Abuse of classification
system leads to loss of
credibility, massive leaks
Edward Snowden is wanted on charges of treason for leaking information about government spying. Click image to enlarge.
THE INABILITY OF THE U.S. government to keep secrets has been on full display for the world this summer … and since at least 2010.
The continued leaking of details of the massive spying program being conducted by the National Security Agency is just the latest embarrassing example.
More secrets were revealed recently by Edward Snowden than even Bradley Manning and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks ever imagined.
The Guardian, the leading newspaper in Britain, has called Snowden a hero, not a traitor.
And indeed, he is.
But why has there been a sudden avalanche of leaks of sensitive U.S. government data?
David Sanger has a deep and thorough answer buried in the Week in Review section of the Sunday editions of The New York Times.
IN HIS ANALYSIS, A Washington Riddle: What Is ‘Top Secret’? Sanger makes several insightful points. But perhaps the single most important one is that when everything is classified – even secrets in plain view on the internet – then nothing is secret any more. The entire system loses credibility.
The British newspaper the Guardian in an editorial lauds Snowden as a “whistleblower” not a spy. Click image to enlarge.
“[T]he best way to protect America’s biggest secrets is to have far fewer of them and to recognize that much of what is stamped “secret” today is widely available on the Internet,” Sanger writes.
Since at least 2010, thee entire world has known that the U.S. government stamps “classified” on far too many documents, many of which have already been widely disseminated.
The quarter-million diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks (and The New York Times, amongst others) were a prime example.
Despite the protestations of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, their publication did not cost any lives that we know of.
But they did cause the Obama (and Bush) administration a great deal of embarrassment. They had to rush around the world reassuring allies (like then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy) that, ugh! “we didn’t really mean it” after all.
One of the causes cited by Sanger was the Bush administration’s directive, after the supposed intelligence failures about the Sept. 11 attacks (supposed because we know President Bush – read President-wannabe Cheney instead – was warned that it would happen), that classified data be widely shared in the government.
When Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, it was revealed that more than 800,000 people had access to this data.
How could anyone possibly hope to keep it “secret” when so many had the means and resources to “UNsecret” it?
“There are certainly some secrets the government needs to protect,” Sanger writes, “but many of the most important clues about revolutions, nuclear transfers and new military sites can be found online, in open chat rooms and commercial satellite photos.”
An article in the Guardian describes President Obama’s national security policy as a “disaster. Click image to enlarge.
THE GOVERNMENT’S ATTEMPTS to classify data so readily available to the public destroys the credibility of the entire classification system.
And, so it should.
Far too many government documents are stamped “secret.” As Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists points out in Sanger’s analysis:
“The reality is that much is classified just to take the issue off the public agenda,” said Steve Aftergood a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “That’s not what classification is for, but it often serves that purpose.”
Classifying data simply to avoid a potentially embarrassing public debate is misusing the system.
One can have little sympathy when, inevitably, this abuse comes back to bite officials after the erroneously classified material becomes fodder for front page headlines … as it has done recently.
It is time for a total revamp of the federal government’s penchant to stamp everything “top secret.” The policy is broken; it needs to be fixed.
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