Sometimes information is classified by the government because it’s proper to do so.
Sometimes information is classified by the government because it’s embarrassing to the government. If you don’t know this, you should do more reading. Try reading Irreparable Harm by Frank Snepp, for starters.
How do we decide which is which, if we’re not going to be told what the information is?
To take a concrete example: say that someone is held at Guantanamo for years. From the documents available to the public, it appears he has no connection to terrorism, and should be let go. Ah, but the Administration says, he does have terror connections. What are they? Sorry . . . that’s classified.
Now, the classified information might truly consist of actual connections between the detainee and terror-related activities. Or it could be that the government lacks any . . . and might be embarrassed by the public airing of that fact. I’ll bet you could even find officials who could argue, with a straight face, that such details truly should remain classified, because embarrassments like that harm the war on terror. At least that’s how they can justify it to themselves.
So how do we tell whether information is being classified for proper or improper purposes?
It’s an important question. I throw it open for discussion.
It seems to me a system of checks and balances — making sure, for example, that Congressional committees are fully notified of critical intelligence information — is a logical way to prevent potential abuses. But the more widespread information becomes, the greater the chance of leaks — especially for political reasons, as members of the opposite party are notified. If we implement a safeguard like that, we need to revise the laws to make improper leaks easier to investigate, and subject to more draconian punishment.
But I’m not sure I’m willing to have a system where we simply place all trust in the executive, and leave it there. There is a history of abuse of the classification system going back decades. We need to have a serious public debate about how to rein in such abuses, so that we as a polity can feel confident that sensitive information is classified only for proper reasons.
And, as the recent disclosure of the effective and legal Swift counterterror program shows, we also need a more effective system for protecting properly classified information — and to identify and severely punish those who leak it.