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The Security State and History



Is there any good reason why the NSA has to rule that 90-year-old cryptic documents about the USSR must stay classified?

The National Security Agency is withholding 90-year-old information on early American cryptanalytic efforts against Russia and the Soviet Union from a 20-year-old document on the grounds that releasing the information could “reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to national security.”

Specifically, the NSA claims that the release of the information would harm another government agency’s (OGA) “intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology” – the OGA cited by the NSA is either the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) or the CIA.

This is part of a larger pattern of security agencies refusing to declassify historically important but very old documents.

The NSA withholding 90-year-old information adds to a growing list of dubious secrets. Other (by no means exhaustive) examples include:

The CIA withholding documents from 1917 and 1918 — including a document that described World War 1 “secret ink” recipes and instructions on how to open sealed letters covertly. The CIA kept these documents secret until 2011, and then misleadingly crediting their declassification to “recent advancements in technology.” The real reason these documents saw the light of day, however, was of a decade-long Freedom of Information Act fight, lawsuits, a Mandatory Declassification Review request, and finally, an appeal to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel to pry the documents loose;

The Defense Department needlessly redacting Nikita Khrushchev’s public statements about Jupiter missiles in Turkey from a 50-year-old document;

The DIA withholding large sections of a 1975 biographical sketch of General Augusto Pinochet on national security grounds, including Pinochet’s liquor choices – “scotch and pisco sours” – even though it had released the document a year earlier without the redactions;

Multiple instances of declassification authorities withholding the contents of documents on anti-ballistic missiles, strategic arms control, and U.S. policy toward China, all of which had been declassified years earlier, with one of them even published in the State Department’s historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States;

Defense Department classification of “Poodle Blanket” contingency plans from 1961 for a possible confrontation over West Berlin; and

Declassifiers withholding different portions of the same State Department document four times over a 12-year period.

Clearly keeping Pinochet’s drinking preferences a secret to Americans is a national priority!

I have to believe the core reason for this is the security state’s belief that the general public has no right to see any document or information and they resent having to provide anything. I struggle to imagine any legitimate reason to keep any of this historical information a secret. Perhaps I lack the proper imagination or grounding in the security apparatus. But this is bad for historians and bad for public knowledge about the nation’s past. It also scares me–if the security state thinks this sort of thing can’t be public knowledge, I can only imagine the far more damning things they will never reveal.

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