The Secret Secret


If you cannot decipher and interpret letters and symbols, you cannot read. If you cannot access letters and symbols, you also cannot read. This is a common understanding and in many ways, such as leaving out the capacity for critical analysis and the ability to write, is as reductive an understanding of the concept of literacy as exists. Public libraries are underfunded and many are cutting staff, services and hours which attacks our collective literacy. There is another, arguably greater, threat to our collective literacy, one that grossly restricts the amount of publicly available literature and serves severe imbalances of power: state secrecy. State secrecy is generally thought of as a matter of national security, or perhaps governmental transparency, but we should also view it as a matter of literacy. And we should consider Wikileaks to be a literacy organization.

This might initially sound a bit off. But as one of the fundamentals of literacy is access to literature, it is a serious problem for the scope of the classified universe is simply staggering yet, as begets secrecy, little known. “In fact,” Harvard’s Peter Galison wrote in 2004, “the classified universe as it is sometimes called is certainly not smaller, and very probably much larger than [the] unclassified one.” He continued, “the U.S. added a net 250 million classified pages [in 2003]. By comparison, the entire system of Harvard libraries?over a hundred of them?added about 220,000 volumes (about sixty million pages, a number not far from the acquisition rate at other comparably massive universal depositories such as the Library of Congress, the British Museum, or the New York Public Library). Contemplate these numbers: about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.” Using Galison’s methodology, it would take the annual page count for all published titles (including new editions and reprints) in the U.S., United Kingdom, China, Russia and Germany – the nations with the five largest outputs of new titles totaling around 835,000 – to match that of the classified world in the U.S. alone.*

There are drastically conflicting sets of numbers from the Information Security Oversight Office, the U.S. government agency in charge of classification of documents and data, about the amount of material classified. Either, after an initial post-Cold War drop off, there was a slow rise in the amount of classified documents until a fairly drastic increase in 2000, or it has been increasing somewhat steadily during this entire period with a couple of small bumps in 2000 and 2005 (the discrepancies relate to numbers of ‘derivative classifications’, to which I’ll return shortly). It is perhaps not surprising to find information about state secrecy to be somewhat unenlightening, but what all sets of such documents agree on is that the current levels are a very significant increase and that the short- and medium-term trends are for the growth of the ‘dark world’ to continue.

Part of the growth of the dark world is through derivative classification. The number of original classification actions taken in 2008 was 203,541. Derivative classifications are classifications of materials that make use of an originally classified document. In short, the classified document itself is secret, but also uses of and references to it can be secret. And uses of and references to the references can be secret. And so on. Thus the number of derivative classification actions in 2008 numbered over one hundred times the number of original classifications, at 23,217,557. Something secret has to develop more forms of secrecy in order to keep itself secret, thus the classified universe, in the words of geographer Trevor Paglen, “tends to sculpt the world around it in its own image.” How, after all, can a secret be transparently discussed?

As alarming as it is that state secrecy easily snowballs, the power dynamic supporting those who hold secret clearances is equally disturbing. Only those with proper clearances can participate in discussions that affect significant aspects of our lives. Certain technological achievements, our collective ethical decisions (torture, secret prisons, air strikes, etc.), our collective behavior towards other nations and peoples (foreign policy discussions) and more are often obscured by state secrecy. Like the medieval clergy, those holding classified clearances are the sole legitimate interpreters of the ‘really important’ knowledge. In effect, they are a caste that guides our political and technological cosmologies despite the common view of the U.S. as a nation where ideas can be, and are, freely exchanged. As Galison wrote, “Our commonsense picture may well be far too sanguine, even inverted. The closed world is not a small strongbox in the corner of our collective house of codified and stored knowledge. It is we in the open world?we who study the world lodged in our libraries, from aardvarks to zymurgy, we who are living in a modest information booth facing outwards, our unseeing backs to a vast and classified empire we barely know.

