More on Secrecy as a Disease

January 13, 2015–I’d wanted to post about the fantasy horrors being invoked around the “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist incident–the dangers foreseen here have indeed come to pass–but new developments on the secrecy front oblige me to turn that way first. We’ll get back to the “terrorist cell” in another post.

If you’ve spent much time reading this space you’ll know that I have frequently decried egregious government secrecy. You may be aware of some of the specific discussions that have appeared here. I have two of them in mind today. General James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is on the hook for both of them.

The first is my posting just before last Christmas, presenting evidence showing that the CIA had deliberately used secrecy restrictions to influence a political debate, moving declassification requests from its people implicated in the torture report ahead of the line of supplicants while holding up the release of the actual Senate intelligence committee investigative report. That, of course, was so the agency officers in trouble could craft a defense with their own website containing formerly secret documents. I posted a selection from these documents (available as a product called “Bush Torture Documents”in the Downloadable section of this website) to illustrate how far the CIA declassifiers were ready to go for their own.

Now, it turns out that while all this was happening, the DNI’s Inspector General was assessing DNI and agency performance on excessive secrecy, as he is required to do under a 2010 law. The latest of these assessments was issued in December 2014, as the very events above were occurring. The Inspector General found “no instances” in which “classification was used to conceal violation of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; restrain competition; or prevent or delay release of information not requiring protection in the interest of national security.” Really? So what was the torture report caper anyway?

What planet do these people live on? Do they seriously expect the public to believe what they say when they openly flout all regulatory mechanisms?

Next up is the disturbing–and seriously misguided, idea of making our own spy agency officials the enemy. This is the so-called “insider threat.” No doubt inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations, the insider threat has been conjured up to make the whistleblower the enemy, rather than people like the CIA torturers, who actually engaged in illegal activities. Fearful Clapper and his minions, the other spy chieftains, used their appearance on Capitol Hill for the annual national security threat survey last year to decry this insider threat.

Back in May and June (“America’s Terrified Spooks,” May 9, 2014; “U.S. Intelligence Tied Up in Knots,” June 8, 2014) I wrote about these matters, and discussed how they sap morale at the agencies as well as criminalizing–if properly implemented–the activity agency officials themselves engage in when they leak information to reporters.

Over the weekend we had a delicious illustration of exactly how ridiculous all this is. It was revealed that the Department of Justice has, for several months, been sitting on recommendations from the FBI that it should seek a criminal indictment against former CIA director David Petraeus. As it turns out–and as rumored at the time of his resignation from the agency following revelation of his affair with Army officer and biographer Paula Broadwell–Petraeus had given her secret documents which ended up on her computer. Diane Feinstein, the outgoing chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee promptly spoke up to say the offense should be ignored–Petraeus had suffered enough already. The message appears to have gotten through. Washington sources appear to be saying it is extremely unlikely Petraeus will be charged for leaking classified information.

(I happen to agree with the idea, in general, that regulations had gone too far in casting General Petraeus as a bad guy. I said so back in November 2012 in a piece in the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post.)

But what we have here is another specific demonstration of the double standard. Just as CIA declassifiers favored their friends with a shower of secret memos while throwing the regulation book at Senate investigators; here, Justice Department authorities want to excuse David Petraeus for letting out secret information while they seek maximum penalties for Edward Snowden.

You can’t have it both ways. Either jail Petraeus or forget about indicting Snowden. Otherwise the mishmash of regulations on secrecy, the lack of consistency in enforcement, and the haphazard application of the provisions that do exist make a mockery of the whole idea that there is a “system.”