Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 4
Featuring Matthew J. Connelly
What’s with Biden’s, Trump’s, and Pence’s classified documents? Why is everything secret in the first place? And what is this costing democracy? Matthew J. Connelly, professor of international and global history at Columbia University, principal investigator at History Lab, and author of the book “The Declassification Engine,” looks at the consequence of unchecked governmental power and the effect it has on citizens. Plus, Human Rights Watch’s good news for kids and open source farming.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined for these conversations of What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network podcast by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having our fourth season of conversations with dynamic compelling individuals about topics that both are in the news and other topics that may be less so. And many of those are with people who are part of The Progress Network. But even when they’re not, as today’s guest is not, that’s not a knock on him, just not something that’s happened yet. And they’re all animated by a sense of, okay, here are our problems. What do we do to solve them? Here are the issues. Should we be as agitated and concerned about them as people say or as the climate suggests? Or are there other ways to look at it? And we’re certainly not, adverse to and resistant to the idea that there are actually problems that we should be agitated by, but we are convinced at The Progress Network that agitation, fear, and outrage are not actually good pathways to solving those problems no matter how agitating those problems might be. So one of those problems that has been way, way in the news over the past, really four or five months, is government secrets and government secret documents and what people do with them and how they use them or how they misuse them. Does a former president keep them stashed in his office? Does another former president keep them on a server? Does a former presidential candidate use her own servers? Does a current president use them in his garage? Does a former vice president leave them on his desk? All these questions about what to do with secret documents seems to be animating the public climate and raising the attention that there’s a lot of secrets out there and they’re not all handled well. And in fact, one of the things we all should be asking is should they have been secrets in the first place? So we’re gonna have that conversation today, and then we’re gonna do, as we always do, talk a bit about the news that you have not necessarily been paying attention to, that we’re gonna try to point you in the direction of. So, Emma, who are we talking to today?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna talk to Matthew Connelly, who’s a professor of international and global history at Columbia University. And like you said, we’re gonna talk to him about secret documents, which is the subject of his latest book, The Declassification Engine. He’s the principal investigator at History Lab, which is an NSF-funded project to apply data science to the problem of preserving the public record and accelerating its release. He’s got a BA from Columbia and a PhD from Yale. Ready?
ZK: Ready. Let’s do it. So Matthew Connelly, what a pleasure to have you join us today for What Could Go Right? You and I have known each other for a while, and I feel like I’ve been shadowing some of your work over the years at a less optimal level than what you’ve done. You know, you’ve written about colonialism in Algeria, and I’ve written about, you know, interventions. You’ve written about population and the challenges of global population, which is a little bit how I got to the subject of my next book. And you’ve now written about declassification or classification or the whole architecture of the American government and what we do with information, particularly since the dawn of the Cold War, where these things got much more intensive. Even though, as you wrote about in your book, there’s a pre-1945 history to keeping government secrets. It’s just a less complicated or a less intensive secrecy regime. And you have this new book out that looks at all of that. And of course, between former President Trump’s residence being raided at Mar-a-Lago, to much celebration on the left and condemnation on the right, to, you know, Joe Biden and his– which car was it?
Matthew Connelly (MC): Corvette.
ZK: It was his Corvette, yeah.
EV: [Laughs] In a locked garage,
MC: If it was like a Honda, like, would we even be talking about it?
ZK: Yeah, I mean, I think the Corvette is part of the story. I’m not exactly sure which part, but it’s clearly a part. And then of course all the drama in 2016 around Hillary Clinton’s email servers. Oh my God. And then now, you know, Mike Pence and documents there. Clearly, people have been– who have high levels of security clearances as elected officials have, you know, brought their work home with them as it were, in a way that they probably shouldn’t have. But as just a broader question, maybe give us a overview of how did we get here to the point where almost anything that goes on that’s material, particularly at the level of the White House and debates in government, how did we get to the point where everything is secret?
MC: Yeah. Well, in a nutshell, it’s all about unaccountable power. Like when, Zachary, you were talking about the other earlier stuff I did, you know, the way I think of it, I’ve been working on sovereignty, like this way in which people, you know, try to have power without having to be accountable to anyone. And, you know, that was true when I was working on, you know, this somewhat obscure subject, at least for most people, the Algeria War for Independence. I mean, you and I both, I think, we were fascinated at the end of the Cold War way back in the ’90s, in looking at, you know, how is it, you know, the world came to be as it is. And if it wasn’t all about the Cold War, then how do we find, you know, the origins of what then we started to call like complex emergencies. And so, you know, I was interested in the role of United Nations and NGOs, the international media because, you know, that war, the rebels never actually won in the military sense, right? The French ultimately defeated them, you know, in the field, which is normally how you win or lose wars, but they managed to mobilize international opinion like they used, you know, the UN and NGOs like the Red Cross to, you know, delegitimate France’s claim to have sovereignty over large parts of North Africa. And so, you know, to me it was interesting because it seemed like the rules of international relations were changing. and this was happening in the 1950s and ’60s when most people thought we were at the height of the Cold War. So for me, that was in a way understanding, you know, how it is we got, you know, in the 1990s and so on to, what some people even now are still thinking of a kind of crisis, you know, of state legitimacy, right? And, you know, when I worked on population, you know, I was trying to understand these people, you know, who mobilize across borders all around the world, built this mass movement, to try to confront what they thought was a planetary threat, right? They thought there was a population bomb, it was exploding, you know, hundreds of millions of people were gonna die of starvation. And they set out on this incredibly ambitious, you know, project of trying to get mainly poor people to stop having so many children. And, you know, some of the things that they actually did, they never really succeeded in doing that, not in the way they planned anyway, but they carried out these campaigns like, you know, 8 million people sterilized in one year in India during the emergency period. You know, the one child policy still ramified consequences even now and continuing probably decades from now. And they did all this without really having to be accountable to anyone in particular. So this project about secrecy, to me, this is a form of power, right? We all know that information is power and secret information’s even more powerful. I think psychologists have studied this. It has this like, you know, way in which it mesmerizes us and we get obsessed with it. And so that’s one reason. Like, as much as some of us anyway laugh about Hillary Clinton and her email and all of us I think laugh at like Mar-a-Lago and Joe Biden’s Corvette, what we’re talking about here, you know, is how it is people, powerful people, you know, who were making decisions that affected the entire planet, right? How it is that they were not gonna keep a record of that if it meant that they were ultimately gonna have to share it with the rest of us, right? And as an historian, I take that personally, you know. I think those records, whether it was Hillary Clinton’s email or the stuff that Trump was trying to flush down his toilet, that was our property, that was our history that they were trying to destroy and maybe did destroy in many cases. So, you know, that’s, to me, like another form of sovereignty. It’s trying to be, powerful, you know, but without having to answer to anyone. So that’s kind of what I’ve been doing or trying to for these last few decades.
