Episode 13: If I Told You, I Would Have To Kill You
A conversation with historian Matthew Connelly about his new book, "The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets"
Appears in this episode
On this episode, my guest is here to help us parse the world of government secrecy—its history, practices, and dilemmas—and how the classification system undermines our democracy. Matthew Connelly is a professor of international and global history at Columbia University and the co-director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. He’s the principal investigator of History Lab, a National Science Foundation-funded project that applies data science to the problem of preserving the public record and accelerating declassification. Out of that work came a new book, The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets (Penguin/Random House, 2022), a book about the vast and dizzying world of national security, from Pearl Harbor to the garages and closets of 21st-century ex-presidents.
If you are trying to decide whether to buy Matt’s book after listening to the episode, you might want to read the review in the New York Times.
Opening clips are from President Richard Nixon's taped telephone conversation with National Security Advisor Alexander Haig, as he learns about the Pentagon Papers leaked to the New York Times by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg on JUne 13, 1971; Donald Rumsfeld’s briefing to the press about the state of U.S. intelligence in Afghanistan on February 12, 2002; Jake Tapper’s CNN interview with Chelsea Manning on October 19, 2022; and former President Donald J. Trump’s words on protecting classified information come from a collection of statements complied by the Washington Post on February 11, 2022.
Claire mentions historian Blanche Wien Cooke’s Declassified Eisenhower: A Startling Reappraisal of the Eisenhower Presidency (Penguin Books, 1984.)
Matt and I both namecheck National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden: you can read an account of his journey to becoming a government whistleblower in his memoir, Permanent Record (Picador, 2020.)
Matt notes that one government agency generates a petabyte of secret data every 18 months: a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes, or one quadrillion bytes of information.
Claire mentions her interview with historian Kathryn McGarr about Cold War journalism and Washington’s secrets: you can listen to that episode here.
Matt mentions intelligence analyst Sherman Kent: Kent’s 1966 classic, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, was reprinted by Princeton University Press in 2015.
Claire mentions Richard Condon's Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1959.)
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