With little fanfare, the National Security Agency this week released over 50,000 pages of declassified documents. The trove is double the size of what the Alaskan government served up to scoop-hungry reporters on Friday, not to mention all of the eager citizen journalists combing through the emails uploaded to news sites. Types of documents range for the hum-drum explainer on Russian election districts in 1948 to the ironic how-to on "Emergency Destruction of Documents." And what the heck is the deal with the book on cryptology from 1809--that information seriously needed to stay under wraps for 200 years? It's just way too easy to criticize or simply make fun of the government for the timing of document dump.
First of all, there's the Plain thing. Did the spooks at NSA deliberately release all of their top secrets on the same week that every investigative reporter and their summer interns were sidetracked trying to figure out whether the former vice presidential candidate installed a tanning bed in the Alaska governor's manion? (Incidentally, ABC reported on that three years ago.)
Then, there's the Obama thing. All year, the president has been taking heat for his hypocrisy over his war on whistleblowers in the context of his stated commitment to increase transparency in the government. The controversy started last year when the U.S. government tossed Pfc. Bradley Manning into solitary confinement--sometimes forcing him to stand naked in the hallway while guards checked his cell for contraband--all for sending a batch of classified U.S. government documents to WikiLeaks. The other much publicized trespass came in the case of Thomas Drake, a former NSA senior executive on trial for treason according to the Espionage Act of 1917 for telling a reporter about internal mismanaging of funds. A May New Yorker profile on Drake provided an in depth look at the Drake's dilemma, wherein government officials drew a line between acts of treason and Obama's commitment to transparency. "You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to,” an assistant attorney general told the magazine's Jane Meyer, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.” The federal prosecutor in charge of the case insisted, "This is not an issue of benign documents." A bargain announced on Friday revealed that the government had compromised and Drake would plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “exceeding authorized use of a computer.”
This most recent NSA release is certainly benign. Presumably starting with the 200-year-old book, the now declassified documents from before World War I through the 1960s. Like the last batch of declassified government documents, there's a lot of information, but not much of it is terribly useful. We perused them for a bit, and it's fun! Here's a sampling and a link to the index courtesy of Wired;
Included in this new motherlode (.pdf) of supposedly secret-packed documents: a 1944 report on Japanese merchant ships, a 1946 dossier on Chinese railroads, and a 1954 German article on Lenin’s use of secret writing (with milk) while in prison. Presumably, this refers to Lenin’s stint in Siberia, in the mid-1890s. Exactly why Vladimir Ilyich’s reliance on lactose letters needed to be kept under wraps for 11 decades, the NSA doesn’t say.
The release is also most definitely part of an effort to polish the government's transparency-unfriendly image. The NSA said so plainly in the press release announcing it: "This release of documents is the first in a series of releases planned over the next two years as part of NSA/CSS's commitment to meeting the requirements outlined in the President's 21 January 2009 Memorandum on Openness and Transparency in Government (Executive Order 13526)."
We can only hope this or the next batch may include secrets as titillating as this leaked recording of President Johnson ordering some Haggar pants.