Throughout history, there has been an insistence, by most rulers, on some level of government secrecy. Certain kinds of information, such as military plans, the activities of spies, diplomatic negotiations, and, more recently, critical technology have generally been accepted as needing protection. This protection, in modern times, has been formalized as classified information.
Governments have also hidden information because it is embarrassing or illegal. The court case on which the U.S. state secrets privilege was based, U.S. v. Reynolds (1953) involved a lawsuit, by the survivors of civilians on a military aircraft doing research, for wrongful death. The U.S. Air Force claimed the state secrets privilege to withhold details on the flight. "When the accident report was finally declassified in 2004, it contained no details whatsoever about secret equipment. The government’s true motivation in asserting the state secrets privilege was to cover up its own negligence."
In democracies, there have been legislative challenges to classification policy, civil actions using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of several countries, and the leaking and publication of classified information. Leaks may be from those with authorized access to the material, such as Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers, Peter Wright of the U.K. Security Service, or Mordechai Vanunu, a technician in the Israeli nuclear program. In other cases, the information is released by a third party that was given information by a person or persons with access, as with Wikileaks.
- 345 U.S. 1 (1953)
- Background on the State Secrets Privilege, American Civil Liberties Union, 1/31/2007