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THE DECLASSIFICATION ENGINE

WHAT HISTORY REVEALS ABOUT AMERICA'S TOP SECRETS

Yet more evidence, brilliantly delivered, of the extent of the U.S. government’s dysfunction.

The U.S. government is hopelessly awash in secret information, and this gripping history describes how we got that way and lays out the dismal consequences.

Connelly, a professor of international history at Columbia, writes that more than 28 million cubic feet of secret files rest in archives across the country, with far more in digital server farms and black sites. Nonetheless, government secrets are not secure. “Washington has been shattered by security breaches and inundated with leaks,” writes the author. Global hackers often access classified files, and dissenters (Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, et al.) regularly extract material. Readers may be surprised when Connelly points out that the first 150 years of American history were essentially secret-free. Even diplomats often avoided encoding their communication. A new era began in 1931 with the groundbreaking for a national archive, and Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first archivist three years later. At this point, the “dark state” began its epic growth, which Connelly recounts in 10 unsettling chapters and the traditional yet still dispiriting how-to-fix-it conclusion. The author delivers a wild, page-turning ride packed with intelligence mistakes, embarrassing decisions, expensive failed weapons programs, and bizarre research that has ranged from the silly to the murderous. A large percentage of classified information, including the famous WikiLeaks revelations, isn’t secret but available in old newspapers. Everyone agrees that democracy requires transparent government. Congress has passed many laws restricting unnecessary classification and requiring declassification after a long period, but they are often dead letters. Officials occasionally required to review records for “automatic” declassification almost always keep them secret. Plus, the bloated archives are so underfunded that staff members have insufficient technical capacity to recover historical records. Destroying them en masse is cheaper, and this is being done. Interestingly, Connelly points out that historians are more likely to study World War II and the early Cold War because 1970s and later material is largely locked away.

Yet more evidence, brilliantly delivered, of the extent of the U.S. government’s dysfunction.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2023

ISBN: 978-1-101-87157-7

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2022

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WHAT THIS COMEDIAN SAID WILL SHOCK YOU

Maher calls out idiocy wherever he sees it, with a comedic delivery that veers between a stiletto and a sledgehammer.

The comedian argues that the arts of moderation and common sense must be reinvigorated.

Some people are born snarky, some become snarky, and some have snarkiness thrust upon them. Judging from this book, Maher—host of HBO’s Real Time program and author of The New New Rules and When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden—is all three. As a comedian, he has a great deal of leeway to make fun of people in politics, and he often delivers hilarious swipes with a deadpan face. The author describes himself as a traditional liberal, with a disdain for Republicans (especially the MAGA variety) and a belief in free speech and personal freedom. He claims that he has stayed much the same for more than 20 years, while the left, he argues, has marched toward intolerance. He sees an addiction to extremism on both sides of the aisle, which fosters the belief that anyone who disagrees with you must be an enemy to be destroyed. However, Maher has always displayed his own streaks of extremism, and his scorched-earth takedowns eventually become problematic. The author has something nasty to say about everyone, it seems, and the sarcastic tone starts after more than 300 pages. As has been the case throughout his career, Maher is best taken in small doses. The book is worth reading for the author’s often spot-on skewering of inept politicians and celebrities, but it might be advisable to occasionally dip into it rather than read the whole thing in one sitting. Some parts of the text are hilarious, but others are merely insulting. Maher is undeniably talented, but some restraint would have produced a better book.

Maher calls out idiocy wherever he sees it, with a comedic delivery that veers between a stiletto and a sledgehammer.

Pub Date: May 21, 2024

ISBN: 9781668051351

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

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