Sunday, April 7, 2013

Declassification Follies

Recently, we had a lively discussion about declassification. We were about to publish a tranche of documents when one of the declassifiers objected to one of them. He felt it was on the wrong side of the gray zone between what clearly should be open to the public, and what clearly shouldn't, in spite of the many years since the event. So we went back and forth and back and forth, ultimately deciding that the potential damage was outweighed by the need to be open about past events. The publication went up in its entirety, regular readers of this blog read it, and so far as we can see, no damage was done.

Calls like that, however, aren't neccessarily easy to make; sometimes different people make contradictory decisions.

Here's a story from the American National Archives (NARA), about a sensitive document from 1994. There were mass killings going on in Rwanda, and the State Department had to assist in deciding if the killings were a genocide - which would have required US intervention - or perhaps awful but less than genocide, no intervention required. The document in question was discussing the situation and implications.

At four different times, four different officials released four different censored versions of the same document. Each of them opened or closed different sections of the document, so that now we can see its entirety, but only by comparing all four redacted versions.

Set aside the budgetary issues of having lots of different officials repeat the same job over and over. What's interesting to us - sadly, because it's so famliar - is the part about different serious folks having contradictory opinions about what can or can't be opened to the public.

And remember: there are some things which really and truly can't be made public. And they need to be as limited as possible. But...

1 comment:

  1. Some of those discussions surely have background issues, such as protecting the reputations of some of the folks involved. Sultan Yacoub comes to mind.

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