Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Once and future secrets

The U.S. government is reclassifying archived documents that it previously declassified, which puts anyone who copied the documents in potential legal jeopardy:

Mr. Aid said he believed that because of the reclassification program, some of the contents of his 22 file cabinets might technically place him in violation of the Espionage Act, a circumstance that could be shared by scores of other historians. But no effort has been made to retrieve copies of reclassified documents, and it is not clear how they all could even be located.

"It doesn't make sense to create a category of documents that are classified but that everyone already has," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University. "These documents were on open shelves for years."

No, it doesn't, but you've got to give them credit for chutzpah.

Although this smacks more of mid-level cubicle-dwellers in the CIA and other agencies needing something to show for the thankless assignment they were given. As the piece notes, it's logistically problematic to retrieve the unsecret copies that are floating around out there - all the more so now that some of the documents have been conveniently digitized by GWU's National Security Archive. The situation presents certain epistemological problems. If someone possesses public knowledge, and a veil of secrecy descends over it, what is the nature of the knowledge? You get into a Rumsfeld-type regression of "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns."