May 14, 2012 4:02PM

Classification Follies

An amusing anecdote about the absurd excesses of our system for classifying “sensitive” documents comes by way of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. It seems a researcher had been trying to get access to a 1993 article published in a classified NSA journal, discussing the “SIGINT” (or signals intelligence) surrounding the Soviet downing of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. The agency had already released a heavily redacted version of the article, and was in the process of considering a request to release a more complete version when—oops!—they seem to have mistakenly published a completely unredacted version, in which sections that were supposed to be excised had been highlighted rather than obscured. This version was quickly removed—but only after FAS researchers (and presumably others) had downloaded a copy.

This seemed to put the agency in an awkward position, since the NSA’s claim that any of the article remained properly classified required it to maintain that its disclosure threatened “serious damage” to the security of the United States. Would they admit to having made such a grave error in posting the unredacted document? Or would they acknowledge—as the FAS researchers concluded from their review of the document—that there had been no real grounds after all for continuing to keep the article secret two decades later?

The NSA seems to have picked an ingenious third option:They invoked an obscure provision of a 2009 executive order permitting the declassification and release of material that would otherwise be properly classified in “exceptional cases” where the national security interest in protecting the information was “outweighed by the public interest in disclosure of the information.” So what, exactly, was so exceptional about “Maybe You Had to Be There: The SIGINT on Thirteen Soviet Shootdowns of U.S. Reconnaissance Aircraft”? Readers are welcome to scan the article and draw their own conclusions, but it’s hard to disagree with the FAS analysts’ suspicion that the agency simply decided it wasn’t in the “public interest” to admit how much information the government unnecessarily hides from the citizens who fund it.