Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails bring up questions about classification and overclassification. I’m not going to opine on her use of a non-government server or security precautions, just on classification issues in the age of the internet.

Certain types of information must be protected: how to make nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; diplomacy in progress; troop movements in time of war; identities of spies; operating parameters of spy satellites; and so on. For some of these things, the need to classify is limited in time – photos from obsolete spy satellites are released for research in oceanography and climate, for example.

The classification system developed before the internet made information readily available. It may be time to rethink parts of it. A system designed for information on paper with few participants is breaking down.

Information can be transferred in vast amounts in less than seconds. Multiple agencies with different classification systems clash. Information that may be classified appears on line and in the news. Five million people hold clearances in the United States.

Copy machines, Xerox machines as we called them then, were the first technological chink in the armor. A couple of decades ago, where I worked, a graph showed up on people’s bulletin boards until someone noticed one classified curve on it, which touched off a frenzy to get all the graphs back. It was a cool graph, hand drawn on graph paper as we did then. I think nobody ever was quite sure they got them all back, but most of the bulletin boards were behind the fence anyway.

Different agencies have different types of classified information: restricted data for nuclear weapons; national security data, which is probably what is causing the fuss over Clinton’s computer; and likely a gazillion categories of NSA and CIA data.

I discovered the difference between some of them at an army base, onto which I drove my rental car as the guard waved me in, no id required, where I was to give a briefing. The briefing room was a classroom with open windows and random people in the grassy area outside. A sergeant was stationed at the door to make sure only authorized people were allowed in. I persuaded them to close the shades on the windows. Apparently when the army used the security level of my briefing, it indicated a lower level of security than I expected.

Most national security information, and I suspect the classification guidelines, is much less clearcut than restricted data, much of which is dimensions and design. National security information includes who said what to whom when; that may be classified for reasons of the parties involved, what was said, how the information was acquired, or all three. I’ve also dealt little with material that is classified paragraph-by-paragraph, which gives me the uneasy feeling that it’s saying “Okay, some of this can be disclosed”.

How the information was acquired may be classified: “sources and methods”. An obvious example would be information coming from, say, a mole in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Identifying that person or the fact that such a person existed would be a very bad idea. The operating parameters of surveillance satellites are protected; if photos from such satellites are released, they are usually degraded to lower resolutions than the satellites are capable of. It has seemed to me lately that “sources and methods” is used too freely as a reason not to disclose information, but I don’t know the whole story.

The government declassified an enormous amount of information during the 1990s. Time limits, usually 25 years, were running out on stuff that was classified during World War II, and there was an enormous backlog. The Cold War was over. Then came 9/11, and a bunch of stuff was classified again. Then there are the leaks by Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and others, all onto the internet.

Classified information does not become unclassified by appearing in public, which caused websites like Wikileaks to be banned for government employees because accessing them would put classified material on unclassified computers. A problem that has always existed is that unclassified information may be put together in a way that would be classified if it were in a US government agency. John Coster-Mullen, a trucker who also calls himself a nuclear archaeologist, has put together, in very convincing ways, design information on the Little Boy and Fat Man nuclear weapons used on Japan.

The same information may be classified in different ways by different agencies. This may be the case with Clinton’s emails. I have heard of other situations in which one government agency has demanded that another adhere to the first agency’s guidelines. When this happens after information has become public, the officials of those agencies are giving public indications of what the guidelines are and what the classified part of the information may be. For example, the officials speaking to AP are saying something about the kind of information that is said to be classified in Clinton’s emails:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Neither of the two emails sent to Hillary Rodham Clinton now labeled by intelligence agencies as “top secret” contained information that would jump out to experts as particularly sensitive, according to several government officials.

One included a discussion of a U.S. drone strike, part of a covert program that is widely known and discussed. A second conversation could have improperly referred to highly classified material, but it also could have reflected information collected independently, U.S. officials who have reviewed the correspondence told The Associated Press.

Holding a clearance has become a kind of status symbol. I’ve heard people at parties making it clear that they were insiders in that way and people in airports, clearly nuke types heading back to Albuquerque, talking about stuff I wouldn’t have talked about in public. The Office of Personnel Management, recently massively hacked, earlier was struggling with backlogs and seems to have been careless in some of its investigations.

Secrets can and should be kept, as in the talks that laid the groundwork for the nuclear agreement with Iran. But the classification system(s) need to come to terms with today’s information availability. My suspicion is that entirely too much is classified and too many people have clearances. But that’s a view from outside.

Update (September 1, 2015): Another way in which open-source information conflicts with old rules.

Update (September 3, 2015): More about technology undermining secrecy. A good point is that it’s necessary to carefully define the core things that need to be kept secret, because then more resources can be put to that effort, rather than diffusing resources across too many secrets.

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