Government secrecy frequently fails. Despite the executive branch’s obsessive hoarding of certain kinds of documents and its constitutional authority to do so, recent high-profile events — among them the WikiLeaks episode, the Obama administration’s celebrated leak prosecutions, and the widespread disclosure by high-level officials of flattering confidential information to sympathetic reporters — undercut the image of a state that can classify and control its information. The effort to control government information requires human, bureaucratic, technological, and textual mechanisms that regularly founder or collapse in an administrative state, sometimes immediately and sometimes after an interval. Leaks, mistakes, open sources — each of these constitutes a path out of the government’s informational clutches. As a result, permanent, long-lasting secrecy of any sort and to any degree is costly and difficult to accomplish.
This article argues that information control is an implausible goal. It critiques some of the foundational assumptions of constitutional and statutory laws that seek to regulate information flows, in the process countering and complicating the extensive literature on secrecy, transparency, and leaks that rest on those assumptions. By focusing on the functional issues relating to government information and broadening its study beyond the much-examined phenomenon of leaks, the article catalogs and then illustrates in a series of case studies the formal and informal means by which information flows out of the state. These informal means play an especially important role in limiting both the ability of state actors to keep secrets and the extent to which formal legal doctrines can control the flow of government information. The same bureaucracy and legal regime that keep open government laws from creating a transparent state also keep the executive branch from creating a perfect informational dam. The article draws several implications from this descriptive, functional argument for legal reform and for the study of administrative and constitutional law.