When secrecy gets out of control

The Bush administration’s mania for secrecy is well known but it recently got way out of control.

The Justice Department obtained a grand jury subpoena to force the ACLU to return a government document it had obtained, on the grounds that the documents’ disclosure would do "serious damage" to national security.

And what secret of state did this four-page document contain? It was an Army memo summarizing the policies and rules for photographing prisoners of war and detainees in Iraq. (In sum, journalists can photograph them at will; soldiers only in an official capacity.)

The ACLU described the memo as "at best mildly embarrassing." It didn’t even rise to that level of official discomfiture.

Perhaps it was because the document was dated more than a year after the infamous Abu Ghraib photos of prisoners being abused, but the Pentagon didn’t need a memo to learn that lesson.

This week, federal prosecutors, "in light of changed circumstances," withdrew the subpoena. The circumstances changed, all right. The feds saw that the ACLU was closing in on an easy victory in its court challenge to the subpoena.

This incident demonstrates misuse of the classification process and the grand jury.

The ACLU — and, whatever you think of that legal rights organization, it should know — called it a "truly chilling" means of suppressing information and using a grand jury to do so "unprecedented in law and in our history as an organization."

Moreover, you really have to wonder about the mindset of the bureaucracy that classified this stuff as secret in the first place.

The Bush administration’s invocation of national security to declare information secret — including information already in the public domain — now invites skepticism. Maybe its claims should invite something more — disbelief.