EV: Could you outline the scope of the problem here? ‘Cause I saw some amazing stats, you know, prepping for this, like a document gets classified every three seconds or something like that. And I’m not sure people are aware just how many millions or billions of classified documents that there are. So maybe you could give us an overview of that.
MC: Well, the short answer is we don’t know because that particular statistic, so it was back when the government was still trying to count how many times people were classifying information, and it wasn’t necessarily a document. In fact, one reason why that number was accelerating, like, you know, so rapidly, where, you know, it got to the point in 2012, 95 million times a year, government officials were classifying information. One reason is that, you know, classified information, like other information, is growing all the time. And so, you know, they too, when they were, you know, doing secure conference calls or whether they were, you know, presenting PowerPoints at the NSA, you know, those too would be classified, whether they were spreadsheets or datasets or what have you. So it could actually be a lot more than a document, or it could just be a text message in certain cases. So the problem though is that they realized that all this was self-reported data. So this is what government officials were telling a very small and otherwise powerless office called the Information Security Oversight Office. They were telling them this is how much information we’re classifying every year. After that, it seemed to go down where at 2017, it was only about 50 million times a year. And that’s when this office, Information Security Oversight Office said, you know what, we actually don’t believe these numbers. And ever since, you know, they haven’t been able to publish even estimates as to how often officials are classifying information. And at that point, 2017, that was the last time they came up with an estimate as to how much all this was costing us. And the number was $18.4 billion, and that was double what it was five years before. So, you know, the real number is who knows, but I’m certain it’s even more than it was 10 years ago. And what it’s costing us, I think, even in dollar terms, is incalculable [laughs], literally. Now, what it’s costing us as a democracy in terms of the legitimacy of our institutions and the way more and more people are thinking that these people must be conspiring against us, you know, that is just beyond measure, right? But I think we’re all paying a price for that.
ZK: It’s someone being asked in a position to know, excuse me, sir or ma’am, can you tell us how many classified documents there are? And the response is, I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that. It’s classified. And first of all, I think the cost for democracy is way, way more troubling than the actual dollar cost. ‘Cause while $18 billion is a massive amount of money in a $22 trillion economy–
MC: Yeah, but it’s 50% more than the Department of the Treasury, right?
MC: Yeah. And look at other– sorry, I’m gonna harp on this one thing. We can only come up with $400 million to fund the National Archives. That’s like half the cost of a stealth bomber, right? So we don’t seem to have enough money for things that I think we should care about, right? Like preserving a record of our history for future generations. But $18.4 billion, eh.
ZK: The best line about the stealth bomber and then we can be substantive, was it’s a plane that flies and cannot be detected by enemy radar. It’s invisible. So someone once said, why don’t we just tell them we have it?
Audio Clip: Let me tell you how absurd this is. There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t some media report about what was found where, what some sort of characterization of the material in the press. I just saw one this morning again. So somehow, the only people who are not allowed to know what was in there are congressional oversight committees.
ZK: So the democratic problem, and you and I were talking about this in the 1990s, there was a brief opening under Clinton, Bill Clinton, President Clinton, not Hillary, who one of the assumed dividends, sort of democratic dividends, not just money saved of the end of the Cold War, would be that we would start to loosen a particular type of secrecy regime that had been defended on the grounds of, you know, we’re fighting this intractable enemy. A lot of it’s military. We have military secrets that we don’t want revealed. And technologies and the fear around what had happened in the 1940s around leaking of the secrets of how to make a nuclear weapon. Of course, that information would’ve, you know, percolated out in the scientific reality soon enough. But even so, that’s kind of where some of the origin was. And there was this brief opening, right? We’re gonna start declassifying material and we’re not gonna classify as much. And then 9/11 happens, and it doesn’t just snap back, it accelerates massively because one of the responses to 9/11 was that intelligence agencies, of which there were, you know, 15 or 16, weren’t sharing information with each other, and so we were gonna create one consolidated intelligence community, but the “cost” of that was you’d classify even more stuff, but they would then be able to access it. I don’t know. I mean, like, every president, I think, has signed some sort of executive order saying, you will henceforth declassify less. And everybody writes about this stuff. You’ve written, you know, senators complain, Congress people fulminate—now of course, they all want security clearances like Marjorie Taylor Greene. If you get on the right committee, you get to see the stuff, and if you’re not on the right committee, you don’t get to see the stuff. I mean, is there any way this changes?
