The stupidity of secrecy

The movie “Animal House” launched the phrase “double secret” into circulation when Dean Wormer confided that the rambunctious Delta fraternity was on “double secret probation.”

We owe Time magazine’s Matt Cooper for retrieving “double secret” from the realm of boisterous nonsense and installing it in the national-capital lexicon. He wrote in an e-mail to his boss, which surfaced during the Valerie Plame investigation, that his interview with top Bush aide Karl Rove was on “double super secret background.”

But it took the staid, august National Archives, guardian of our most precious records, to elevate the suitably ludicrous expression “double super secret” into government policy.

After having its arm twisted through the Freedom of Information Act _ and doesn’t that law sound quaint now _ by the Associated Press and a nonprofit research group, the National Archives confessed to being complicit in surreptitiously removing previously public records from its shelves and reclassifying them as secret.

And here’s where the “double super secret” part comes in: The fact that the Archives was doing this was itself secret.

Before this dodge was discovered, the Archives had pulled and reclassified 10,000 records containing about 55,000 pages, some of them dating back to the 1940s. (Pssst! Remember World War II? We won. Keep it to yourself.)

The AP said some of the subjects range “from information about 1948 anti-American riots in Colombia to a 1962 telegram containing a translation of a Belgrade news article about China’s nuclear capabilities.”

I think we’ll all sleep better at night knowing the government has clammed up _ in this case, reclammed _ about 58-year-old fracases in South America. On the other hand, we may not sleep so well knowing that our intelligence on Chinese nukes was coming from a Serbian newsstand. (You can see why they might want to keep that secret. Congress might whack somebody’s intelligence budget down to a single subscription to (ital) Glas Javnosti (endital).)

The secret reclassification was done at the request of the usual suspects among government agencies _ the departments of Defense and Justice, the CIA, the DIA and the Air Force.

The program began in the last year of the Clinton administration, when the agencies were chafing under an executive order that said most government records would be declassified after 25 years with the very sensible proviso that if an agency objected it would have to demonstrate why a document should remain secret.

The program really picked up steam when President Bush took office. His White House took the position that pretty much everything it did should remain secret, and now that details are coming out about the hash it made of the Iraq war we can see why.

In 2002, the Archives, where the great documents holding government accountable to the people are housed, signed an agreement with the various agencies pledging to keep secret: the agreement, the reclassification program, the role of the intelligence agencies, and the “true reason” spooks were prowling around the archives. It also pledged to keep this secret from its own people, except those “validated” to know. The Archives employees, like the Deltas, were on double secret probation.

The Archives went even further, saying it was “in the interest” of both the Archives and the government agencies “to avoid the attention and researcher complaints that may arise from removing material that has already been available publicly from the open shelves for an extended period of time.” In other words, if this got out, somebody would look stupid.

Congress should order the Archives to dump all 10,000 documents and 55,000 pages of the reclassified material in a pile and let researchers, historians, reporters and people in off the street paw through it and see what’s there.

Maybe there’s a legitimate secret in there somewhere _ if there is, we’re betting it’s not much of one _ but it’s worth the risk of disclosure to establish that the top-secret stamp should be used sparingly and be subject to review. Classification is not Whack-A-Mole.

And here’s something that’s not double secret, or even single secret: We’re paying for all this.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)