Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Does a secret stop being a secret when millions of people know it? Yes, says common sense. No, says the U.S. government, whose reaction to the WikiLeaks dump of classified diplomatic cables portrays a bureaucracy inhabiting a logic-free world all of its own.
Writers thinking of producing 21st century novels emulating the works of Franz Kafka are well advised to closely follow Washington’s problems in coming to grips with what kind of information should be open to whom and when.
Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can see the 1,500-odd classified cables released so far by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which holds more than 250,000 messages exchanged between the U.S. Department of State and American embassies around the world. Five news organizations, including the New York Times, have reported on the cables in great detail. But the fact that the information is in the public domain makes no difference to the government’s view of its classified nature.
So, government workers were told, in the first week of the WikiLeaks data dump, that “unauthorized disclosure of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog or on websites) do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents. To the contrary, classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. government authority.”
There’s an authority specifically set up for the declassification of documents, under an executive order President Barack Obama signed a year ago. It’s called the National Declassification Center and it is dealing with a backlog of more than 400 million (yes, 400 million) classified documents. They date back 25 years or more and are kept in cardboard boxes holding 2,500 pages each in storage vaults the size of several football fields at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland.