Why Government Secrets Keep Bursting into the Open
tags: history,Manhattan Project,NSA,Intelligence,secrecy,ben tumin,skipped history,confidential documents,matthew connelly
By now, you might’ve seen headlines about the Discord Leaks, confidential documents released by Jack Teixeira, a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman with a history of racist remarks and a troubling interest in mass violence.
To contextualize this kind of government leak, I spoke with Matthew Connelly, a professor of international and global history at Columbia. Professor Connelly is the author of The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets. The book is full of juicy details that help explain why government secrets so often burst into public view. In our conversation, Professor Connelly also revealed information that suggests Teixeira’s discriminatory, belligerent past should come as anything but a surprise.
A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.
BT: Professor Connelly, thank you so much for being here.
MC: Good to be with you, Ben.
BT: Before we get to the present day, let’s begin further back in time. Can you describe what you call the “radical transparency” of the US government for the first 150 years of its existence?
MC: In the early part of American history, starting after the revolution, one thing that really stands out is how the United States had a relatively tiny military establishment. It had no apparatus for collecting intelligence or conducting domestic surveillance. On the contrary, our government provided a lot of information to the American people in real-time.
To take one example, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln decided that American diplomacy should be out in the open. While other countries were encoding their communications and keeping them secret, the US published their diplomatic dispatches because Lincoln thought that more people would support the Union's cause if they knew why they were fighting.
So, in all these ways, the US was different from other countries. Of course, that was a different time. After the revolution, the United States didn't really have to fear foreign invasion because it was just so logistically challenging to cross the oceans.
BT: Nobody had balloons they could launch over the country, for example.
MC: Something like that. And to be clear, there were people living under surveillance: namely, enslaved people, who had a lot to fear from the US government before and even after the Civil War. Also, we have to remember that even if the American military establishment was relatively small compared to European powers of the day, all that firepower was trained on the Native men, women, and children living in the American West.
BT: Right, there’s something refreshing about the transparency that you talk about in the book, but there's also a chilling side to US leaders feeling like they had nothing to hide.
In The Declassification Engine, you write that everything changed during World War II. What was “the original sin of the dark state,” to use your words?
MC: Pearl Harbor really gave rise to government secrecy, or what I call the dark state. The “original secret,” so to speak, was that Franklin Roosevelt and his closest advisors knew an attack was coming. When you look into the operational history, the US military had intel that would’ve alerted local base commanders that the Japanese were targeting Pearl Harbor. They likely could’ve prevented the attack, or at least been far better prepared for it, but because of incompetence and the overzealous protection of secrets, that crucial intelligence didn’t end up in the hands of the people who needed it the most.
This is what I call the “original sin” of the intelligence community: the coverup of the fact that Pearl Harbor was not a surprise and maybe could’ve been averted.
BT: As you deduce, “catastrophic attacks almost never come out of nowhere.” (9/11 is another example you discuss in the book.)
Moving forward from Pearl Harbor, can you describe how the Manhattan Project was the nexus of when “the piles and piles of secret papers began to grow out of control”?
MC: Along with the site and timing of D-Day, the Manhattan Project was one of the first top secrets, and the person who managed that program, General Leslie Groves, decided that everything to do with the atomic bomb had to be top secret. There was little discrimination in the kinds of information that had to be protected most closely.
So, from the beginning of the classification system in the government, there was hyperinflation of secrecy, and though it might sound better to be safe than sorry, it ultimately makes it harder to protect any information from adversaries. The Germans learned about the Manhattan Project, as did the Japanese. The only ones who get left in the dark are us, the American public, who had no idea about the nuclear bombs before they were dropped.
BT: You write about this fundamental paradox to intelligence: the more documents you classify, the more documents you have to guard, making it easier to access all of them.
MC: That’s one of the things that made me begin to rethink the necessity of secrecy, and to view the intelligence community as a kind of cult subscribing to the faith that if men are chosen carefully and are found to be completely loyal and trustworthy, we can trust them with our top secrets, and these professionals know exactly what they’re doing.
