The U.S. government classifies three documents every second — a rate that has accumulated enough paper to fill the Washington Monument more than 26 times. The digital footprint of the state’s top-secret data, meanwhile, is so vast that officials lack the capacity to estimate its size. Government officials can hardly keep track of the information they designate as classified. No wonder, then, that classified files keep turning up where they shouldn’t: at a beachfront resort in Florida, in a think tank office in D.C. and at a private residence in Indiana.
As Matthew Connelly shows in his harrowing new book, “The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets,” the document turmoil surrounding Donald Trump, President Biden and Mike Pence is a result of a government classification system that spiraled out of control almost as soon as it was established. Connelly is the lead investigator at History Lab, a team of historians and data scientists at Columbia University who have created the world’s largest database of declassified government documents. For the last eight years, the group has employed machine-learning tools to decipher what the U.S. government wants to keep us from knowing, and why. “The Declassification Engine” builds on History Lab’s work to explore the origins and implications of America’s long-standing addiction to secrecy. The book dramatizes a hidden crisis of national understanding: While government bureaucracies inundate themselves with classified information, the citizens they serve are left powerless to understand what goes on in their name.
The U.S. government didn’t always maintain classified records. Connelly begins by emphasizing that the nation’s founders were committed to public transparency. In an age of small government — and an age in which lawmakers and officials answered only to propertied White men — keeping an open book proved straightforward. Systems for protecting secret records periodically emerged in response to military conflicts. But the government always made certain to dismantle its classification infrastructures during peacetime.
World War II changed all of that. The wartime development of nuclear weapons convinced officials of the benefits of compartmentalizing sensitive information. More important, the war’s end ushered in a new geopolitical order that demanded a permanent state of secrecy — and a broadened approach to governance at home and abroad. In the coming decades, the state’s expanding bureaucracies left behind a vast paper trail that accumulated behind opaque levels of security classification. From weapons development to diplomatic negotiations, and from code-breaking projects to scientific research, the postwar American government produced more classified information than nonclassified information by several orders of magnitude.
Connelly’s book unearths disturbing tales from the materials collected at History Lab. In 1941, a pair of hawkish State Department functionaries apparently celebrated the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, so certain were they that the attack would push the United States toward war. In 1972, shortly after the Munich Olympics massacre, the FBI initiated an operation known as “Boulder,” a program subjecting U.S. visa applicants with Arabic-sounding names to intensified surveillance. (The government appears to have resumed withholding information about Operation Boulder after Sept. 11, 2001, when homeland security agencies began experimenting with similar racial-profiling projects.)
“The Declassification Engine” also reveals that historians have oversimplified some of America’s most controversial diplomatic maneuvers during the Cold War. The CIA’s ouster of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 wasn’t merely a product of the well-documented lobbying campaigns of the United Fruit Company. It was a result of a backroom deal between the White House and American oil executives in the Middle East. They coordinated to protect the world’s petroleum markets from Soviet influence.
Connelly’s computer-assisted approach is useful in upending the narratives of government transparency on which American politicians often campaign. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has issued new protocols for protecting government secrets, often while portraying their administrations as more open than those of their predecessors. In practice — and at big-data scale — the numbers belie those stories. Jimmy Carter turns out to have classified documents at the same rate as Richard Nixon. The most secretive president of all was Barack Obama, who campaigned on a platform promising “open government.” (The Obama White House classified more documents and prosecuted more leakers than any in history.) For all his bluster about releasing all of the CIA’s Kennedy assassination files, Trump absorbed Obama’s classification guidelines wholesale. Trump also continued a long-standing presidential tradition of hollowing out the institutions that work to manage classified information. Since the 1980s, librarians and archivists around the country have had to follow a familiar bureaucratic imperative: Do more with less.
Connelly regards the book’s catalogue of secrets as evidence that the U.S. government operates as a “dark state.” The turn of phrase is catchy, but its connotations of coordinated conspiracy tend to obscure the book’s account of the quotidian workings of power. As Connelly shows, most of the government’s classified documents are created out of negligence and inertia. Secrets provide a front-line defense against liability, and, as such, they reinforce the status quo. Hoarding classified information has helped the Pentagon and the National Security Agency to spin news stories, skirt civilian oversight and guarantee the uninterrupted flow of federal appropriations. At the CIA and the State Department, meanwhile, secrecy often works for secrecy’s sake. By classifying information at the highest levels, officials with security clearances can enhance the perception of their own relevance, particularly when political winds change.
Readers will doubtless look to “The Declassification Engine” to make sense of the classified files that are now in the news. Yet to insist on the timeliness of Connelly’s research may be to miss its most powerful lesson. There is a much sadder story detailed in the pages of “The Declassification Engine” — a story about the existential threat that secrecy poses to civic knowledge. Several generations’ worth of classified information now languishes in an outdated record-keeping apparatus that costs more than $18 billion per year to maintain. The government’s efforts to release redacted tranches of formerly classified papers — a process required by law, in some cases — have all but ground to a halt. Many of its classified electronic records will end up lost, either buried under mountains of new data or deleted in the replacement of legacy storage systems.
As Connelly suggests, the situation portends something close to “the end of history as we know it.” Look beyond the headlines, and it’s easy to see why. FBI raids and voluntary handovers have now rescued the Trump, Biden and Pence documents. In all likelihood, the trouble they’ve spawned will come and go. But what then? At some point soon, the mishandled files will take their place at the end of a long line of classified documents, measured in trillions of pages and petabytes of data, all waiting to be sorted, processed and stored. For reasons as much logistical as political, their contents will never see the light of day. By the time you finish reading this article, dozens more top-secret files will have joined them in darkness. The loss to historical understanding is catastrophic. The line only grows.
Brian Hochman is the Hugh J. Cloke director of American studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of “The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States.”
The Declassification Engine
What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets
By Matthew Connelly
Pantheon. 540 pp. $32.50
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