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When Over-Classification Starts Wars

A new series of blog posts over on Defusing the Nuclear Threat is highlighting how some previously top secret documents and audio recordings related to the Vietnam war show the incident that started the war was not only exaggerated in some aspects, but in fact was fabricated to some extent. This is yet another example of how over-classification of documents can not only be wasteful, but dangerous.

In part two of the series, Martin Hellman quotes a previously top secret history from the National Security Agency about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents that says “no attack happened that night [August 4].” Previously, the official narrative said on August 4, 1964, the USS Maddox and the Turner Joy were attacked for a second time by Vietnamese PT boats. This attack was a key justification for going to war.

There is a place and a time for classified documents, but all too often documents are being unnecessarily classified. The Project On Government Oversight has long fought against such over-classification.

The Secrecy Report for 2012, released last year by and a coalition of over 80 groups (including POGO), laid out some of the more concrete costs of over-classification. From our blog post about the report: “For every $1 the government spent on declassification in 2011, it spent $215 maintaining government secrets already on the books.”

The National Declassification Center (NDC) is supposed to be trying to go through the backlog of 370 million pages of documents awaiting declassification, but in the last two-and-a-half years they have only processed 50 million documents. At that rate, the NDC will not be able to meet its presidentially mandated deadline.

Over-classification and a mounting backlog harm government transparency and contribute to the growing national security state, but Hellman’s blog posts show they can also lead to false pretenses for wars that cost trillions of dollars and millions of lives.

Read more of the series at Defusing the Nuclear Threats.

By: Andre Francisco
Former Online Producer, POGO

andre francisco At the time of publication, Andre Francisco was the Online Producer for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Defense, Government Secrecy, Information Access

Authors: Andre Francisco

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