No Easy Day for Secrecy

I’ve just started writing a regular intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com. The first piece, up today, argues that the brouhaha over No Easy Day, the Osama bin Laden raid-and-tell book written by an ex-Navy SEAL, raises a much bigger problem: the disconnect between America’s 20th century secrecy regime and the 21st century wired world. The US classification system is based on the idea that secrets can be clearly distinguished and tightly controlled. This may have been true when people wrote memos on manual typewriters and “made copies” using carbon paper. But distinguishing and controlling secrets has become much more problematic. Now, information is easy to get out and hard to take back. A guy with a fake Lady Gaga CD can surreptitiously download hundreds of thousands of classified pages at lightning speed. Keeping the lid on anything — from the Stuxnet virus in Iran to the Bo Xilai scandal in Beijing — seems almost unimaginable. Public yet classified information (from Wikileaks to drone strikes) is a mouse click away. All of these trends are making secrecy seem increasingly arbitrary and less meaningful. In the end this threatens both security and accountability. For the full piece, including discussions of Fawn Hall’s time at the shredder and my troubles with the FBI, see here.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

6 thoughts on “No Easy Day for Secrecy”

  1. I had a top secret clearance with the air force when I was a missile combat crew member from 88-92. Other than actual launch codes and the wartime hiding places of a mobile system that I worked on almost everything that was classified was of the CYA variety. I think that the military and others have doubled down on classification rather than taking Moynihan’s criticisms of over-classification seriously. And mostly they do so to avoid embarrassment. I will say that there is some of the loose lips sinks ships situation that speaks to groups putting together legitimately classified information as if it was a jigsaw puzzle. Overall classification creates extra paperwork, makes the military and others inefficient and as you point out flies in the face of increasing connection. This is a very serious problem that needs to be solved.

    1. I wonder if it would help at all if people just didn’t put things on computers? I bet I sound like a crank!!! (Ha – guilty as charged!!!)

  2. Preaching to a slim choir, Dr. Z. In 20 years in the IC and 8 more doing document review & declassification at DOE, the ridiculous extent of overclassification and the total constipation of the declassification policy process, particularly within the IC, cannot be exaggerated — but everyone regards these as costs of doing business. Only the President can slash the Gordian Knot, and most days he’s undoubtedly too busy to do it, this being far from the most pressing of his problems. A sad loss for history, even if this is seen as a minor casualty; one example is the Soviet War in Afghanistan, which I studied closely during the 1980s, and am convinced can never be well-understood without bulk declassification of the vast corpus of NSA SIGINT collected throughout the conflict. Not likely to happen. I’ve had mandatory declassification requests in for some SIGINT-heavy reports I wrote back then, but it’s been years and no release.

  3. Anecdote from the German blitzkrieg in Belgium and France in 1940: I read somewhere that the Franch army had terrific signals security. All orders and reports were carefully enciphered, transmitted by landline, and deciphered; the Germans did not crack them. In contrast, frontline Panzer units transmitted messages by radio en clair. By the time French commanders had read them and reacted, it was too late as the Panzers had advanced another 20 miles.
    That’s not to decry the enormous importance of the cracking of Enigma, the Japanese naval codes, and VENONA. Horses for courses.

  4. This problem has changed only in scope. Back when I was starting out as a reporter 30 years ago, I was working on an article that got sent to the DoD in draft for security review. They called back telling us to lock all our copies in a safe until it could be picked up for secure destruction. We sent them extracts of the public DoD testimony in which each of the supposedly secret facts had been disclosed. (Except for one, which was a combination of public information and me consulting an atlas and performing a sophisticated mathematical operation known as division.) The trick is that someone who has no legal access to classified material can disclose it, but someone who has a clearance can’t repeat it even if it’s been publicized, because you could never be sure whether they were describing the public version of the facts or the version that they learned as a result of their clearance.

    The sheer scale of disclosures has changed, but even more than that, modern computer technology has made it possibly for anyone with a decent indexer to perform all manner of analysis on the disclosed information. Sometimes, quite possibly, better analysis than the people with clearly lawful access.

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