When you start studying the history, this notion doesn't really stand up to scrutiny.
BT: That reminds me of the authorization code for using nuclear warheads following World War II. If I’m not mistaken, to launch a nuclear warhead, a member of the Air Force had to get a secret code from the president to confirm that POTUS was the one giving the order to deploy the weapon.
MC: Yes, the president had to read off a secret number that would establish their identity as the commander-in-chief. And then the military commanders would issue the launch order from there.
BT: Can you recall what the top secret number was?
MC: I can: 00000000.
BT: I’m never making fun of a boomer whose password is “1234567” again.
MC: The Air Force kept the code simple because they didn't want anything slowing them down when they thought the time had come for nuclear war.
There were a lot of Air Force generals and officials in the government who wanted to preemptively start a nuclear war. The Pentagon drafted plans to launch basically the entire US nuclear arsenal all at once against not only the Soviet Union but also China and the so-called satellite states like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and so on. Hundreds of millions of people would’ve died.
There was just so much irrationality within the intelligence establishment from the get-go.
BT: Related, I'm really interested in the Pentagon's fear of a kind of international Black Power conspiracy.
MC: When you start to look at the kinds of people entrusted with America's secrets all the way through the present day, it’s striking how many of them are white men. Even when other institutions in American life became more diverse, and different kinds of people began to assume leadership positions, the last holdouts were (and remain) the parts of our government responsible for national security. I’m talking here about the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon, all of which have always been predominantly staffed by white men.
And I think one reason for that is the FBI has been the gatekeeper of the intelligence establishment, responsible for conducting interviews that decide whether somebody is loyal and trustworthy. The FBI has notoriously been one of the least representational bodies of government. For 50 years, the FBI didn’t have any women agents—J. Edgar Hoover wouldn’t allow it, nor would he allow Black agents and the agency was highly discriminatory toward the LGBTQ community as well. So, you can begin to guess what happened inside this exclusive, discriminatory covert world.
To take just the example you mentioned, Ben, the Pentagon conducted hundreds of war gaming scenarios where they imagined what future conflict might be like. One of these scenarios detailed Cuban and Soviet invasions of the US, where Cubans would install a Black Power government and conduct ritualistic killings of white people in the Miami Orange Bowl.
BT: As you write, “secrecy gave free rein to insecurity, ignorance, and prejudice.”
As you also discuss at length, there's a serious cost to keeping what are now billions of classified documents secret. It's not like you have a box of files that you put in an attic next to your stamps and leftover toiletries from hotels.
MC: In 2017—the last time the government estimated how much was spent on guarding classified documents—the cost was $18.4 billion per year, almost double the number of what it’d been five years before, and 50% bigger than the Treasury Department.
And sure, there are astonishing government secrets, but the most amazing thing of all is how much of what’s kept secret is utterly banal. It's things that for the most part are already public knowledge. Trying to guard so many meaningless secrets makes it harder to protect confidential information that the government really doesn’t want the public to see. The reason why you find classified documents turning up in the strangest places is simple: there are so many of them.
Even though this system has spun out of control, and even though it’s within the president’s power to declassify more information, not one president has actually tried to address the issue (though many have promised otherwise, Joe Biden included). Selectively hiding information from the public has proved too awesome of a power for them to relinquish.
One other thing that’s troubling, Ben, is not only overclassification but the erasure of records. The Pentagon has destroyed all of its records of the meetings with joint chiefs of staff going back to World War II. Not to come across as a nut in a tin foil hat—
BT: Too late for that!
MC: Okay, fair, but what could you possibly be doing that you don’t want anyone even 100 or 200 years from now to know?
The history of government secrecy suggests it could be nothing, or it could be vile. Either way, to me the bottom line is that if we’re going to have an intelligence establishment, it needs to reflect the makeup of the American people. When you look at the kinds of really bad decisions that have resulted from homogenous groupthink, it becomes clear that we can and must do better.
BT: Well, I think that's a good concluding note. Professor Connelly, thank you so much for being here, and for your scholarship. It’s been a pleasure.
MC: Thank you, Ben. I enjoyed it.
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