Our Secrecy Paradox

Two decisions by the Justice Department in the last month reveal the inanity of the U.S. government’s secrecy system. The department’s new policy against seizing reporter communication information in leak investigations highlights government fecklessness in halting the flow of classified national security secrets to the public. And its cessation of legal actions started by the Trump administration against former National Security Adviser John Bolton over the publication of his memoir, while good for Bolton, highlights how successful the government normally is in preventing the publication of unclassified information. 

The executive branch cannot or will not stop leaks about the classified secrets that matter, and yet it imposes a broad prior restraint on the publication of unclassified information vital to public debate. This central paradox of the American secrecy system has a single root cause: massive overclassification of information by a tumefied intelligence bureaucracy.

The Justice Department backdown on reporter records grew out of leak investigations that began during the Trump administration. At least two sets of leaks appear to be in play. First, an April 2017 New York Times article revealed that the United States (with the help of a Dutch intelligence service, it was later disclosed) had penetrated elements of the Russian operation to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. 

Second was a series of leaks related to the government’s investigation of the 2016 Russian interference, and possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. These leaks included intercepted conversations between the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn; of Russian officials discussing their supposed influence over Flynn and “derogatory” information on Trump and his campaign staff; and of Kislyak reporting to Moscow that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, wanted to open a secret communication channel during the presidential transition.

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