MC: Yeah, I spent a while like just looking at that history of how it is, like you said, every president with one exception has come out with an executive order, you know, that’s meant to regulate how it is that we define national security information and how it’s protected. The one exception is Donald Trump, interestingly. And you know, to me, in a way, it’s telling because here we had a president came into office, you know, railing against the dark, the deep state, right? And the way talked about, you know, how it is that, you know, his campaign has been under surveillance. He promised, you know, he was gonna declassify finally all the papers from the Kennedy assassination and so on. And then in fact, once he’s in office, he says, everything I touch is highly classified [laughs]. And of course, nobody loves secrecy more than Trump, you know? So yeah, it’s enough to make you cynical. And I think what it comes down to is whatever their intentions were originally, and I do think like some of our presidents, like Jimmy Carter, you know, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, I think they may have been sincere, you know, when they campaigned and said that they were gonna try to change all of this. But once they become president, they realize that this is the only form of presidential power that is completely unaccountable. And I say that advisedly, like I know we have, like, you know, we’re supposed to, anyway, a Freedom of Information Act. There is some legislative basis for some of the secrets that we keep, like nuclear secrets, like you mentioned, the identity of covert operatives. But in terms of like how people actually behave once in office, I mean, what every one of these executive orders has in common is that if you read them carefully, what you realize is that the things that look like reform, like where they’re gonna want to reduce the number of people who are allowed to create like, original secrets, new secrets, whether it’s about issuing instructions, stern instructions, that people are never, you know, to classify something as top secret. Like unless it could cause grave damage to the national security, whether it’s about automatic declassification, so-called, of like older secrets of previous administrations, what all these things have in common is that if they worked, they would consolidate power over secrecy in the White House, right? So the president and his main advisors and his appointees would be the ones to decide what it is the rest of us are not allowed to know. And what you realize is that, in fact, you know, as much as they issue these orders, once you conjure, you know, this power of secrecy, it has a power of its own, you know? And then of course you have many, many, many more people, far more people than the president can keep track of, who have this power, and they create secrets for their own secret reasons. And so, you know, it’s interesting when you look in the archives and presidential libraries as I have, you find, for example, you know, that even the White House can’t keep track of how many special access programs there are because they don’t know what to ask and who to ask. You know, that little office I told you about, the Information Security Oversight Office, their last report, they tried to come up, they weren’t gonna tell us, maybe they would’ve given us the number, but, you know, they were trying to take an inventory of all these special access programs, so-called, they couldn’t even do an inventory. They couldn’t get the departments and agencies to tell them how many of these programs they have. Maybe even they don’t know. So that’s how this system got completely out of control. Zachary, since you asked, the only way I think this is gonna change is if Congress and the courts finally come in and create a legislative basis for how we define national security, give it the force of law, make it enforceable, and then have the courts, have judges actually, you know, willing to use their discretion in assessing. Like when, for instance, say, look at Freedom Information Act requests and so on, have them weigh the evidence and make decisions about whether the government has a legitimate claim, you know, to be keeping information from the American public. So that’s what has to happen because this power, if it’s unaccountable, is gonna continue spinning out of control.
EV: But there’s no real interest in doing that, right? Like in practical terms of that actually happening. So my understanding is that you and your team went ahead and built, you know, this machine learning tool to see how to get through all these documents to try to declassify them. You brought it to the government, and the government was like, thanks, but no thanks. So [laughs] how realistic are we talking when it comes to the solution that you just offered?
MC: Yeah, well, you know, some people say that when something can’t go on forever, it usually doesn’t. I mean, but it’s very hard to know, you know, when that uncontrollable unsustainable thing will finally stop, or at least shift direction. So, you know, my sense of it now, and I’ve been fortunate, really privileged, to have conversations in the last couple weeks, you know, with the people, on the relevant committees, and they tell me that actually there is movement now. And interestingly, you may have read how the Biden administration apparently was developing a new executive order because they decided that the executive order from, I think, 2009, you know, from the Obama administration laying out the rules for secrecy and declassification, even they realized that it was unworkable, unmanageable. Interestingly, you know, that story was basically all anonymous sources, like nobody in the administration would go on the record to talk about what they were planning. That effort has stalled. And so the action is shifting to Congress. So the relevant committees are now studying, you know, what’s possible, like what they constitutionally can do in this area. It is an interesting constitutional question. One of the challenges for them, they say, is that we have no laws to amend. Like, normally, when Congress wants to do something, there would be laws that they could amend and change and so on. But basically, there’s almost no law in this area. Like, it’s effectively like– well, I don’t wanna exaggerate, but compared to other things that Congress would like to change and usually does, it’s effectively lawless, like in terms of what presidents can get away with. And the most dramatic example of that is Donald Trump. But you push things so far, you know, to the point where you have a president tearing up their papers and flushing them down the toilet, and you have presidents like walking off with like hundreds of documents. In the case of Biden, it was far fewer, but some of them were in an envelope marked personal. I mean, there comes a point where it just gets to be so insulting, you know, for members of Congress who have to observe all these elaborate rules and so on, they can’t even take the notes out of the room and so on, you know, that even congressmen have some pride [laughs], and they start to think, you know what? I think they’ve gotten away with something a little too long ago.
ZK: It’s fascinating when you look at this historically because there was this weird period from the last couple of years of the Eisenhower administration until obviously the, you know, end of the Nixon administration where presidents were taping their Oval Office conversations, and then those were released within, you know, 15, 20, well, 20 years of a lot of this going on in a way that completely belies this fear of, oh my God, we can’t have radical transparency historically in a meaningful human lifetime.
