The Corner

National Security & Defense

Against Overclassification

I’ll be posting an analysis of the key takeaways from Nunes memo shortly, but I’d also like to note a side issue — an issue that should get far more attention than it does. Quite simply, America classifies far too much information. Look at the memo. Does any part of this formerly “highly classified” document strike you as putting America in peril? At worst it exposes something that was one of the most poorly-kept secrets in the entire nation — that Carter Page was subject to a FISA warrant. 

So now we’re in the inevitable phase two of the memo debate. Because it’s a series of “top-line conclusions,” the memo is already subject to a fierce food-fight over its content. For example, the Democrats are contesting the GOP conclusion that the Steele dossier was indispensable to the grant of the FISA warrant against Page:

It is not clear to what extent the FISA application hinges on the material provided by Mr. Steele. In December 2017, the Republican memo said, Andrew G. McCabe, then the deputy director of the F.B.I., told the House Intelligence Committee that no surveillance would have been sought without Mr. Steele’s information.

But the people familiar with the Democratic memo said that Republicans had distorted what Mr. McCabe told the intelligence committee about the importance of the information from Mr. Steele. Mr. McCabe presented the material as part of a constellation of compelling evidence that raised serious suspicions about Mr. Page, the two people said. The evidence included contacts Mr. Page had in 2013 with a Russian intelligence operative.

Here’s a shocking idea. Let’s see the transcript. Let’s see what McCabe actually said. And while we’re at it, let’s see the other relevant documents — like the FISA applications themselves — with only the lightest and most necessary of redactions. At the very least disclosing the relevant portions of the McCabe transcript won’t threaten national security in the slightest, and it would have the salutary effect of exposing one or more of our “public servants” as partisan liars.

Knowledge is power, and there is no doubt that Washington likes to hoard power. I reviewed vast amounts of classified information during my military career, and I can assure you that only the smallest fraction of that information was truly dangerous. Most of it was classified by default — some of it classified (believe it or not) simply because of the kind of computer a soldier used when he sent the email. 

The result is a lack of public accountability. The result is a breach of public trust. Public officials can say what they wish about some of the most contentious issues in American life while being reasonably sure that no one will ever be able to check their work. And if someone does, they can scream “leaker!”

To be clear, I’m not advocating for self-help. I’m not advocating for leaking. Public officials have an obligation to follow the law. I am advocating for reform. It’s time to carefully reconsider the extent to which we wall off information from the public and the extent to which we permit public officials to hide their bias, incompetence, and sometimes even malice behind that red “classified” stamp.

The Nunes memo shouldn’t have been classified. The information supporting the memo should be mostly available to the public. Today’s firestorm is evidence that the present system is harming the body politic. It has to change. 

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