Sisyphus needs Kim Possible

The Washington Post reported yesterday on the rather old news that, despite classifying more information than ever before, all those little gems that had been swept under the carpet 25 years ago have now been officially declassified. At least that’s the theory.

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, something profound happened in the government secrecy system. With little fanfare, the paradigm of secrecy shifted.

The days when secrets would be secret forever officially ended that night. Some 700 million pages of secret documents became unsecret. No longer were they classified. They became . . . public. Imagine it: Some 400 million formerly classified pages at the National Archives, another 270 million at the FBI, 30 million elsewhere, all emerging into the sunshine of open government, squinting and pale, like naked mole rats.

This would seem a victory for freedom of information, just as President Bill Clinton envisioned when he signed Executive Order 12958 in 1995 (affirmed by President Bush in 2003), which mandated that 25-year-old documents be automatically declassified unless exempted for national security or other reasons.

Yes, one might have thought the odd history department in some SLAC (small liberal arts college and not the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) would have popped an extra Champaign cork on New Years. But the reality isn’t quite that great.

In what can only be a classic move, the government now has a huge vault of something like 700 million pages. This isn’t much for your normal hard drive. But for the team of workers sorting the information for release, FBI records, non-security related diplomatic efforts, perhaps the occasional bill of sale for weapons to Iran, it is a huge task. Each document must be looked at and determined if it remains in the comforting shadows of secrecy or whether the public will have a chance to see it. The nice part of this process is that there is no process. Depending on the origin (State, CIA, FBI, etc.) of the document, the process is different. Not only does each department have different classification schemes, some documents are ‘touched’ by several schemes.

Isn’t that nice? The article goes on to say,

Inside the boxes are documents that have to be scrutinized and processed according to the classification instructions written on them by staffers in any one of several agencies, which leaves archivists with a task not unlike deciphering a 25-year-old crime scene.

“It’s like ‘CSI,’ only it’s in records,” says Neil Carmichael, the supervisory archivist. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

The work, says Jeanne Schauble, is “esoteric,” all about arcane rules and layers of document review. She holds the rather Orwellian title of director of the Initial Processing and Declassification Division at the National Archives, which means she leads the beleaguered team of archivists faced with the task of making open government real.

So, in what can only be considered a masterful move, the government has managed to hide lots and lots of information simply by claiming it is in plain sight. At 1 document per second (let’s be nice, shall we?), we only have to wait 700 million seconds for everything to be available. Gee. That’s – um – just about 22 years to get everything back in the open. Oh. But that would mean working 24/7/365. If we try a 220 day work-year with 8 person-hours/day we are looking at 110 person-years. Of course if I have to look at a document for more than a second… it might take a little longer. And then there’s the backlog…

But I’m sure declassification is a top priority of the Bush administration. Or was that the classification of information? Didn’t I read something on Slate last year?

The government does a remarkable job of counting the number of national security secrets it generates each year. Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent, said William Leonard in March 2 congressional testimony. His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004. [my emphasis]

So basically we are looking at Sisyphus’s day job; verify government declassification 8 to 5, push rocks up hills as a hobby.

What we need here is a cartoon character. Someone who would find a really cool solution to this, some super secret machine to solve all these problems. I would probably look to my favourite modern cartoon spy, Kim Possible and her sidekick’s sidekick Rufus – the naked mole. Rufus can fix anything, he’s the perfect poster child and Kim just looks cool. But then again, with ideas like that, maybe I should go to work for the government. But I should probably keep that a secret.

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4 comments so far

  1. whitishrabbit on

    Entertaining read. They sure have their (lack of) system down.

  2. blc303 on

    They sure have their (lack of) system down.

    Isn’t that the genius of the idea?

    You tell people that everything will be made available. We just have to check it. You then spend the next billion years trying to sort through everything.

    On the other hand, look at the archivists. Talk about job security.

  3. Teresa on

    Kim Possible IS the solution.

    She’d get her friend, Ron Stoppable in there to help her, and if you could fine your way clear to read through the occasional sda stain from spills, those documents would be available in minutes as he trips and stumbles around, knocking them out the windows for anyone to just grab and take home.

  4. blc303 on

    But who can carry 700 million pages? Where would you put them?

    In that sense, I was never a huge fan of Ron. I know he’s supposed to be the counterpart but überwimps really aren’t my thing. Wimp – fine, braindead and scared of animals – OK. Überwimp whiner – No.

    Give me a smart, cute super-spy showing her belly button every time.


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