Column: Hasty document declassification can render government ineffective

Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looks at an email sent by Ambassador Chris Stevens during her testimony before the House Benghazi Committee, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

There is no question that the notion of government privacy has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration, it took 40 years for the United States government to release the Pentagon Papers to the public. The full report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is still classified while in the United Kingdom, information on the decrypting of the ENIGMA machine was released 70 years after World War II, as recorded in the UK’s National Archives. However, three short years after the 2012 Benghazi attack, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private emails are under heavy public scrutiny.

According to a recent article by Lawrence Cappello of The Atlantic, the U.S. federal government used to abide by a “Thirty Year Rule,” which represented the standard amount of time the government allowed to pass before classified documents were released. Now, however, amid a series of NSA scandals, whistleblower successes and a massive public outcry, the federal government has been forced to adapt this rule with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Department of Justice describes FOIA as an act that gives the public the right to request records from any government department. As a result, government documents have the potential to be released soon after they are created. While this law has offered a huge consolation to the public, the hasty release of these documents has brought forth another issue – whether or not the government can effectively operate in the public eye.

Consequently, FOIA includes nine exemptions that government officials can use to bypass public requests for documents, including information regarding national security and trade secrets, among others. Of these, national security constitutes the most obvious issue with government transparency. It was fear of another German threat that led the British government to withhold the secret to cracking ENIGMA for 70 years. Similarly, the U.S. government kept information about the Manhattan Project classified for years to decrease the possibility of the work being duplicated by enemies.

But government transparency does not only interfere with national security; it can also interrupt the political process. The Clinton email scandal serves as the perfect example. With the scandal on display for the world to see, American public opinion assumes a greater role in politics. Yes, the role of public opinion is a crucial part of democratic politics, but can also steer politicians away from thoughtful consideration of the issues and leads them to a habit of “people-pleasing” the majority.

This is especially the case during the election process, which has become a mess of changing stances with regard to what most Americans want to hear. In this sense, transparency actually promotes the government’s public dishonesty.

The fact is, sometimes public opinion cannot be based upon all of the facts. As long as the average American does not have a cabinet to inform him or her of the latest intelligence on trade deals or foreign intentions, it will be impossible for the public to be privy to all of the information necessary to make political decisions.

As Cappello notes in his article, this has been a reason for government secrecy for quite some time. The Constitution was, after all, written behind closed doors; otherwise, state governments and the public would have argued over it until compromise proved impossible. In a similar way, George Washington withheld information regarding the controversial Jay Treaty with England, while John Adams maintained as much secrecy as possible around the “XYZ Affair” with France to prevent public opinion from having too great an influence on the delicate matter.

There are some secrets that the government must be held accountable for. But when it comes to making political decisions, the reality is that the government must be able to operate as effectively as possible with the information its officials have. Issues must be handled carefully, but decisively, with a gentle prodding from American citizens, but without the total control of a constantly shifting public opinion.

As classified documents begin to be released more quickly, government officials and citizens alike must question how much time is necessary to adhere to the principles of democracy while maintaining an effective government.


Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.