Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Washington Riddle: What Is ‘Top Secret’? By David E. Sanger

"... secrecy and security are often not synonymous."

(The Washington Post)  LESS than 24 hours after Pfc. Bradley Manning was convicted last week of handing off 250,000 State Department cables and defense documents to WikiLeaks, The Guardian published on its Web site the latest classified material from the leaker of the moment, Edward J. Snowden. That installment included the National Security Agency’s playbook for XKeyscore, a powerful surveillance program enabling the agency’s analysts to monitor and trace Internet searches around the globe.

The cases have provided lots of cable-television drama, from Private Manning’s court-martial to Moscow’s provocative granting of temporary asylum to America’s best-known fugitive. But the deeper lessons lie in how the government is stumbling in its efforts to protect its secrets in the Internet age. Washington has still not heeded two decades of warnings that the 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.

There are certainly some secrets the government needs to protect, 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.

In the early days of the cold war, secrecy seemed simpler. Classified documents were almost all on paper, making it far easier to limit access to officials with top clearances. There were not yet 16 intelligence agencies, much less the post-9/11 directives for them to share information they had once kept “stovepiped,” so that others could not get to it.

It was this pooling of information that allowed Private Manning, sitting at a remote outpost in Iraq, to download cables from the American Embassy in Beijing, and let Mr. Snowden, at a small base in Hawaii, to download — without setting off alarms — documents about intelligence collection operations and secret court decisions that had nothing to do with his job.

“This failure originated from two practices that we need to reverse,” Ashton B. Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, said recently. “There was an enormous amount of information concentrated in one place,” he said. “That’s a mistake.” And second, no individual should be given the kind of access Mr. Snowden had, Mr. Carter said. That has led to a new “two-person rule” for downloading classified data, akin to the two guys who would sit in nuclear silos, each with a separate key needed to launch a missile.

But that tactical solution doesn’t get to the core issue: When far too much information gets classified, nothing is really classified. Respect for the system erodes when information readily available in open sources is ostensibly guarded with high-level classification. It was this habit that Senator Patrick Moynihan railed against 20 years ago in “Secrecy,” a book detailing the corrosive effects of over-classification.

Mr. Moynihan might roar at recent examples. The bona fide secrets in those 250,000 cables were hidden among thousands of newspaper articles that someone had stamped “secret” and sent to the State Department.

A more serious problem erupts when classification collides with other American interests. Consider the least covert secret program in the American arsenal: drones. Every drone attack in Pakistan and Yemen made the local news, and Twitter, in hours. Often those reports were accompanied by huge exaggerations about civilian casualties. But the American ambassador in Pakistan was forced to let those claims go unanswered, because the program was classified. “We did far more damage to our national security pretending we knew nothing,” one senior American official said in frustration, “than if we had owned up to them and said, ‘Here’s a list of terrorists we just put out of action.’”

Now, after years of investigative news reports, President Obama has begun talking about the program publicly. But he has steadfastly refused to show an equal willingness to justify America’s use of cyberweapons. That has many government officials and corporate executives worried because there are no global rules defining legitimate and illegitimate cyberattacks ... ► Read the full article by David E. Sanger in The Washington Post




Author: David E. Sanger (USA, 1960-) is the Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times. He was educated in the public school system there and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1982. Sanger has been writing for the Times for 30 years covering foreign policy, globalization, nuclear proliferation, and the presidency.
He has been a member of two teams that won the Pulitzer Prize, and has been awarded numerous honors for national security and foreign policy coverage. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Strategy Group ... more



 

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