Much of the material is clearly neither sensitive nor embarrassing, and a good deal of it appears to be so abbreviated that it’s essentially uninformative, as war veteran and eyewitness Noah Schachtman has observed. Yet it was collected anyway and made classified. Perhaps this happened simply because information collection in the digital age is so ridiculously easy. More, though, does not always mean better, particularly not when what you really need is possibly a single piece of high‐value information amid gigabytes of data. Whether routine mass information collection helps us fight more effective wars may well be doubted, and this is exactly the sort of question an informed citizen ought to ask of the government. Or at least our representatives, who are trusted with classified information, ought to be doing it for us.
There are worrying signs, however, that members of Congress either lack the willpower or the basic knowledge to do the job properly. Senator Jay Rockefeller recently expressed astonishment that retail sites like Amazon.com collected information on every purchase you make. What’s even more astonishing is that a Senator could be unfamiliar with business‐as‐usual on the Internet. If he doesn’t know that private companies collect such massive amounts of data, what has the onetime Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee missed about our intelligence services?
Perhaps bureaucracies are fundamentally self‐interested, just as economists say about the rest of us. William Niskanen, formerly of the Reagan Administration and now chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute, famously proposed a budget‐maximizing economic model of bureaucracy. Later he ultimately agreed that budgetary discretion and managerial slack were important factors, too, and that other concerns may be at work as well. Still, control over large amounts of otherwise restricted information very obviously makes it easier for a bureaucracy to influence its budget, its discretionary spending, and its managerial slack.
None of which necessarily makes us any safer or better‐informed about the threats we face. Our intelligence bureaucracy has grown with a speed that has caught many unawares. At the same time, the power of the Internet to disseminate leaked classified information gives us something of a peek behind the curtain. What we see suggests an enormous, haphazard collection of data, with little or no effective control or even organization. There’s only data, more data, and still more data, sped along by fear and incomprehension. I hope this picture is wrong, of course, but it’s hard to draw any other.