Just imagine how America’s foreign policy in Iraq might have been different if the public had access to military intelligence before the invasion was finalized. The country could have avoided an expensive war and the deaths of many soldiers and civilians. Unfortunately, that information was hidden in plain sight, blacked out on official government documents.
As much as we abhor when the federal government acts clandestinely, we should at least know that it doesn’t always wickedly withhold information from citizens. In fact, the bureaucrats removing information from federal documents are probably bored to death by the Byzantine laws of redaction. *Note: Some government officials are capricious, contradictory or just plain evil. Or so claims The Believer’s Michael Powell in an extended cultural, aesthetic, and psychological history of two things that go hand in hand: the black Sharpie marker and government document redaction.
Redaction is a far more mundane and much less capricious process than we popularly imagine. “The redaction process is not part of a secrecy law,” writes Powell, “but an information-access law.” You’ve heard of it—it’s the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). *Note: We regret to inform you that FOIA requests result in an FBI-tail and 100-point hit to your credit score. Sorry. With arduous and exactingly thorough procedural manuals, codified techniques, and legal imperatives, most FOIA requests return documents with all the information that can be lawfully released. Nine legal exemptions are in place, the most controversial among information-freedom wonks being “national security,” that will impel any given bureaucrat to break out that infamous marker.
Black Sharpies occupy a nether-zone in the writing utensil-sphere. “Unlike the pen, a symbol of free thought’s transparent expression, or the sword, a symbol of free thought’s oppression, the black marker of government secrecy exists somewhere between these two places,” Powell writes.
Knowing that a piece of information exists and can’t be uncovered is worse than never finding out it existed at all, or as Powell puts it: “. . . any act of omission, while perceived by some as a grave injustice, cannot truly impact us until we finally learn that we haven’t learned what we had wanted to.”