ZK: Because, you know, all of this information, all this kind of literally fly on the wall or microphone in the desk and the thousands of hours of conversations. And yes, some of those were redacted, and if there was a few things about nuclear weapons or codes that have remained classified, of those conversations. So there are two things, right? One is current secrets, and the other is keeping secrets in perpetuity.
ZK: There’s clearly some defense of current secrets or privacy, right? Like, I think a president probably should have the right to debate a series of incredibly problematic options that if they were revealed in real time would be used by political opponents, right? It’s somebody I’m sure is at least saying, okay, what are our options to help Ukraine? Somebody probably saying, well, we could drop a nuclear bomb on Moscow, and someone else is probably saying, no, no, no, that’s a really bad idea. But you probably wouldn’t want that conversation immediately revealed in real public time, right? Because someone would go, oh my God, president is considering bombing Moscow, which wouldn’t be accurate. But then there’s like, sorry, 40 years from now, you still can’t access that conversation. And those are kind of two different issues. I guess, would it be more effective, and this is a bit of a softball for you, would it be more effective to first deal with the historical secrecy and say, hey, this has gotten out of hand, rather than trying to attack contemporary secrecy, which is much more politically fraught?
MC: Yeah, I think that, you know, we’ve gotta work on all these things, right? But I agree with you, it gets to be hard to defend the idea, you know, that we have secrets. Like we literally have secrets that are more than a hundred years old now, right? And you ask yourself like, really? I mean, who’s gonna pay a price for– who are we protecting at this point? Like it’s not only like, are those people dead? Their kids are dead. [Laughs] it’s a long time ago, right? But, you know, I’ve had these very earnest conversations with people, very smart people by the way, who would say like, you know, I felt that way too, but then somebody showed me this document from 1948, this is somebody who had a clearance to see this stuff, and, you know, they made an excellent case for how, you know, if this document got out, you know, there’d be a real price, you know, and the implication was that, you know, somebody would potentially pay with their life, right? And I don’t deny that’s possible. And you know the question though is, you know, how do we weigh that? How do we weigh that one document that, you know, could get declassified that somebody might find against the fact that we have this system now where there is so much secret information that they’ve lost the ability to identify and protect the things that could definitely get people killed and really do serious damage to national security. And so like, if it were the case, like they were, you know, protecting important secrets and, you know, then it would be, you know, I think a fair point and we could have that conversation. But the fact is, look what’s happened just in recent years, like NSA hacking tools, like a whole arsenal of like cyber weapons that were, you know, lost and then used by bad actors, right? Who’ve now gone around the world, like sabotaging hospitals, right? And city governments and holding ransom like major corporations, you know, a whole, you know, arsenal of CIA hacking tools was lost. The personnel records, like the most personal information of over 20 million– there were over 20 million files from the Office of Personnel Management. This is where people who wanted to work for the State Department had to disclose if they’ve ever had substance abuse issues. Like what sort of affairs they may or may not have had [laughs], like the most incriminating information because that’s what you have to do to get a security clearance, all that information apparently is now in the possession of the government of China. None of that information was actually classified, right? So like, just think of it, you know, so we’re classifying, like literally, I have people tell me, yeah, I asked somebody if they want to go have coffee at Starbucks, and I classified top secret ’cause I think at some point in that email thread, we might eventually mention this program we’re working on together. So all those emails about, like, Starbucks are classified top secret and 20 million personnel records weren’t. Okay. So like, there’s so many examples like this. So I agree that there may be, you know, hard cases, but we shouldn’t be making the law based on those like incredibly rare and hard cases.
ZK: Is this a what happens at Starbucks stays at Starbucks sort of mantra-
ZK: -for the federal government? It’s a whole new– I’m never gonna look at Starbucks quite the same way again.
MC: I really understand, like, when you talk to people in government with security clearances, they’ll say, you know, like, I’m supposed to portion mark every paragraph, like every document I work on, like, I have to think about, is this secret? Is this confidential? Is this top secret? Well, maybe if I move this sentence, then the rest of the paragraph could just be confidence. I mean, what would you do? I mean, we all write like a lot of email every day. We write a lot of stuff. And imagine like every paragraph that you’re working on when you’re working in classified stuff has to be like marked as whether it’s– you know. That was supposed to be the reform that was gonna make it easier to declassify stuff. So what happens, like so many of these so-called reforms, they just classify everything top secret because it’s easier.
EV: This conversation is so bizarre because on the one hand, like, it’s really funny, you know, [laughs] like Zachary has been holding in his laughter this whole time, which probably people can’t hear on the podcast, but it’s just a bizarre situation. And it’s on the one hand kind of understandable, like you’re saying that, you know, it’s human nature to just say like, screw it, lemme just classify everything. And it is funny, just like, it’s just a funny situation. But I’m wondering if you could too just outline what you see is the cost to us, right? The cost to democracy outside of being a historian. I’m sure there’s a link here between just the air of– or not the air of mystery, the literal mystery, right? And the proliferation of conspiracy theories. And it’s not so much maybe what’s actually in there, but wondering what’s in there, you know, that’s powerful for people.
