The Dysfunctional National Secrets System
Posted on July 7, 2016
We now have petabytes of classified information archived in storage. That’s like millions of movies, or billions of books, or trillions of pages, or thousands of digitized copies of the entire library of Congress.
There is no possible way to ever declassify much of this stuff, because no one has time to read it. So a classified run-of-the-mill document is pretty much lost forever, unless it is declassified.
In theory everything is subject to declassification and is reviewed periodically, but that can’t possibly happen for most documents because of resource constraints.
The declassification system reviews around 15 million pages per year. That is nowhere near the rate of production of new secrets. There is a rapidly growing backlog of hundreds of millions of pages waiting to be reviewed. Nevertheless the declassification system is a huge advance over what we had during the cold war because it gets triggered by FOIA requests.
Also, nothing gets into the archive of secrets in the first place unless someone determines it is potentially significant. I have no idea how many secret documents just get destroyed because they were marked as not significant. (How can a document be important enough to classify yet not of potential significance to a scholar 50 years later trying to understand the system?)
Also nothing gets scheduled for declassified from the archives unless it is judged to have “permanent historical value.”
These days almost anything that might be embarrassing to somebody gets classified. So there is likely a huge backlog of documented embarrassments that will never be uncovered.
Also there is an even larger group of documents that are “sensitive” but not formally classified. There is no effective procedure for bringing most of them to the light of day. If you get wind of something you can file a FOIA request, but the no such thing as an FOIA request for unknown embarrassments.
Bottom line: without whistleblowers and leakers, most of the embarrassing or scandalous or criminal things bureaucrats do would never come to light.
The declassification system will eventually bring a small fraction of them to light–but only long after they cease to have any political significance.
If you believe that democracy should have a role in government, then you ought to view whistleblowers as high patriots.