The Surprisingly Short History of American Secrecy

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tags: national security

Amid the recent hubbub about leaks and whistleblowers and Hillary Clinton’s rogue server, it has been easy to forget what a state secret actually is. Legal commentators and political pundits tend to think about state secrecy in the abstract terms of political philosophy. Perhaps secrecy is always undemocratic, appropriate only for absolutist or totalitarian states. Perhaps it is an unavoidable necessity in a hostile world—democratic governments find themselves forced to keep secrets to protect the security of the public. Or perhaps, if we follow Max Weber, secrecy is an essential trait of modern, bureaucratic governance.

Whatever the truth of these broader musings, all of them make it difficult to remember that the “secrets” at stake in modern controversies were not dreamt up as thought experiments for political philosophy. They were produced by quite specific acts: the stamping of a document, the development of bureaucratic methods and logics of classification, the enforcement of physical and legal protections against prying eyes. State secrecy, in other words, should be understood as an institution. Which means that it has an institutional history.

In the United States, that history is remarkably short. The modern classification system was created in September 1951, in an executive order issued by Harry Truman. That order established the categories (Top Secret, Secret, Confidential) that are still used to keep information secret, as well as the rules and practices for classifying and securing information. Before this, the American government did not protect secrets in anything like the present form; secrecy had a different institutional character.

We can see this is through the history of the Security Advisory Board (SAB), an obscure, short-lived, and forgotten World War II organization. World War II witnessed the first efforts to establish classification practices throughout the federal government. In 1943, the SAB was created by the Office of War Information (OWI) to coordinate these new policies. As SAB representatives took stock of information security across the wartime administration, they discovered a remarkable lack of consistency. Federal employees were leaving classified information unlocked in buildings that made no effort to screen visitors. They were reading classified information on streetcars, proofreading classified information aloud in common areas, and taking classified information to unapproved commercial printing firms for reproduction. Federal employees did not yet know how to keep classified information secure—one clear sign that the practice was new.

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