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Some classified files are not a big secret

By Ernie Williamson The Bulletin

Whether Republican or Democrat, there is one thing we can all admit: Our government has a dysfunctional system for classifying documents.

One of the main criticisms is that too many documents are classified, and gatekeepers charged with tracking the secret papers struggle to keep up.

It is estimated the federal government classifies more than 50 million documents a year.

Ona Hathaway, a professor at Yale Law School and former counsel at the Pentagon, says the main reason so many documents are classified is because officials play it safe: There is no penalty for over-classifying, but there can be dire consequences if you under-classify something.

Hathaway estimates just 5 to 10 percent of government documents warrant classification. I spent two years in the Army during the Vietnam years, and I saw firsthand examples of over-classifying.

My first experience with classified documents happened while working at the base newspaper at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

One day my boss - a lieutenant - plopped a “Confidential” document on my desk. “Handle this,” he said.

I thought it strange that I - a recently drafted enlisted man - would be given a “Confidential” document. But I was excited that my boss trusted me. I became even more excited when I realized the document came from a woman I knew to be the highest-ranked civilian on the base

It must be important, I thought.

After the “confidential” cover sheet, there was only one page. And one sentence. I don’t remember the wording exactly but it went something like this: “Could you please let me know when Congress convenes?”

I told my lieutenant that something must be missing. I could see no reason why the document was classified.

It seemed to me a phone call would have been faster and less trouble.

Or she could have done what I did. I had a newspaper on my desk with a front-page story on Congress getting ready to convene. I found the answer to her question. It wasn’t a secret.

I told my boss we should just call her office with the information.

But he said we should mail her the answer with the “Confidential” heading. And that’s what we did. We played it safe.

Several months later I was serving as a combat correspondent stationed at Army headquarters outside of Saigon.

A colonel asked me to take two documents to an officer in a nearby building. Both documents had “confidential” cover sheets.

Since we were in a war zone, I figured these confidential documents would be more substantial than the one at Aberdeen.

As I walked across the courtyard between the two buildings, my curiosity got the best of me.

It wasn’t exactly a Daniel Ellsberg moment, but I peeked.

One document was a preview of a college football game. The colonel was recruiting bettors on the game.

The second document was an anti-war op-ed piece from the Washington Post. It had probably already been read by thousands of Post readers.

The documents weren’t exactly the Pentagon Papers.

(Contact Ernie at Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)


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