In George Orwell’s classic novel “1984,” he speculated that a future totalitarian government would control not only the present but even the past by consigning inconvenient historical facts to a “memory hole.”
The Bush administration, certainly not fascistic as some extremist critics are charging, is nonetheless heading in the wrong direction with its preoccupation with secrecy. A startling example has been cited by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research library at George Washington University. The archive reports that the administration has begun classifying as secret the numbers of strategic weapons in the U.S. arsenal during the Cold War – information that the government used to provide to the American public and the entire world including its enemy, the former Soviet Union.
In 1971, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, no Cold War softy, was asking Congress for increased military appropriations. He presented charts showing that the United States already had 54 Titan and 1,000 Minuteman nuclear missiles and 30 nuclear-armed strategic bomber squadrons. He demonstrated that transparency was healthy for a democracy.
You could look it up – at least you could have done so until bureaucrats in the Pentagon and the Department of Energy blacked out those totals in previously public documents and reclassified them as national security secrets. “It’s yet another example of silly secrecy,” said Thomas Blanton, the archive’s director.
The Washington Post recalled other examples. Last spring, the U.S. National Archives, a government agency, was found to have been keeping a secret reclassification program under which the CIA, the Air Force and other agencies removed thousands of records that had been available on public shelves.
The administration continues to resist efforts by news media and even by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to learn the names of the oil company executives and others who met with Vice President Dick Cheney’s task force in 2001 to draft a national energy policy.
As for the blacking out of previously public figures on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, such information is more necessary than ever as the nuclear nonproliferation system threatens to fall apart. The United States and the rest of the world face a new situation in which the old stalemate of mutually assured destruction may no longer work.
As the world’s statesmen ponder how to devise a new system to take its place and deal with new possessors of nuclear weapons, the statesmen will need free access to the specifics of who has what in the field of nuclear weapons. And an informed American public is essential as it judges the nuclear future.