In his recent The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott notes, “[I]t should go without saying that until very recently the literate elite of the valley states were a tiny minority of the total subject population.” He was referring specifically to Southeast Asia but the same is applicable, he notes, in “all premodern societies”. Pre-modern literacy was overwhelmingly biased towards justifying state and clerical power or dictating its use. Military or labor conscription, holy texts governing the legitimate social and philosophical orders, descriptions of royal and clerical lineages, and census data and tax rolls dominated written texts until quite recently. The ability to develop, manipulate and interpret – and thus benefit from – these literate materials was in the hands of a tiny literate elite; “almost certainly less than 1 percent,” according to Scott. For this reason attempts to expand literacy were attacked with the most severe punishments. Literacy had the potential to subvert such skewed power relationships by opening up the legitimate knowledge for public scrutiny.

The Roman Catholic Church in the 14th century held rigid control over the rituals designating legitimate pathways to salvation and the clergy had significant sway over secular officials, whose legitimacy was largely dependent upon clerical approval. The Church rituals – mass and communion – were conducted in Latin, a language in which almost all were illiterate, mitigating any challenge to Church authority. A key element leading to the Protestant Reformation and the subversion of Roman Catholic dominance was the efforts to translate the bible into the vernacular led by John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and others. By translating the bible into the vernacular they declassified the bible, which had been effectively a state secret up to that point. This did not mean that anyone and everyone could then read the bible, the question of mass literacy is still being addressed today. But it rendered it possible to anyone with the ability to read and the mysteries of god became accessible and clerical power began to wane.

The ability for laypersons to examine the claims of the Medieval and Renaissance clergy was necessary for the power relationship itself to be rethought. Those without access to the bible, without literacy, had no standing to challenge or dispute the authority and interpretations of the clergy such as the 1252 papal bull Ad extirpanda, the Inquisition’s Torture Memos. This stigma – a delegitimization of nonliterate knowledge – of what is now termed illiteracy remains. Keeping with the analogy, the expression of opinion by illiterate (those without secret clearances) commentators is stigmatized when confronted with those holding classified clearances.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case to the United Nations Security Council in February, 2003 for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he invoked the power of access to the classified world. “I cannot tell you everything that we know,” Powell stated, “but what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling.” And despite his trust-me-I-have-the-goods declaration that “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” it has been definitively proven that the claims of Iraq’s weapons programs and the Hussein regime’s alliance with Al-Qaida were grossly exaggerated and falsified (here leaving aside the important question of whether such claims, if accurate, would then have justified war). As the other major agitator for the war, the United Kingdom offers analogous examples with Prime Minister Tony Blair pitching UK participation on the infamous September and Dodgy Dossiers.

Sec. Powell certainly had access to classified information that the public, dissidents and scholars did not. This did not lead him nor the U.S. political and military leadership, most of which also had access to classified intelligence, to make wise decisions or produce informed analysis any more than the Latin literacy of the Medieval clergy allowed a superior understanding of the mind of god (unless one hold a Pro-Inquisition stance…). In fact, the dissenting opinions of scholars and activists opposed to the war have proven far more accurate than the claims made by the Bush and Blair administrations. It was not insight from classified information that earned the public’s trust of Sec. Powell, but the authority, power and legitimacy granted to holders of classified clearances.

That sound analysis can often be done without classified access is important and empowering, but it does not illuminate what it secret. Knowing today that there are secret prisons, military bases and drone attacks does not allow us to know what’s going on with them, or often even what guides the policies. We might make semi-informed conclusions about parts but we cannot account for the phenomena because we are not allowed to count them in the first place. The literature is forbidden, and we are thus illiterate.

For his efforts Tyndale was strangled then burned as a heretic and the Church was so horrified about Wycliffe’s radical legacy that his remains were dug up and he was burned at the stake posthumously. They saw, accurately, that the revealing of previously secret knowledge to the masses would make the clergy’s social and political positions progressively less powerful. In exposing today’s privileged knowledge, Wikileaks may indeed threaten the perpetuation of certain practices of the powerful. The reactions to Wikileaks, its editor-in-chief Julian Assange, and alleged source PFC Bradley Manning are certainly indicative of a perceived threat of that magnitude. Assange is facing public calls by prominent figures for his assassination. He risks having his passport stripped in Australia and there are police investigations into Wikileaks and Assange in numerous countries. Manning is already jailed and is awaiting trial on the charge he leaked a video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad which killed several civilians, including media personnel.

