The Race to Fix the Classification System

The massive disclosure of a quarter million diplomatic records by Wikileaks this weekend underscores the precarious state of the U.S. national security classification system.

The Wikileaks project seems to be, more than anything else, an assault on secrecy.  If Wikileaks were most concerned about whistleblowing, it would focus on revealing corruption.  If it were concerned with historical truth, it would emphasize the discovery of verifiably true facts.  If it were anti-war, it would safeguard, not disrupt, the conduct of diplomatic communications.  But instead, what Wikileaks has done is to publish a vast potpourri of records — dazzling, revelatory, true, questionable, embarrassing, or routine — whose only common feature is that they are classified or otherwise restricted.

This may be understood as a reaction to a real problem, namely the fact that by all accounts, the scope of government secrecy in the U.S. (not to mention other countries) has exceeded rational boundaries.  Disabling secrecy in the name of transparency would be a sensible goal — if it were true that all secrecy is wrong.  But if there is a legitimate role for secrecy in military operations, in intelligence gathering or in diplomatic negotiations, as seems self-evident, then a different approach is called for.

Although it has rarely been front-page news, important progress has been made this year in shifting U.S. government secrecy policy away from its cold war roots, and promoting greater discernment and discrimination in the use of national security classification.

In May, the U.S. government formally disclosed the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time (5,113 warheads as of September 30, 2009).  Declassification of this information, which is integral to future arms control and disarmament efforts, had been sought — and resisted — for decades.  That battle for public disclosure has now been won.  Also this year, the Report of the Nuclear Posture Review, the basic statement of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, was produced and released in unclassified form for the first time.

In September, the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense revealed the total intelligence budget ($80.1 billion in FY2010) as well as its “national” ($53.1 billion) and military ($27 billion) components.  This is a more complete and detailed disclosure of U.S. intelligence spending than has ever been provided before.  (An aggregate figure — with no further breakdown — was disclosed in 1997 and 1998.)  It also represents a major policy reversal.  Just a few years ago, intelligence community leaders swore under penalty of perjury that disclosure of this information would damage national security and compromise intelligence methods.  Now annual intelligence budget disclosure is the new norm.

These are not cosmetic changes.  They represent real discontinuities with past practice.  Stockpile secrecy and intelligence budget secrecy have each been cornerstones of entire edifices of national security classification that will now be susceptible to change.  And in each case their disclosure is the culmination and the successful fruition of years or even decades of advocacy, agitation and litigation by the Federation of American Scientists and other organizations and political leaders.

In fact, the deepest significance of these disclosures may lie in the fact that they demonstrate the feasibility of effective public advocacy in national security secrecy policy.  If a half century of nuclear stockpile secrecy and intelligence budget secrecy can be overturned in favor of public disclosure, then citizens can confidently seek the release of many other, less deeply entrenched official secrets as well as a continuing reduction in the overall scope of the secrecy system.

Of course, efforts to reduce government secrecy have not been uniformly successful.  For example, the Obama Administration’s use of the state secrets privilege to derail litigation on sensitive national security topics is indistinguishable from that of the Bush Administration, despite a September 2009 policy change promising “greater accountability” and more limited use of the privilege.  Moreover, it appears that the Obama Justice Department has failed to fulfill its own policy of referring to agency Inspectors General any legitimate cases against the government that could not be litigated because of the state secrets privilege.  (We are still attempting to confirm and to document that this is indeed the case.)  Nor has it offered any other alternative remedy to those who may have been wronged by U.S. government actions concealed by state secrets claims.

But even when the wheels of progress move slowly — or slip into reverse — proponents of greater openness are not helpless.  At Secrecy News, we have tried to shine a spotlight on the mechanics of secrecy, and to provide our own almost daily disclosures of official documents of public policy value that are somehow restricted or otherwise hard to find.  Not just because they are restricted, but because they are also of public policy value.  Over the past year, Secrecy News produced unique coverage of numerous important secrecy stories.  For example:

**  Leaking classified information may be the right thing to do in certain circumstances, suggested district court Judge T.S. Ellis III at a 2009 hearing, “but you have to stand up and take the consequences.”  We obtained and released the previously unpublished transcript of that remarkable hearing last March.  (“Judge: If You Leak Classified Info, Take the Consequences,” March 22).

**  We offered the most complete and in-depth reporting of the dispute between Congress and the executive branch over Government Accountability Office access to intelligence information.  We provided related documentation including a 1988 Office of Legal Counsel opinion and a new Department of Defense directive on GAO access to highly classified DoD special access programs.  In congressional testimony and public advocacy, we also argued in favor of an increased role for GAO in intelligence oversight.  Despite a veto threat from the White House earlier this year, a favorable resolution of the matter now seems to be within reach. (“GAO Gains a Foothold in Intelligence Oversight,” September 29).

**  We maintained and expanded our online library of reports from the JASON defense science advisory board.  Ours is the most complete public collection  of these consistently interesting and influential studies.

**  We obtained and published numerous unreleased reports from the DNI Open Source Center, such as a March 2010 report on Turkey’s mysterious underground Ergenekon movement.

