Patterico's Pontifications


Questions About Classification

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 6:56 am

Sometimes information is classified by the government because it’s proper to do so.

Sometimes information is classified by the government because it’s embarrassing to the government. If you don’t know this, you should do more reading. Try reading Irreparable Harm by Frank Snepp, for starters.

How do we decide which is which, if we’re not going to be told what the information is?

To take a concrete example: say that someone is held at Guantanamo for years. From the documents available to the public, it appears he has no connection to terrorism, and should be let go. Ah, but the Administration says, he does have terror connections. What are they? Sorry . . . that’s classified.

Now, the classified information might truly consist of actual connections between the detainee and terror-related activities. Or it could be that the government lacks any . . . and might be embarrassed by the public airing of that fact. I’ll bet you could even find officials who could argue, with a straight face, that such details truly should remain classified, because embarrassments like that harm the war on terror. At least that’s how they can justify it to themselves.

So how do we tell whether information is being classified for proper or improper purposes?

It’s an important question. I throw it open for discussion.

It seems to me a system of checks and balances — making sure, for example, that Congressional committees are fully notified of critical intelligence information — is a logical way to prevent potential abuses. But the more widespread information becomes, the greater the chance of leaks — especially for political reasons, as members of the opposite party are notified. If we implement a safeguard like that, we need to revise the laws to make improper leaks easier to investigate, and subject to more draconian punishment.

But I’m not sure I’m willing to have a system where we simply place all trust in the executive, and leave it there. There is a history of abuse of the classification system going back decades. We need to have a serious public debate about how to rein in such abuses, so that we as a polity can feel confident that sensitive information is classified only for proper reasons.

And, as the recent disclosure of the effective and legal Swift counterterror program shows, we also need a more effective system for protecting properly classified information — and to identify and severely punish those who leak it.

11 Responses to “Questions About Classification”

  1. A counter argument is that the more info you classify the more “leaks” you’ll have, necessarily.

    On the one hand, it makes sense to have some Congressional oversight (which it has). The problem (IMO) arises with the fact that Congress is well, Congress; and tends to be rather lazy about the details and would rather punt the issue down to various levels of the executive/DoD.

    The only time Congress gets really into the weeds of what info is classified and what info is not is when political hay can be made out of it (by either side).

    Not sure if that’s the type of Congressional oversight you have in mind…

    Army Lawyer (498217)

  2. Ultimately, were the Congresscritters from both sides of the aisle to act honorably, I would be in favor of increased Congressional oversight. However, given the current state of affairs, Murtha and Rockefeller seem to have press conferences shortly after their briefings. Additionally, in re. leaks themselves, it would behoove all Administrations to aggressively pursue said leaks. When I was in the service, had I taken it upon myslef to divulge classified materials, I would have been court martialed quicker than Deb Frisch can dig a hole. Finally, no matter how the issue is addressed, allowing the NY Times and the LA Times to determine on their own what classified materials should be published is clearly not the right course.

    JD (e045e8)

  3. Re: …we need to revise the laws to make improper leaks easier to investigate, and subject to more draconian punishment.

    Does prosecution of said leak constitute political harrassment and an attempt to silence the opposition? I’ll bet you a small amount of money at overwhelmingly small odds that we will hear the accusation within minutes of an announcement to indict.

    When we have a party intent on crippling our military, no laws are effective. Traitorous dogs. And yes, I am questioning their patriotism. Actually, I’m not. They haven’t been patriots for at least 35 years.

    Scott (412f3f)

  4. Things are classified – or supposed to be classified – not necessarily because of what they are but rather how they were acquired. Often, classified data are 99% mundane facts with a slim 1% of real vital, traceable information; for example, imagine if we had a ‘bug’ in Putin’s office phone. The processed, classified intelligence might mention “Putin indicated that he was displeased with the foriegn minister..” while a sanitized version at a lower classification would merely mention “indications are that a high Russian government official has fallen out of favor with President Putin…” THe public version would undoubtedly be even more vague.

