald Trump is in hot water with the Justice Department for taking more than 300 documents, including 60 marked “top secret” to Mar-a-Lago in 2021 and failing to return then when asked. Now, President Joe Biden and former vice-president Mike Pence have also found documents with classified markings in their old papers, although both have cooperated in searching for and returning them.
How is all this possible? If those who claim to care about national security rules dumped classified information into packing boxes, who else might have done so?
An estimated four million Americans now hold a security clearance, including 1.7 million with top secret clearance. Each year, 50 million documents are marked for some level of classification. This system is obviously too bloated to allow effective control of legitimately sensitive information.
Classification grew out of the Manhattan Project and the obsession following World War II to protect U.S. nuclear secrets. Over the decades since, national security classifications have become covers for more than military secrets. Markings from “confidential” to designations above “top secret” protect simple but embarrassing bureaucratic mistakes, politically sensitive decisions and relationships, and, frankly, who knows what else.
Defenders of secrets, especially military secrets, will argue that our enemies must not know what we know. If the Vietnam War and most of the conflicts since have taught anything, it should be that our enemies almost always know more than the American people do.
Of course, high-tech weaponry development should be kept secret, although the shelf life of such advances is not very long. Protecting the identity of those involved in espionage is critical.
It seems doubtful that most of the $5 billion spent each year on the classification of “secrets” is necessary for critical national security. The 80-year-old system is inadequate to prevent what security experts call “classified spillage.” The Information Security Oversight Office recommends removing the “confidential” classification, leaving only “secret” and “top secret” classifications as a start to making the system workable.
The best protection for America’s national security is not more secrecy. Instead, the answer is more transparency. Voters should know what their leaders and government officials know in order to judge for themselves how to vote and what to fund.
America doesn’t have four million citizens who can always keep a secret or 50 million secrets worth keeping. In the cause of real national security, it should quit trying.
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