U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Art of Interdiction: On Confidentiality, Ignorance, and Leaks

I’m nearly finished with a full, word-for-word read of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance.[1] An essay therein that feels most germane to our current political situation is Peter Galison‘s “Removing Knowledge: The Logic of Modern Censorship” (pp. 37-54). The essay focuses on the government’s classification of information since 1945. But Galison’s concerns and themes should trouble those of us living under a presidential administration focused on secrecy and leaks.

The importance of this topic seems somewhat self-explanatory, but then Galison forwards an estimate that approximately 8 billion pages of materials have been classified since 1978. Galison’s estimates and calculations are based on some extrapolation, but one number grabbed me: There were 33 million “classification actions” in 2001 alone, and each action averages about 10 pages. Those 330 million pages in a year, and 8 billion total overall under cover, compare to 7.5 billion total in 120 million items in the U.S. Library of Congress. For another point of comparison, Harvard’s libraries, in 2007, added 220,000 volumes at around 60 million pages. Other institutions, such as the LOC, British Museum, and NYPL add similar numbers (pp. 37-38). No matter how you look at it, U.S. holdings of classified information are vast.

Galison notes that “we who study the world lodged in our libraries…are living in a modest information booth facing outward, [with] our unseeing backs to a vast and classified empire we barely know” (p. 39). Empire. An empire of information as vast in scope as our corporate holdings and our military.

The point of these estimates is to underscore the enormous infrastructure of secrecy that has emerged in the U.S. since World War II. Galison relays that this structure is rooted in military and nuclear secrecy (i.e. related to the Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954). Out of this and the Cold War emerged the system of “National Security Information” controlled by the Executive Branch. In that structure, as of 2001, there exist approximately 4,132 “original classifiers” who label things as “Top Secret, Secret, or Confidential.” Among that 4,000, only 999 can designate something “Top Secret.” Furthermore, when they designate an item “top secret,” all documents that reference the original item receive the highest classification of the original, a “derivative” classification (pp. 39-40). This phenomenon might explain how “top secret” became a cultural trope of the entertainment industry during the Cold War.

Per a 1945 distinction, Galison relays that there is “subjective” and “objective” secrecy. Subjective secrets are defined as “compact, transparent, changeable, and perishable.” Objective secrets are the opposite: “diffuse, technical, determinable, …and long-lasting” (p. 41). This distinction helps guide the work of classifiers.

Speaking philosophically, Galison asserts that this all constitutes an “anti-epistemological system.” It “asks how knowledge can be covered and obscured.” And the function of classification is “antiepistemology par excellence,” or an “art of nontransmission” (p. 45).

Galison goes on to relay this system of thought about classification to efforts during Bill Clinton’s administration to “release some of the vast trove of secrets.” This effort began in 1993, and systematically worked through documents prior to 1978 (a 25-year gap). (p. 45).

The numbers provided above, and the vagury of definitions about what constitutes a secret, should give pause to all concerned citizens. This system is under the control, primarily, of the Executive Branch. While the current president sold the electorate on his deal-making abilities, trumpeting those skills as expressed in The Art of the Deal, we ought to be concerned with how his administration deals with the arts of interdiction.

Instead of liberal elites focusing on ignorant voters casting ballots against their interests (a focus that is now receding, thankfully), perhaps the more pressing concern should be how the Executive Branch keeps all voters in ignorance through its newfound powers of classification. It’s clear that the administration is thinking about those powers via its concern for leaks. But perhaps voters should be more sympathetic of real and accused leakers if classification powers are being overused, or improperly used. It seems clear via Galison’s history that the system can be abused. – TL


[1] Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).