**  We spent more time than we would have liked criticizing the Wikileaks organization, whose spectacular releases of large collections of classified documents continue to generate controversy.  From our perspective, Wikileaks has been inattentive to the unintended consequences of its actions, careless about putting individuals in harm’s way, particularly in the case of the Afghan war records, and ethically deficient in its invasions of personal privacy.  (In its latest release, Wikileaks did redact some names of individuals and some other sensitive information.)

**  With other like-minded organizations (and, in this case, a remarkably responsive White House), we helped prevent the creation of an ominous new information control system for so-called Controlled Unclassified Information.  Instead of constituting a fourth level of classification, the new CUI marking should simply facilitate information sharing without providing authority for any new restrictions on information. (“A New Policy on Controlled Unclassified Info,” November 4).

**  We obtained and published a previously undisclosed 2009 report from the Intelligence Science Board on the virtues of non-coercive interrogation.  We also reported that the DNI had disbanded the ISB this year.

**  We published hundreds of Congressional Research Service reports that had not previously been made available to the public, and numerous other popular records from a three-volume description of the Soviet army to the U.S. Army’s latest weapons system handbook to a speculative scientific paper on “interstellar archeology.” And quite a bit more.

It’s impossible to say whether the race to fix the classification system can be won through our kind of advocacy from the outside and by enlightened self-interest within government.  Before that happens, classification itself could be rendered moot and ineffective by leaks, abuse or internal collapse.  Or, in a reflexive response to continuing leaks, officials might seek to expand the scope of secrecy rather than focusing it narrowly, while increasing penalties for unauthorized disclosures.

But in the coming year, we see some promise in what is called the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.  This is a procedure (mandated in executive order 13526, section 1.9) for every agency that classifies information to seek out, identify and remove classification requirements that are no longer valid.  In effect, it provides an opportunity and a mechanism for rewriting the “software” of the entire classification system.  Though success is not guaranteed, we expect the Review to produce a measurable reduction in the scope of national security classification.  We plan to monitor its progress as closely as we can.

Finally, we want to ask for your help.  If you identify with our approach and you derive value from the work that we are doing, then we encourage you to help sustain it for another year with a tax-deductible contribution.  Although we make our online resources freely available to everyone who wants them, we incur costs in collecting, analyzing, and publishing them as well as in our related advocacy activities.  If you can help us with that, please do.

Donations can be made online here (select “Government Secrecy” in the drop-down menu to allocate your donation for the FAS Project on Government Secrecy).  Donors who contribute $25 or more will automatically be enrolled as members of the Federation of American Scientists (unless you prefer not to be). Donations can also be made by sending a check made out to Federation of American Scientists and earmarked for Secrecy News to this address:

Attn: Secrecy News
Federation of American Scientists
1725 DeSales Street NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC  20036

No Responses to “The Race to Fix the Classification System”

  1. F. Herrick November 29, 2010 at 2:43 PM #

    The Wikileaks release may be an assault on secrecy, but it’s also an assault on the United States’ ability to hide any abuses it commits or mistakes it makes in secret records. Technological advances have finally made it possible for a small group of activists to enable people everywhere to hold the world’s only superpower accountable in the court of public opinion.

    As we moved from the bipolar Cold War to the unipolar post-Cold War environment, the United States lost the sense of restraint it felt when it knew it could possibly be critiqued and held accountable by a powerful adversary, namely the Soviet Union. For the past two decades it has been unaccountable and able to meddle with impunity in the domestic affairs of many other states. Unipolarity has not provided a safeguard against the abuses of the hegemon, but now the technological advances that enabled Wikileaks to operate has changed the environment once again. The United States can be criticized and held accountable once again.

    The Wikileaks releases are a reminder to the United States that it can’t just sweep its embarrassments under the rug. Technology has advanced to the point where a few individuals with computers have more power to critique the US through unauthorized disclosure than the Soviet spies and there publicity apparatus ever had.

    U.S. diplomats and military personnel can now assume now that everything will become public. The only way to avoid negative scrutiny is with a shift away from engagement in activities that will cause embarrassment or danger when the records regarding those activities become public. Technological advances are happening so rapidly that it’s unlikely that a new classification system will be effective against a whistle-blower with a computer and an internet connection. Secrecy is dying due to technological advancements. Its death means one fewer obstacle for the concerned citizenry desiring to hold a powerful government accountable.

  2. Philip Henika November 29, 2010 at 3:30 PM #

    If Wikileaks serves to distinquish in detail what is secret then perhaps we should remind ourselves what is not secret. It is not a secret that globalization has replaced the Cold War. It is not a secret that the world is smaller i.e. international mobility and interdependence ahs increased. It is not a secret that war is ever so costly especially in times of a global recession and yet nations are still more than prepared to go to war. It is not a secret that disease spreads without the full preparation required to prevent pandemics. It is not a secret that Mother Nature, in the these times of climate change, is a most effective terrorist – a threat that bring far more death and destruction than Al Qaeda is capable of. It is no secret that humanity wastes energy and money on a global scale. And it is no secret that everyone is born with human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom for fear and freedom for the environment (see 2048: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together). So, maybe the message lies with the sheer numbers of volumes of Wikileaks. Perhaps the message is that the dirty laundry has been hung out to dry and we can now go back to work on the issues that have no need for secrecy.