MC: Oh, yeah, yeah. And, Emma, you know, I warn my students, you know, like I teach classes too, like on dark subjects. I teach a class on the history of the end of the world. And I tell them on the first day I was like, hey guys, the only way I can study this stuff and talk to you about it is if I have a sense of humor and we’re gonna talk about stuff, it’s gonna be like, you know, nuclear war, like laugh or cry. I’d rather laugh, you know, [laughs]. And I mean, I do wanna treat these things with appropriate seriousness because absolutely, like, it’s deadly serious. The stuff I was talking about, it’s tragic. I mean, like, you know, in the case of the NSA, the irony, right? Like the NSA develops these cyber weapons and then they end up being used by bad actors to blackmail the City Government of Baltimore [laughs]. I mean, that’s sort of amusing, but it’s also sad when you think of all the other things the city of Baltimore is facing, right? And all the challenges that they have, right? And they have to deal with this crap, you know? So, yeah, it is funny. But, you know, it’s also really serious because it’s serious for me both that, you know, really dangerous information does get out, stuff like sniper manuals, you know, information about how you can create explosives with garden-variety materials, stuff like that, I think all of us would agree, doesn’t need to be released to the public, right? Then at the same time, you know, it’s our history that in many cases is not just kept secret, but more and more of it is getting destroyed and deleted because they just can’t manage all of this information and they’re just not interested in investing the resources that would be required, you know, even to begin, you know, to implement a more rational risk management type approach. So earlier, Emma, you were talking about how, you know, we presented these tools. You know, the research that we’ve been doing, it was meant to be like proof of concept for, you know, what it is government could do with vastly more resources and of all the classified data that they have to work with. You know, as you described it, like one after another, the people we saw would tell us like, this is exactly what we need. You know, in fact, you know, it’s getting dangerous. Like we absolutely need, you know, to be developing technology to manage this problem. But the only people that we were ultimately able to talk to that have the resources and have the personnel to take on a project like this, it’s called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency. So it’s like DARPA, except it’s for the intelligence community. They told us they had no interest in developing technology for declassification. What they were interested in was developing tools that would allow them to automatically classify information [laughs]. So, you know, and, you know, I’ll cut to the chase and maybe save you the money of buying, not you, Emma. I know you read the book, but anybody listening. So what in the end I realized is that when they told us, these are their literal words, they said it would bring insufficient return on investment, what I think they meant was that when the government is spending $18.4 billion, you know, to make secrets and keep those secrets, and it only spends about half of 1%, about $100 million on declassification, then absolutely, you should develop technology to do that expensive thing more efficiently. And this other thing that you don’t give a crap about, then, yeah, who cares, right? But unfortunately, like, you know, it’s like what Joe Biden says. His father always told him, people tell you they care about transparency and accountability. They care about, you know, preserving records for the American people and for history. Okay, show us your budget. It’s your budget that tells us what you really care about. And to be honest, you look at that budget and as much as they talk about the balance between accountability and national security, there is no balance. And all that stuff is just BS.
ZK: Part of my sort of shaking my head amusement in all this is, this was apparent 25 years ago. It was kind of apparent 50 years ago in the 1970s. And it’s not only not changed, it’s gotten worse. And I suppose you could say, look, the fact that Americans have this very debate and agitation around government secrets when look, the vast preponderance of societies, including many democratic societies in Europe, I mean the French are not exactly tripping over themselves to declassify material. And you know this better than anyone, Matt, about looking at the Algerian Civil War. I mean, they’re still– they either destroyed a lot of what they did. It took a long time to get any information out of the French government about their own accountability. You know, the British government has secrets dating back, I believe, to the 18th century. And so the very fact that we’re having that debate, I guess we could pat ourselves in the back and go, look, this is good. We’re a democratic society. We have an expectation of openness. This is lovely. But it’s a little bit like ringing your hands and making yourself feel good because you have the concern when in fact the actual system is just as sclerotic and impenetrable as countries where they’re basically say, look, you have no right to this information, you can ever get it, which is a much cleaner form of denying access and foreclosing debate, right? I mean, in some sense, it’d be better to be in a– the authoritarian answer of, no, you can’t see this, and if you see this will kill you, is at least morally satisfactory because it’s consistent with an overall approach to governing. These sort of, we live in an open society, but by the way, you citizens are precluded from having a meaningful input into these decisions ’cause you can’t see the information on which these decisions are being based, gets you to a kind of unaccountability that’s equally troubling. And, again, I don’t know where this goes from. And I mean, I do know one thing which you’ve been good at highlighting and which those of us who have some sense of this can highlight is that, you know, except for source, the names of actual intelligence spies, right? Which are increasingly fewer relative to technological intelligence, i.e., communications intercepts and the actual payloads of weapons and where they’re based and what they can reach. The vast preponderance of political intelligence that’s classified is not much better than the preponderance of open source information that isn’t classified.
MC: Right. Yeah.
ZK: Right? And the idea that someone can make better policy about China because they’ve got, you know, intelligence materials, that probably is 10% true, but it’s not 90% true. Demystifying this is important too.
