The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America's Top Secrets (Hardcover)
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SHORTLISTED FOR THE CUNDHILL HISTORY PRIZE • Every day, thousands of new secrets are created by the United States government. What is all this secrecy really for? And whom does it benefit?
“A brilliant, deeply unsettling look at the history and inner workings of ‘the dark state'.... At a time when federal agencies are increasingly classifying or destroying documents with historical significance, this book could not be more important.” —Eric Schlosser, New York Times best-selling author of Command and Control
Before World War II, transparent government was a proud tradition in the United States. In all but the most serious of circumstances, classification, covert operations, and spying were considered deeply un-American. But after the war, the power to decide what could be kept secret proved too tempting to give up. Since then, we have radically departed from that open tradition, allowing intelligence agencies, black sites, and classified laboratories to grow unchecked. Officials insist that only secrecy can keep us safe, but its true costs have gone unacknowledged for too long.
Using the latest techniques in data science, historian Matthew Connelly analyzes a vast trove of state secrets to unearth not only what the government really did not want us to know but also why they didn’t want us to know it. Culling this research and carefully examining a series of pivotal moments in recent history, from Pearl Harbor to drone warfare, Connelly sheds light on the drivers of state secrecy— especially incompetence and criminality—and how rampant overclassification makes it impossible to protect truly vital information.
What results is an astonishing study of power: of the greed it enables, of the negligence it protects, and of what we lose as citizens when our leaders cannot be held to account. A crucial examination of the self-defeating nature of secrecy and the dire state of our nation’s archives, The Declassification Engine is a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving the past so that we may secure our future.
About the Author
MATTHEW CONNELLY is a professor of international and global history at Columbia University, codirector of its social science institute, and the principal investigator at History Lab, a project to apply data science to the problem of preserving the public record and accelerating its release. He received his BA from Columbia and his PhD from Yale. His previous publications include A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post–Cold War Era and Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population.
Shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize • A Kirkus Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
“It may be the most presciently timed book ever written. . . . It's the love story between America and its secrets.” —Jon Stewart
“Connelly has defined an existential crisis: the suppression of American history. . . . The Declassification Engine makes the case that the culture of secrecy diminishes democracy. And it has now become a culture of destruction as well.” —Tim Weiner, The New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating and urgent. . . . If you believe in the founding principles of the American form of government, then the stakes could scarcely be higher.” —Patrick Radden Keefe, Foreign Affairs
“Harrowing. . . . Connelly’s book unearths disturbing tales. . . . Readers will doubtless look to The Declassification Engine to make sense of the classified files that are now in the news. Yet to insist on the timeliness of Connelly’s research may be to miss its most powerful lesson. There is a much sadder story detailed in the pages of The Declassification Engine—a story about the existential threat that secrecy poses to civic knowledge.” —The Washington Post
“Connelly has written a gripping and sobering account of the exponential increase in government secrets. He persuasively argues that the United States needs a new strategy to handle classified material, demonstrating that both our national security and the health of our democracy are at stake.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“A brilliant, deeply unsettling look at the history and inner workings of ‘the dark state.’ The number of things that truly must be kept secret is small. The vast amount of information classified by the government is simply a means of wielding enormous power without real oversight. Again and again, Connelly reveals, secrecy has been used to hide mistakes, avoid embarrassment, cover up incompetence, and mislead the public. At a time when federal agencies are increasingly classifying or destroying documents with historical significance, this book could not be more important. An inscription at the entrance to the National Archives says it best: ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ ” —Eric Schlosser, New York Times best-selling author of Command and Control
“In The Declassification Engine, Matthew Connelly provides an incisive, unexpected account of the history and practice of official secrecy, offering a glimpse into a world that truly exists in the shadows. By showing the corrosive effects of state secrecy, he successfully makes the case for a different attitude to public information.” —Anne Applebaum, New York Times best-selling author of Twilight of Democracy
“The Declassification Engine is an outstanding expose of the secrecy-industrial complex that is suffocating our democracy. Matthew Connelly describes in vivid detail how the dark state became rooted in our national-security institutions and provides common-sense prescriptions for restoring transparency.” —Craig Whitlock, New York Times best-selling author of The Afghanistan Papers
“A profoundly important work of scholarship, one that addresses core questions about American democracy and the challenges to the nation’s venerable tradition of open government. Connelly’s findings are deeply troubling but also hopeful, showing us how data science can be used to help us better understand the past and thereby point the path to a more enlightened future.” —Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embers of War
“Matthew Connelly has played three essential roles in the struggle against government secrecy: advocate, archive-maker, and historian. In The Declassification Engine, he combines all three into an unforgettable account, one that is full of fresh and startling revelations that demonstrate how much of our own history has been kept hidden from us.” —Nicholas Lemann, author of Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream
“This is an absorbing account of the evolution of government secrecy, and an insightful exploration of the relationship between transparency, accountability, and self-government. At a moment when democratic renewal seems absolutely urgent, Connelly’s fascinating study could hardly be more relevant.” —Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and former director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy
“An impassioned indictment of America’s culture of official secrecy. . . . Compelling.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“The U.S. government is hopelessly awash in secret information, and this gripping history describes how we got that way and lays out the dismal consequences. . . . [Connelly] delivers a wild, page-turning ride packed with intelligence mistakes, embarrassing decisions, expensive failed weapons programs, and bizarre research that has ranged from the silly to the murderous. . . . Yet more evidence, brilliantly delivered, of the extent of the U.S. government’s dysfunction.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“What [Connelly] discovered was unnerving: a highly fallible, exorbitantly expensive (over $18 billion annually, by Connelly's estimate), virtually uncontrollable [classification] system that ultimately renders its administrators unaccountable to the American taxpayers funding it. . . . One hopes this book will generate serious discussion of the issue.” —Booklist