Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Unringing the bell

Thismay seem like a metaphysical question, or maybe an epistemological one: How do you make something that was public a secret? And why would you want to engage in such a seemingly pointless effort?

It's hard to answer the second question, except that if you're the government, and especially the Bush Administration, keeping things secret is an instinct, a habit you could hardly resist even if you wanted to. It doesn't seem to matter whether the old/new secrets are such earthshaking facts as "a 1948 memorandum on a C.I.A. scheme to float balloons over countries behind the Iron Curtain and drop propaganda leaflets," or "a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan, then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program." As we've learned just this month in the now-famous case of Cheney and Remington v. Whittington, or their treatment of the bodies of Iraqi war dead, the Bush Administration thinks that what we don't know can't hurt them.

What should be obvious though, is that you just can't do it. As the article in today's Times points out, there is no way they could recover all the copies of thousands of newly classified articles and papers from all the libraries, archives, and private collections in which they are now held. Yet that doesn't stop them from trying.

And these are the people who have the gall to say things like, "[T]he country is better off when we have a vigorous and free press covering our elections."

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