Stuffing the genie back in the bottle

Boy, there are days when the Boston Globe is just stuck on stupid. Today is one of those days.

This time, they are weighing in on the current brouhaha between the Bush administration and the American Civil Liberties Union. It seems that someone got their hands on a classified document and e-mailed it to the ACLU, and the Bush administration wants it back. So they have gotten a grand jury to issue a subpoena for the document — and all copies they might have made.

The story appears to be this: on October 23, 2006, some unknown person e-mailed a classified FBI document (dated December 2005) to the ACLU. The Bush administration found out they had it, and went to a judge to get an order for its return — and any and all copies.

I’m trying to understand the ACLU’s position. They say they have no liability for their possession of classified information, and I’ll grant them that. They also say that they cannot disclose the contents of the document, and I think that’s also reasonable. But they also won’t return it. They describe the document as “only mildly embarrassing” to the Bush administration, but won’t go into further details.

So, just what is the ACLU’s plan here? They have it. They say they can’t discuss the contents, which would tend to mean they don’t intend to publish or release it. So it looks like it’ll stay mostly secret.

But they won’t give it back, either. Apparently, they believe that they are the rightful guardians of classified materials, eminently trustworthy to keep secret matters secret. That kind of flies in the face of their normal philosophy, that most classified materials should be free. It also establishes a precedent that I don’t like: that a private organization, utterly unaccountable to anyone, can take upon itself the prerogatives of the legal government in the matter of deciding what information will and will not be kept secret — and cannot be challenged or questioned.

So, if they’re not going to publish it (yet) or give it back, what do they plan to do with it? Lock it up in their filing cabinet? Take it out every now and then and bask in the glow of holding a secret document that the Bush administration wants back?

The cynic in me says they want to just sit on it, reminding everyone of just what they have until the Bush administration finally decided to declassify it themselves to disarm the ACLU or they leak it out in drips and drabs — the worst part first, much like several other documents — to suit their political ends.

I enjoy playing devil’s advocate (and that phrase seems especially appropriate, when dealing with the ACLU), but for the life of me I can’t grasp the theory behind the ACLU’s actions.

The Most Politically Incorrect Words of 2006
Rejecting reason