  3. Robert Olcott November 29, 2010 at 4:42 PM #

    Kudos Steve, for the timely, “well-balanced”, comprehensive article on the most recent Wiki-leaks matter. Thank you to F. Herrick and to Philip Henika for the most appropriate addendum.

  4. Top69x November 30, 2010 at 4:21 AM #

    The wiki site should be shut down if its going to be releasing this kind of information. The CIA and Brits agency should take care of this issue with wiki and the information being released on it.

  5. PW November 30, 2010 at 9:54 AM #

    More kudos, Steve, to you and to commenters Herrick and Henika, for your intelligent and helpful responses to the WikiLeaks drama.

  6. Dr. Carl LeVan November 30, 2010 at 11:44 AM #

    The most recent release through WikiLeaks first illustrates the massive level of over-classification which remains an integral and widespread problem across the USG. Because the leak itself was leaked, or so it seems, it also illustrates how lousy Wikileaks is with its PR. The USG prepared officials and sympathetic proxies in advance, and they have drowned out any substantive discussion that the disclosed documents might warrant.

    Moreover, as Steve points out, the leaks do not serve any political particular objectives aside from some vague idea of openness. From a distance the disclosures seem to be motivated more by generalized anger than by any commitment to enhancing democracy. The leaks will probably do little to bring greater accountability to a government that has engaged in torture overseas, has targeted its own citizens for assassination, and which is expanding its national security presence overseas. By leaking so broadly, and by generating so much negative publicity, WikiLeaks undermines any moral high ground – and possibly legal protection – that government whistleblowers might have had.

    To prevent future leaks, the USG is already taking steps to close off access to classified information even further. This potentially undermines decades of progress by advocates of government declassification and openness.

  7. Mick Smith December 1, 2010 at 9:03 AM #

    The leaks are interesting, but unlike the Iraq Wikileaks, where there was clear evidence of wrongdoing and cover-up, it is a struggle to find the fresh scandals here. Most of the facts that have emerged could have been worked out by anyone with a good understanding of world affairs and only underline the positions of the various countries as were already known. There may well be some big scandals in there but who will point us in their direction?

    There are problems here in terms of news overload as well. A document leaked to the New York Times which said Saudi Arabia was pushing the US to bomb Iran would have been major news for weeks, with accompanying explanations of the situation which helped the readers’ understanding, and a groundswell of response that would have made clear the lack of support for any US action. Here it has become swamped under vast reams of essentially meaningless information.

    Perhaps these releases would be more interesting, and have more effect, if they were released as a drip feed daily wikileak or perhaps even a weekly wikileak.

    There is undoubtedly an over-classification of US documents, as Steven Aftergood has repeatedly pointed out on Secrecy News. Certainly, much of this information should be confidential rather than secret and hopefully this will force that particular issue, but there is nevertheless an uncomfortable feel to this.

    The story has not become that Saudi Arabia wants the US to bomb Iran or that US special operations forces are operating inside Pakistan (I thought we knew this anyway).

    It has become Wikileaks and Mr Assange, who depending on your viewpoint is either some sort of super hero or a James Bond style Machiavellian world villain.

    But there are wider questions of freedom than some of those advocating information freedom seem to understand.

    Our freedoms are founded on a democratic system. It might not always work perfectly, GW Bush and Florida in 2000 for example, but by and large it does work. Who precisely voted Mr Assange in? I know who voted Obama in, I’m not sure who decided it was a good idea to let Mr Assange have so much control over what should and should not be put out there in our names.

  8. The Frito Pundito December 6, 2010 at 3:46 PM #

    Oh, poor secrecy, this fragile little creature that is being crushed by the big bad Julian Assange! Hyperbolic much? First of all, secrecy is not in danger and never will be. Any parties embarrassed by the Wikileaks disclosures will just find better ways to cover up their misdeeds and everything will go on as before. Secondly, you deliberately mischaracterize Assange’s position as an attack on the notion of secrecy itself, without providing any quotations of proof of that fact. That is just dishonest. If I were you, I would be more concerned at the government’s attempts to shut down and stifle Wikileaks, which could just as easily be applied to you, if you step on the wrong toes. That is what you should be focusing, not helping the cause by criticizing Wikileaks for trangressions in your mind.

  9. Ian Betteridge December 9, 2010 at 10:27 AM #

    “The Wikileaks release may be an assault on secrecy, but it’s also an assault on the United States’ ability to hide any abuses it commits or mistakes it makes in secret records.”

    Not really. It simply means it will be more careful about the classification of such documentary evidence.

    What’s more, the abuses that the US’ has made have largely been played out in the open, even before the advent of the Internet. My Lai, Iran-Contra, and dozens of others, large and small, are a testament to the fact that the truth outs, usually fairly quickly, when it comes to real abuses of power.

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    [...] (from the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy), titled “The Race to Fix the Classification System.” Aftergood cuts straight to the heart of the misconception on which the WikiLeaks project is [...]