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The Book of the Week is “The Declassification Engine, What History Reveals about America’s Top Secrets” by Matthew Connelly, published in 2023.
The author recounted the American government’s history (beginning with FDR) of generating bureaucratic “classified” documents that presumably describe clandestine activities. This excessive avalanche of papers and electronic files (which are growing by the day) allegedly contain State secrets or personal information, that, if revealed, might be a risk to national security or an invasion of people’s privacy.
The United States monitors worldwide communications through its eighteen different spying agencies, staffed by James Bond wannabes. The comprehensive maintenance of this secret society the author called the “dark state” costs taxpayers an estimated trillion dollars a year. Its rate of declassifying documents is getting slower and slower, due to: a) the overwhelming amount of documents, which leads to the high expenses of having human eyes’ poring over every page, or machine-learning’s identifying patterns showing how confidential the contents are; and b) the humans’ deeming everything and anything “top secret” for the purpose of maintaining the status quo in profiteering, power acquisition and confidentiality itself (which leads to more power acquisition).
In connection therewith, the Pentagon has led a never-ending quest to increase its budget by arguing that national security is at stake. The 2017 cost-estimate of keeping the aforementioned secrets-maintaining– er, uh, declassification system going, was $18.39 billion, with which a thousand schools could have been constructed instead.
A large percentage of the costs are for public relations, and a tiny fraction is allocated to declassification– so that American citizens can find out the embarrassing actions their government took fifty or more years ago; at which time institutional memory has been lost and the alpha males with hubris syndrome in top leadership positions repeat the stupid mistakes of the past.
The American government’s oversight and regulation of itself has waxed and waned through the decades, but it has recently reached an all-time low. The author believed that unless the government begins to improve its transparency record by declassifying its activities at a faster rate, the country will head toward oblivion.
In 2015, the author (a history professor) and his scholarly and technologically experienced colleagues (who created the aforementioned software for declassifying documents) met with a few federal agencies to offer to assist in improving this out-of-control system.
The State Department suggested awarding student-interns with college credit for helping determine the secrecy-status of the documents. The National Archives said it was required to license the author’s team’s software through their own approved vendor. The CIA told the team, the software could be hosted through Amazon’s cloud computing.
The Public Interest Declassification Board referred the author to Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose work overlapped with the National Archives. But regardless of the methods used and compensation arrangements, the author identified why the declassifying of documents was so problematic: “We cannot assign a dollar value to democratic accountability.”
One small indication that shows government hegemony, is that three major “news” outlets, the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal have online paywalls– they charge their users money for significant access to their websites. Most other such websites don’t. Readers who are unwilling to pay for “news” these days perceive that they’re not missing much by not reading those three newspapers. They might be right. BUT the author commented that “The publications can monetize the privileged access to national security information for personal and political advantage.”
Anyway, read the book to learn a boatload more about American presidential administrations’ policies on disclosure (and lack thereof!) of their intelligence activities.