The deceptive allure of declassifications
Last month, there was a brief flutter in the American press when President Donald Trump announced that he was going to declassify all files related to the Kennedy assassination. For a brief moment it seemed like an entire subculture of myths, legends and conspiracies that had grown out of that epochal moment in American history would finally be put to rest.
And then, just like that, the moment passed. Several government agencies objected to the wholesale declassification of these files. Much against the President’s wishes, if news reports are to be believed, the declassification was heavily curtailed. And the trickle that eventually emerged, so far, seems to pose no threat whatsoever to the Kennedy conspiracy industry.
India itself is no stranger to this type of political and institutional reluctance. Indian governments across the political spectrum have refused to declassify the infamous Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report on Indian operations during the Indo-China war of 1962. And this is even after one portion of the report was posted online by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell; it is still available for download.
Even more recently, in January 2015, the government of India announced that it was going to declassify a massive tranche of previously secret files pertaining to Subhas Chandra Bose. There was widespread expectation, and excitement, that after decades of speculation there would be closure to the controversy surrounding the life of the great Indian freedom fighter.
As far as this writer can tell, this has not happened. The Netaji Papers website, announced with some fanfare, is now highly unreliable. Besides, the government had promised to update the website with fresh files at the rate of a few dozen each month. This has not happened since October last year. By my reckoning, using a Google cache check, a total of 303 files have been released so far.
(However, I must make two caveats. First, perhaps the plan all along was to declassify a limited set. Second, the website may have been updated but it simply won’t open properly for this writer to double-check for recent updates.)
It is fair to say that the information that came out of those files is yet to settle the key questions. Following a few months of fervent media reporting after each tranche, subsequent interest has been slim.
There is a certain romance to high-profile declassifications. However, this allure is deceptive. While they can often help to dispel rumours and settle disputes, declassifications can also be highly problematic for a number of reasons.
First, shrewd governments can easily use selective declassifications to deftly direct narratives in directions that suit their political imperatives. It is important to keep in mind that declassifications are not just an act of information-sharing but also one of information-creating. At first glance, releasing seven out of 10 secret files might seem like a tremendous act of transparency. 70% is better than 0%, right? But, in fact, it could be quite the opposite. The three files that remain closed may be far more important from the perspective of historical veracity. The information released from the seven declassifications might actually be designed to confound the truth even further.
Thus the question we must always ask is not just what remains secret and why, but also what has been declassified and why.
Second, governments can use the act of declassification to smother the truth with too much truth. Let me illustrate this with two examples this writer came across recently whilst scanning some histories of the Soviet space programme. One popular tactic used by Russian science administrators to give the perception of openness was to release extremely detailed research reports that ran into hundreds of pages, to both domestic and international audiences. These were lapped up. But the entire point was to inundate recipients with so much minutiae that no actual operational detail of space or other science programmes were actually revealed.
Another tactic is to release a surfeit of information on one topic, and very little on another. Academics, journalists and others who make a living from archives tend to work with what they have instead of what they don’t. Thus, with some shrewd declassifications, governments can steer attention away from topics they’d rather not talk about.
The best way to avoid this kind of manipulation is to commit governments to a time-bound declassification system. Some countries do this. The UK government, for instance, periodically announces declassifications—and it sends out lists of files in advance to large groups of journalists, who are invited to read them for several days before embargoes are lifted and the files are thrown open to the general public. This is a good system that not only brings restraint to official secrecy but also helps the public engage with files in meaningful ways.
Other countries, including India, are much more stingy with their systems of declassification. As Shruti Pandalai noted in Foreign Policy in 2014, even the Indian government manual that governed declassification procedures was a classified document. But even when governments stick to generally objective norms, they always retain the right to further subject sensitive files to secrecy.
Some weeks ago, this correspondent went to The National Archives in London to browse through a recent tranche of British government files. My eyes lit up when I noticed that one file dealt with India, Britain and espionage. Sorry, the man at the desk told me. That file has been classified again for another 20 years.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns here
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