    So – we descend from highly classified information that makes it CLEAR that we have some sort of listening device in Putin’s office, to more general information that could have come from any political confidant of Putin or the minister’s. It’s the difference between ‘We have a leak’ and ‘Who let that slip!’ that allows us to continue to gather data this way.

    Leaks are a serious issue not simply because of the damage that they cause but because of the damage they MAY cause. For example, might one think that all the al-Q’aida videos released now are against a plain backdrop? Someone let slip that we could match the backgrounds – Osama picking his way through a rocky hillside – to locations, and suddenly we lost a good source of information as to his wherabouts. That is why these data are classified.

    Much of the problem is that the little things that slip out mean nothing except to those concerned. A recorded conversation may mean nothing to most of the world, but if one of the participants hears about it and thinks, “I just had that conversation not two days ago with ‘ol Vlad! Who could have possibly overheard me?” How do we determine what to keep a secret when anything could be a giveaway? This, too, is part of the reason things are classified, because when anything is obtained via secret channels, we must assume it to be secret, having no way of knowing to the contrary. The vital nature of some data only becomes evident when compromised.

    Geoffrey Wykes (afac3f)

  5. It doesn’t seem to be the most efficient route but isn’t this what FOIA (Federal Freedom of Inoformation Act) lawsuits are for? I know EFF as well as several UFO conspiracy theorists have pursued info using FOIA.

    I’ve mostly seen this done with more historical data that has been classified. And perhaps I don’t understand FOIA well enough to know whether it can be used to challenge the classification of information. . . .

    But there are 2 possible checks here – 1) Congressional oversight in which the congress could take action to declass information and 2) individual requests for information which can be pursued through court action in which a judge would decide.

    C Student (59bfb8)

  6. I would propose a third reason the government classifies information: the information would reveal government activities that are unpalatable to the electorate. Or, worse, that government personnel are doing something illegal.

    Congressional oversight is great, when they choose to practice it. However, I’m rather skeptical that we’re going to get a high level of inquiry when the party affiliations match in both the executive and the legislative.

    Excessive secrecy by the government weakens our democratic institutions. It makes it impossible for the electorate to make an informed decision, particularly based on a given administration’s foreign policy track record, which is obviously where most of the classifications occur. A balance has to be struck between the potential threat of a terrorist attack and the threat of degrading our democracy. Accountability requires as much transparency as possible. Better to make public too much information than not enough.

    Samurai Sam (f0a546)

  7. “Better to make public too much information than not enough.”

    Until the next 9/11.

    sharon (03e82c)

  8. Like it or not, sooner or later such things always depend upon the honor and intentions of the people we vote to represent us. No amount of legalese, no number of security precautions can protect us from a diligent traitor in the House or Senate. Unfortunately, today such people abound.

    Doug Book (ac8988)

  9. I suggest that Bill Keller (NYT) be appointed information czar (comrade).

    rab (fb89bf)

  10. I worked in a classified career field for 20 of my 25 years in the Air Force. Everything we dealt with (reconnaissance imagery) was classified, the reports were classified, and the materials and methods were classified. Everything also had a declassification statement, ranging from “Declassify in 25 years” to “Exempt from automatic declassification schedule”. Part of the classification methodology was based on what was imaged, part by how it was imaged, and part by what results were achieved. The same parameters play a role in declassifying the information. If a reconnaissance program no longer exists, that doesn’t automatically mean any mention of it can be made, because we may be using similar programs in other places. Just because a particular target is no longer of military or civilian importance doesn’t mean the data relating to that target can be released, because such a release may say too much about our ability to collect and interpret data, or reveal operational limitations that will aid our enemies. Stuff still gets declassified, because there is an executive program that says that every classified document must be reviewed periodically to determine if continued classification is necessary and prudent.

    The current problems aren’t related to over-classification or under-review, but deliberate leaks by some people for political advantage, often at the expense of the nation and its security.

    Old Patriot (b41c01)

  11. We cannot allow an abstraction such as ‘national security’ to dictate whether or not a document is ‘classified.’

    Our enemies have a right to know our secrets—how else can they circumvent our fortresses, and defeat us, if we don’t give them fair warning ahead of time ?

    Desert Rat (d8da01)

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