August 22, 2015–A quick note today and I’ll come back again soon. You’ll have heard me often enough talking about the mind-deadening effects of government secrecy. Consider this: Hillary Clinton, the possible Democratic Party presidential candidate and former secretary of state in the Obama administration, is losing ground in opinion polls for an issue that revolves around the handling of secret documents, or more precisely, whether classified information was sent by her in private emails. The opinion poll losses are a real political cost.
The simple fact is that the public does not even know if Hillary really mishandled secret information. We simply know there is a possibility, based on a survey by unnamed State Department officials of a small cross-section of the message traffic that moved across her circuits. Mind you, the likelihood is high that some classified information was transmitted this way, but there is a huge difference between a two-year old email that announces Secretary of State Clinton will make a secret visit to Afghanistan tomorrow, versus one that contains key information about, for example, the private U.S. opinion of the latest Israeli approval for building additional settlements on the West Bank. Plus the likelihood is also high that whomever conducted this survey decided some of what passed by email should have been classified at the time but was not.
Problematic classified information represents only a small fraction of what gets made secret. Often the need for secrecy is short-lived, as in Hillary’s itinerary. Sometimes the secret is merely what (open) information someone is looking at. Other times the secret is low-grade, such as the rate of casualties for U.S. forces in battle in the last week, month, or other reporting period.
The probability is high that most of what transitted Hillary’s server and phone was this kind of material. Some of the rest is a phony charge, as in seems important enough to classify today but was not then.
But the system is so crude it does not make a distinction. For example, Chelsea Manning is in prison today for Wikileaks releasing hundreds of thousands of classified messages. Big secrets? Did you look at them? Probably 98 percent of what was in that leak was of the low-grade variety. (There’s a reason for that, too: Manning was on an interagency network for sharing where the participating agencies and armed services were putting only their lowest-grade stuff out. There’s a whole conversation to have about what really happened with the 9/11 Commission’s demand the government “break down walls” between agencies, but this is not the time for it.) The story with Edward Snowden was different, but the point is that Hillary, Manning, and Snowden are all accused of precisely the same thing.
Here’s more: President Barack Obama’s White House put out a release a few months ago that revealed the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan. Technically Mr. Obama is guilty of the same offense as Hillary, mishandling classified information. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sent to prison for this. General David Petraeus, CIA chief and ex-commander in Afghanistan, was convicted and sentenced for this. Scooter Libby, a senior acolyte of our former vice-president, Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with an episode where their office deliberately leaked classified information naming a CIA officer. Obama’s gaffe had been inadvertent. During earlier presidential campaigns there were charges against John Kerry and Bob Kerrey both, concerning things they did in Vietnam, that revolved around leaks of still-classified information, or based on just-released information. In the 1990s CIA director John Deutch was found to have classified materials at his home.
I submit to you that when the secrecy system reaches the point that senior officials routinely fall afoul the regulations for handling classified information, the system is out of control. We need a system that safeguards real secrets, high-grade information, not one capable of shifting political opinions in presidential elections based upon public misunderstanding of the secrecy system, and obscure officials’ assertions of blanket national security claims. Change the system. The alternative is that one day the secrets will swallow the government.