Steven Aftergood reports on the recent declassification of an 1809 book on cryptography that was announced with some fanfare by the NSA, only for it to emerge that the book had already been scanned and was publicly available through Google Books.
Two obvious inferences may be drawn from this episode. First, there is extravagant overclassification at the National Security Agency, as in many other corners of government. This means that access restrictions are being imposed on records that do not require or deserve such protection. Second, there is a lack of effective oversight mechanisms to promptly identify and correct such instances of overclassification. There are always going to be classification errors, so there need to be robust error correction mechanisms. Ideally, Google Books would not be one of them.
Steven is being generous here; this is an obvious screw-up. But he’s right to point to this being not an isolated incident but a systemic weakness of the intelligence community. Overclassification (and under-declassification) are at odds with the principles of open government and transparency not just promised by candidate Obama, but minimally constitutive of democratic governance.