How much classified information is there?

by Naomi Colvin

Last night, the Columbia School of Journalism hosted an “After Snowden” panel discussion with Jill Abramson, Janine Gibson, David Schultz and Cass Sunstein. Video of the event is available and I’ve been watching it back today.

Barton Gellman – who wasn’t on the panel – asks a question about an hour into the event about the US Government’ attitude towards national security journalism. It turned out to be one of those cases where the question asked was a lot more interesting than any of the answers it received. Here’s part of what Gellman said:

almost everything you want to write about, if you’re writing about intelligence or diplomacy or defence, is classified. Everything but the press release and the news conference is classified. That’s just the way the US Government works and there may be more classified information now than there is open source information on the planet. There’s a good article that a Harvard professor wrote that estimated that was the case.

This – and a hat-tip to Kevin M. Gallagher (@ageis) who found and posted the link last night – is the article Gellman was referring to, Removing Knowledge by Peter Galison, a specialist in the history of science. It’s worth reading.

Writing in 2004, Galison noted that classified information from 1979 or earlier that was considered historically valuable (a subset of the whole) amounted to some 1.6 billion pages, compared to the 7.5 billion pages he estimated the entire Library of Congress to contain. Given the likely acceleration in classification since 1979:

about give times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning, including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.

Galison is primarily focused on scientific research and uses a lot of examples from the US Department of Energy. Still, US Government statistics seem to support that 1.6 billion pages figure. So if there isn’t already more scientific information (at least) hiding behind clearances than out in the open, it’s only a matter of time before that is the case. It’s pretty staggering stuff.

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