MC: Yeah, I mean, look at, for example, you probably know Philip Tetlock at Penn and his project, I think it’s called the Good Judgment Project, where he’s been doing research over decades now as to like how you explain when people do good political analysis, when they’re able to make predictions, you know, about whether this or that government will survive, you know, whether that revolution will ultimately succeed and so on. And so they did a tournament where they had teams competing, where they gave them like very specific tasks, you know, to make very specific predictions. And some of those teams, at least one anyway, like these were government people, or at least people who had security clearances, who had access to the classified information, and they lost [laughs]. The people who were just using open sources, they won. They did better actually. So I think like when you run the experiment and you wanna know like, well, do 18 different intelligence agencies with their classified budget that certainly is in the tens of billions, probably 50 billion or more dollars, what does that actually buy you? Apparently not much [laughs]. Like if other people who don’t have access to any of that information, like, are able to win, right? And the one thing that really policymakers want more than anything, tell me what’s gonna happen. You know, then you have to ask the question like, what value added really is there? Okay, so I’m making a, you know, claim here. I recognize though it’s absolutely true, you know, that there is intelligence, there’s information you can get through covert means that you couldn’t get otherwise. And like, you know, I often like will tell my students when they’re interested in careers in intelligence, I’ll tell them a story. Somebody I know as a student, you know, went and tried to just get a summer job at the CIA, and, you know, had to go through horrible interrogation where this person was asked about like deeply personal things and in a humiliating way, right? And then ultimately was denied a clearance and never told why. Right? Which is often the case. You’d never actually even find out like what it is. And you know, when I tell that story, I say, look, you know, there are people in our government who will lie, cheat, and steal, right? And who are utterly ruthless. And the fact is that’s what we pay them for. We need some people like that working for our government to deal with other people in this world who also lie, cheat, and steal, right? But ultimately, those people have to answer to us, to our elected representatives, right? And they need to be able to know what they’re doing and they need to make the hard calls to know when that kind of stuff is justified. I wanna circle back to that big argument you made, Zachary, about, hey, you’re just like ringing your hands and feeling good about feeling bad and–
ZK: No, no, I’m not saying you’re feeling bad, I’m saying–
MC: ‘Cause it’s a fair point. I wanna make that argument.
MC: Yeah. All right. No, me, I feel terrible. Every day I wake up, awful. This stuff is fascinating. I mean, like, I could– you know, I tell people sometimes, like if I had all the money in the world, I would still show up, you know, in my office and I would study history and talk to people about it ’cause it’s really interesting and it’s even important. So in terms of like what other countries do, like you and I, we know like back in the day, it’s kind of a young man’s game doing international multi-archival research [laughs]. I don’t do as much of that lately as I’ve been doing, as I had done, like when I was working on the history of the Algerian War. You know, in a way, that’s one of the fun parts of that kind of historical research. You travel the world, you go to archives, and like you said, like, you know, try to do research in Algeria, right? And you know, there’s whole subjects where they won’t show you anything, especially if you’re French. I mean, luckily you go in as an Irish American, they show you a lot more. And when you go to France, sometimes you actually get to see more as a grad student than a French grad student would get to see [laughs]. Somehow as an American, you get a different status. But you’re right.
ZK: We don’t care what the Americans think. We just care what we think. [laughs].
MC: Isn’t it quaint? They’re interested in our history, we should encourage them. They could learn. But, you know, here’s the thing. I’m not satisfied if the United States is only a bit better than France and Algeria. And for two reasons. Like one is, you know, the United States, like for most of our history, for 150 years, we were incredibly, you know, open and accountable. We were very much an outlier compared to other countries in the world. You know, in that whole time, we never had a central intelligence agency. We never had, you know, black chambers to intercept communications. You know, we didn’t have like organized like surveillance of private citizens unless you were a slave, obviously. But the only time we had those things was in wartime, and every time those wars ended, so too, you know, did the infrastructure that was built up to conduct espionage and political surveillance and so on. That was the American tradition for 150 years. And, you know, American citizens had very high expectations as to the information they were gonna get from their government, and also they had very high expectations as to their own personal privacy and the ability to keep their own secrets. So what we’re talking about, you know, is really something that just happened over the last 80 years or so, which as historians we know is just a blink of an eye [laughs]. But the reason why we need to remember like what our roots are as a country and what our founding principles were is because it tells us, you know, if government can open and close and open and close, it’s not impossible, you know, that we could rediscover those founding principles, right? And the last thing I’d say about it is that, you know, what we’re facing as a country, like a lot of it has to do with technology. And the United States government was an early adopter of electronic record systems. So even in the early 1970s, like the State Department begins, you know, using electronic records for cables and such. So what we’re dealing with, the fact that like so much is secret that nothing’s secret almost, at least nothing secure, really, every country eventually is gonna be confronting that same challenge. And that’s why once again, I think we have to lead the way in figuring out how yes, you live in this world of big data and too much information. You have to figure out ways to protect the information that’s really important. And a lot of that information is withheld legitimately so not just because it might be national security information, but because there’s also a lot of personal information. There’s a lot of information of private citizens that also needs to be protected. So unless we figure this out, then eventually, this is gonna be the world’s problem too.
EV: So I guess there’s both a positive and a negative side to that, right? In that the problem is only gonna get bigger, not only just in the United States, but everywhere. But in that it becomes everyone else’s problem, it becomes, you know, everyone else’s solution too, right? That the energy is gonna be there to try to solve it, the technology is gonna keep moving along. So I’m gonna take that as the positive of this conversation, which is more negative than the ones we usually do on the podcast, but had a wonderful veneer of humor. So, Matthew, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast with us and sharing your latest book.
MC: Well, Emma, you know, you’re right. If we had like an hour and 40 minutes, we could have spent the next hour talking about the super cool stuff you can do with data science when you wanna learn more about history, even secret history that we weren’t supposed to know about. Because that is like, for sure, the one thing we know is that, you know, history itself is gonna change, like history in some ways is gonna become more like a data science. And that is really exciting. I mean, the whole way that we understand the past is gonna be changing in ways that I think a lot of us are gonna be, you know, pretty interested to know about. And I think there’s a lot we’re gonna learn about ourselves and not just about secrecy when we can do history in that new way.
EV: Thank you very much. History as data science, Matthew Connelly, coming season five, What Could Go Right? podcast. So come back for that, everyone. [Laughs]
MC: All right. Thanks, guys.
ZK: Thanks so much, Matt.