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton has called the 29 November release of diplomatic cables “an attack on the international community.” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said the leaks “risk our ability to do our foreign policy”. Gen. David Petraeus called the July release of tens of thousands of Afghanistan War documents “reprehensible”. Adm. Mike Mullen said Wikileaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family”. Sen. John Kerry called the release of diplomatic cables a “reckless action which jeopardizes lives” and Sen. Joe Lieberman called it “nothing less than an attack on the national security of the United States.” New York Rep. Peter King went so far as to request the Obama administration “determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated a foreign terrorist organization” noting that it “presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.”

Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra called the Wikileaks release “a colossal failure by our intel community” and called for even more stringent and compartmentalized secrecy. Sec. Clinton “directed that specific actions be taken at the State Department, in addition to new security safeguards at the Department of Defense and elsewhere to protect State Department information so that this kind of breach cannot and does not ever happen again.” In other words, the solution is a reaffirmation of state secrecy and its further entrenchment. State secrecy itself is not to be addressed. It is no exaggeration to parallel these reactions to the decisions to disinter Wycliffe’s remains and burn them at the stake, especially since the accusations of Wikileaks and Assange having “blood on their hands” have been definitively refuted. The breaching of secrecy has not led to physical harm any more than translating the bible into English led to the killings of the clergy. Clerical power was subverted. And now U.S. policy is being subverted.

One last basic element about state secrecy must be brought into question. Nothing, not even nuclear weapons research which is known as being “born secret”, is secret before it, in idea or form, exists. That would be actual nonexistence whereas secrecy purports really existing things to be nonexistent. For this reason Galison titled his article “Removing Knowledge”. He wrote, “Epistemology asks how knowledge can be uncovered and secured. Anti-epistemology asks how knowledge can be covered and obscured. Classification, the anti-epistemology par excellence, is the art of nontransmission.” By obscuring literature on the volume it does, state secrecy begins an “illiteracization” of the populace. Removing and restricting knowledge creates literate and illiterate castes.** Illiteracization from state secrecy has dramatic consequences for our understanding, and thus shaping, of our own history. As Paglen wrote, “In terms of numbers of pages, more of our own recent history is classified than is not. … Our own history, in large part, has become a state secret.”

It is common sense that some things must be kept secret for the greater good. Despite modern state secrecy being barely half a century old, this is deeply ingrained in the public mind. We accept it so unquestioningly that when Gibbs followed, “President Obama, as you know from the campaign, is a huge proponent of open and transparent government,” with, “But clearly the revelation of 250,000 documents that are highly classified is dangerous and is a threat to our ability to conduct foreign policy,” the obvious contradictions were not even jarring. So dominant is the positive narrative of state secrecy that such basic questions like, “If something is too dangerous or embarrassing to even talk about, perhaps we should not do that thing,” seem starry-eyed and hopelessly naive. But that it is common sense does not mean it is good sense and when the volume of secret literature exceeds that of the transparent world it is a question that must be asked. This modern development of an exclusively literate caste holding ‘legitimate knowledge’ is, at best, a highly questionable outcome.

JIMMY JOHNSON is unemployed like half everyone else in Detroit. He can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com

* As Galison notes in his article, the proliferation of abbreviated communication forms such as text, chat, and instant messaging might radically change the estimated page counts of each classified document. This does not significantly change the thesis. Even a 70% reduction of the average page count per classified document would still match that of all the books annually published in the United States or obtained by the U.S. Library of Congress.

** I used the term ‘illiterate’ (and derivatives thereof) as opposed to ‘nonliterate’ to better reflect the stigmatization of those lacking the literacy and the power dynamic created between the groups. This stigmatization is real, the distinction in word selection might not be.



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