The Problem with National Intelligence and Classified Information

One of my pet peeves has been the concept of classified information. It’s commonly used as a gatekeeper to give some people access to information and keep others away from it. When people talk about it and think about it, it’s often considered of significant importance that this information is kept classified and away from other people who don’t have access. Strangely enough, no one really seems to think about it from the perspective of wondering why we keep all of this information classified in the first place.

In the old days, and I mean like the 1940s, classified information was important because it meant keeping it away from the Axis powers who meant to do us harm. During the Cold War, it was to keep the information away from the evil KGB and their cronies who were out to do all sorts of harm to the US people. I guess now it’s being kept from terrorists who, of course, mean to do us harm.

What I find myself asking more and more these days is why is the stuff we keep classified actually being kept classified. And almost always, the reasoning seems to fall short of any test of logic.

I was looking at the requirements for working for the State Department the other day and noticed that to be in practically any position, including a mechanic, you need at least a Secret clearance level. And this immediately started putting my thinking process through the obvious channels of one thing leads to another. I thought, why does a mechanic need a Secret clearance? And then you go through the usual Kevin Bacon approaches to connecting dots and start thinking “well, he might be working in the motorpool one day when some guy with Secret information might be talking about secret things.” And then you realize how absurd that is because the guy with Secret information shouldn’t be talking around people who don’t have clearances in the first place. And that got me thinking, what exactly would someone in the State Department be talking about that should be classified? And basically, it kept coming back to even more questions that bothered me because in each case, the “Secret” information appeared to me to be information that might be embarrassing if it got out but generally not something detrimental to the country itself.

And that’s what I’m starting to realize is the reason for most of our classifications today. We make things Confidential or Secret because we really don’t want anyone else to know what it is we’re tracking or talking about. Yet, the information we’re talking about probably shouldn’t be classified in the first place.

We live in a country that values its freedoms. But in order to truly value those freedoms, the people of that country need to know what their leaders are actually doing. But we don’t. Because they classify everything to make sure that we don’t know what they’re doing.

Does this protect our country? Not in the slight. As a matter of fact, it makes our country even more vulnerable because its people are putting others into power based on limited knowledge of what might really be going on. And we’re told that it’s better this way because what’s really doing on is too important for everyone to know what’s going on. It’s kind of one of those vicious cycles that doesn’t ever get any better.

So, who are we supposed to be protecting this information from? The Russians? The Chinese? The North Koreans? It all sounds good in theory, but in reality, so little of that information that is classified these days would make a difference if any of those entities actually knew what was going on. Well, maybe the schematics of how to build a nuclear device, or something like that, but that’s not really what we’re classifying. We’re classifying conversations between people who couldn’t build a nuclear device if their lives depended on it. They’re bureaucrats who really don’t have a lot of intricate knowledge about anything.

I sometimes think the majority of the stuff they classify is just to appear more important than they really are. And this mentality feeds upon itself and often makes things even worse.

Back when I was in the service and working in that field, I used to see things become classified that had just been printed in the New York Times. But because some bureaucrat read it, he would then type up the same article and then declare “SECRET” or even “TOP SECRET” and make sure only those with high clearances were able to read it. But the newspaper article would still be out there, being read by anyone who bought it, including parakeets who had it lined on the bottom of their cages. And as sad as this seems to admit, people were threatened with being brought up on charges because of disclosing something that they might have actually read in the newspaper but some other bureaucrat only read it in a security briefing (because of that doofus who classified it in the first place).

I’ll come out and just say what I believe here, but I think way too much information is deemed classified in a society that should be a lot more open with its information. We classify farm reports, trade manuals, articles from newspapers (as previously mentioned), financial forecasts, political meetings, patents, treatments for diseases and illnesses, phone call records, as well as so much more information all in the guise of protecting “national security.” And honestly, what’s the benefit?

To be honest, I don’t perceive this changing any time soon because bureaucrats love to think of themselves as more important than they really are. That’s never been different in our civilization. The greatest impediment to evolving knowledge is when we hoard knowledge and evidence, yet we seem to do that more and more these days.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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