Audio Clip: They’re never going to declassify anything that may cast a bad light on the way that this all operates. And even when they say like, we’ll declassify it in 30 years, even then, they arbitrarily decide, well not this stuff. This stuff is so sensitive as to be– it would be detrimental to the national security.
And then you just get a redacted document that just says like a preposition peep show, just like black bars and two or three words and you just have to infer what that could be.
ZK: So my wry laughter notwithstanding, I did think that’s an important conversation and, look, something we should all be paying more attention to because this will just continue ad infinitum unless there’s some sort of public pressure and/or urgency around– one of the promises of an open, inclusive democratic society is that we all get to meaningfully debate important decisions that shape our present and shape our future. And if the trade-off is now we elect a bunch of people and then those people appoint people if it’s in the executive branch and they get to make all the decisions and basically say, sorry, you know, you don’t get to have input in this because you can’t see the information. And increasingly, that, you know, it’s not just the State Department and the Defense Department, it’s the Commerce Department. Oh, you know, we can’t show you the information about why we’re putting a whole series of foreign companies on a restricted list. Or it’s the Agriculture Department. Oh, we can’t necessarily tell you what our concerns are about vulnerability to yields. You know, it’s metastasizing. It’s not shrinking. And so, look, that’s I think a problem in a democratic society. But the flip side, as we did talk about, is there is an awareness that it’s a problem in a democratic society. There is not a total complacency about this. There’s not satisfaction that this is the way it is. And I suppose if there’s any prospect of this shifting, that will be where that comes from.
EV: Yeah, I think it has to do with the consolidation of the pressure, right? ‘Cause there certainly is a lot of outrage and a lot of pressure. It’s just the fact that it’s very partisan and polarized because there was a ton coming out, you know, when the classified documents were found in Mar-a-Lago. There was also a ton of stuff coming out with Biden. It just so happens that depending on what side you’re on, instead of focusing in on the larger problem of we have all this secrecy, you focus in on like screw Biden or screw Trump. So if we could consolidate that in some way, that would be good. I realize that that’s kind of the American problem over the last 15 years that I’m asking us to solve right now. But hey.
ZK: Hey, there you go.
ZK: So we will see how this goes. And the one other saving grace is there’s a lot of information out there that gives one the ability to understand what’s going on in the world, even if you don’t exactly know what the drone capacity is of the revolutionary guard in Iran or exactly what the tank composition is of the Soviet military. And even then, there’s a lot of open source stuff where you actually can get to a lot of that without having high-level compartmentalized security clearances. And then we have the openness to be able to write about these things and debate about these things and argue about these things. And that does, I think, over time shape public policy, not directly, but over the arc. And that I think is also saving grace, that it’s not like, as Matt talked about, that this secrecy regime is all that effective in keeping secrets, which is bizarre given how much secrets we keep and how much time people spend keeping them. So there is that as well. Thank you again, Emma, for a great conversation. Let’s talk a little bit about the news that we have not noticed. What you got for us this fine week?
EV: Okay. I have a bunch of stuff that we are happily cribbing, not cribbing ’cause we’re giving credit, we are taking from a Human Rights Watch post. And actually, a bunch of this news is from 2022. But even with our team, you know, we troll the internet every day, literally every day for underreported good news. We missed almost all of these. So [laughs], I really wanted to go through the list of Human Rights Watch is wins for kids in 2022. By the way, they didn’t name this Wins for Kids. Sounds like–
ZK: Cars for Kids?
EV: Commercial. Yeah. [Laughs] Toys for Tots, Cars for Kids. 1-800. Oh, that horrible commercial. Anyway, this is some actually really, really good stuff. So are we ready?
ZK: We are ready.
EV: Okay, so first of all, I’m not sure if we mentioned this in our 2023 episode about now is the best time to be married or unmarried, but also to never be married at all if you’re a child. Child marriage is in a sustained decline, particularly in South Asia. But there are plenty of countries all around the world where child marriage is still legal, including the United States, by the way. It’s a very-
EV: -strange mess. Yes. It depends what state you’re in.
ZK: Defined as what age?
EV: Under the age of 18.
EV: And it’s legal. There’s like loopholes essentially. So for instance, it depends what state you’re in, but there are some states where you can be 14, 15, 16, and if the parents consent, you can get married. But what ends up happening, of course, is children get, you know, sometimes trafficked or if they’re in some kind of strange religious cult, you know, they’re quite young and they end up getting married to a man that’s much older than them. It does happen in the United States, and in fact, in a lot of states, it’s technically legal just so people know that [laughs]. But recently in 2022, Cuba, England, Mauritius, Wales, and Zambia ended all child marriage. England, Mauritius, and Wales eliminated exceptions that allowed children under 18 to wed, while Cuba’s new family code raised the marriage age from 14 to 18. So-
EV: -closing the loopholes there. Very good thing.
ZK: Right. Okay.
EV: Zambia and Mauritius, there’s lots of stuff going on in Zambia and Mauritius in 2022.
ZK: I’m sure there was.
EV: [Laughs] Banned all corporal punishment of children, Cuba banned in the home and alternative care. And Human Rights tells us that 65 countries now prohibit all violent punishment of children. 40 years ago, there was only one country. So.
ZK: Now, you know, the only thing that occurs to me in that as the question mark, right, is, let’s say you’re a parent in Country X and you spank your eight-year-old, you know, not leaving marks, not viciously, and it’s illegal, and the state comes away. I mean, what do they do? Do they fine you first? Do they remove the child from the home and put them in foster care? So these are where these laws and then the application becomes so challenging because the solution to the problem is often worse than the problem, right? We know that taking kids even out of homes where there is intensive abuse can sometimes be worse for the children long-term than a completely terrible home situation. So, look, I don’t know what the solution is in these countries, I just know that, you know, before we necessarily shout Hosanna about criminalizing behavior that we think is morally abhorrent and wrong, we do have to be aware of some of the solutions or some of the remedies for that behavior could also be incredibly destructive.
EV: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting you to go in that direction to be honest, but I’m ready for it. I don’t think that we’re gonna be fined in Mauritius or Zambia or Wales, probably, or England, that they’re going to be taking children outta the home for some spanking. Even, you know, domestic violence advocates in the United States will, and I know this because I have family that works in this field, like you said, even if you have a home that’s very particularly abusive and the corporal punishment is very severe, not just, you know, some spankings now and then. The advocates will always try to go in the direction of what the child wants. And generally, the courts will try to go in that direction as well. So if the child wants to stay in the home, that is what they try to make happen unless it’s like really a life-threatening situation. So I think that the fear that you brought up is more so of a fear than an actual thing that may happen. It’s hard for me to imagine them like coming into the home and saying like, this is really something that the child needs to be taken out of. I see your point. I just don’t think it’s gonna happen that much.
ZK: Let’s trust that that’s going to be the case. I think there have been a lot of cases, particularly in more minority inner city communities in the United States, where child protective services have actually been quite invasive in a way that often doesn’t serve the interest of the family, even if there are legitimate causes. Probably something for a longer conversation. I would definitely salute the let’s not marry off kids as property or to get rid of the expense, which is certainly true in a lot of these countries. And let’s not use violence as our primary parenting tool. I think all those are good human developments and should be saluted as such.
EV: And you didn’t take the tack of what if two 16-year-olds wanna marry, which I guess-
EV: – is another– you know-
ZK: It’s another one.
EV: -you could have made that argument as well.
ZK: Right. And also the Romeo and Juliet exceptions, which are, you know, if you meet– no, ’cause, like, that’s actually a clause in these laws that if you meet when you’re like 17 and 16 and you turn 18 and 17, the statutory issues are not supposed to come into play.
ZK: And they’re called the Romeo and Juliet exception.
EV: Okay. I guess, fair enough. I think what I would say if you really wanna get married at 16, 17 or 16, 16 or whatever the case may be, you know, statutory stuff aside, like you can wait until you’re 18 [laughs]. That would be my counterpoint to your non-counterpoint. I’ve got one more about kids.
EV: And this is about the US. The Supreme Courts of New Jersey, North Carolina, and Tennessee ruled the extreme sentences for child offenders were unconstitutional.
ZK: Thank God for that. Sorry. Let me do a thank God for that, and then you can interrupt.
ZK: Just say unconstitutional again in case we need it.
MC: Thank God for that one.
EV: For real. Huh? For real. I see this as the trend in the United States that’s going more and more against harsh punishments. We’ve talked a lot about decriminalizing behaviors in terms of the criminal justice system, less so about the punishment and the death penalty, but Gallup did a recent poll about this, about capital punishment in the US. 54% support it in 2021. That’s down from 80% in 1994. And I think that, you know, the sentencing for kids becoming less harsh is all part of that general societal trend about wanting us to have a less harsh criminal justice system as a whole.
ZK: Yeah. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see if some of that reverses in the next few years, like re-reverses if, sort of fear of rising crime leads to more support for capital punishment. I mean, even though it’s kind of a irrational kneejerk response, right? The amount of people who ever were subject to capital offenses relative to fear of crime, like those are really skewed ratios. But it does in fact explain why there was such high support in the early ’90s and why that support kind of has decreased manifest over the years. And certainly, I think the degree to which the United States in particular, like there should be a remarkably few number of things that a 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22-year-old should be able to do at that age that should lead to a life of prison. I’m sure we could list that there are some things that we might believe justify that, but there’s a whole lot of things that people end up in jail for 20, 30 years that they do when they’re 18, let alone the whole endless parole system, right. You never really pay your debt to society based on the subsequent restrictions. You know, that doesn’t seem like a just society, even if someone has done something unequivocally, you know, wrong and punishable.
EV: Yeah. I have to say, there’s a really great TikToker that talks about this on TikTok. I think she’s in her 20s now in Florida, and she was arrested for armed robbery when she was, I think, 17 or 18. She’s still serving her time. Now she’s doing it on like weekend. She goes to jail on the weekend because she was part of some program that let her out early. But she talks about, you know, as you were saying about the parole, when you’re on house arrest/parole, apparently you need to to fill out paperwork with your probation officer all the time about where you’re gonna be basically every hour of the day. And if you mess that up, you know, the parole–
ZK: Yeah, you’re right back.
EV: Yep. Boom. So that’s what happened to her, even though she’s essentially been a model inmate and, you know, got out early, as I said, and it’s on the one hand, okay, armed robbery, it’s a serious infraction. On the other hand, like the woman has two jobs. She’s clearly, I think, trying to, or has paid her debt to society and she was a kid when that happened, so-
EV: -is it really necessary? So that’s what we have about kids. There’s more on Human Rights Watch if people want to learn more, they have even more good news stories about child soldiers and some other things as well that we’re not gonna get into today. That’s called Ten Good News Stories for Kids in 2022 from Human Rights Watch if you’re interested.
ZK: All right. Thank you all for listening. Please continue to tune in. Subscribe to the newsletter at The Progress Network site, www.theprogressnetwork.org. Read What Could Go Right?, which is also the newsletter weekly. Send us your comments, send us your ideas for future episodes. Send us your critiques. Send us whatever you want. We’ll read it. We’ll pay attention to it. We’ll tell you what we think. Thanks for the conversation, Emma.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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