I’ve been wicked busy the past couple of days and it looks like I’ll be in the same circumstances for the next week or so. Still, the blog must go on, dammit!
I haven’t had a chance to digest the wikileaks story in the detail I’d like to (I was out catching some fish during the revelation). It seems to me that while everyone is stumbling over themselves to proclaim how there is nothing new in the 92,000 (!) classified documents for someone with even a passing understanding of the war in Afghanistan, they’re missing the deeper story.
According to the NY Times: “Most of the incident reports are marked “secret,”…”
Ok…so, what exactly is ‘SECRET’ information?
Well, according to the NY times it is “a relatively low level of classification.”
But…according to wikipedia:
This is the second-highest classification. Information is classified secret when its release would cause “serious damage” to national security. Most information that is classified is held at the secret sensitivity.
Hmmm…that’s interesting. How can it be both a low level of classification AND liable to cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if released?
So, here’s my question. Given that no one is expressing much surprise at the documents that have been released, is it possible that this is an example of the rampant and pathological over classification that so many have been bemoaning in the past (oh, yes. because it’s all about you , isn’t it? eds.) Think about it. 92,000 documents have been released, each one apparently so sensitive that they were determined to potentially cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if released. And the result after they’re vomited out into the interwebs? A huge yawn.
Now, I’m not sure what Wikileaks’ ‘harm reduction plan’ is but imagine, like the mainstream media outlets that are reporting on the story, they’re redacting names and, for the more current stuff, operational specifics. But really, did all of this need to be classified?
For example, the only thing I could find in the area/time I was there was one lousy report (What the hell were you doing there? Eating kabobs and buying rugs? eds.). Really, is this the sort of thing that needs to remain classified for 25 years? or 5?
The problem is that our classification system gums up the works. We classify stuff so that potential partners aren’t allowed to see it. And really, nothing instills confidence in partners then giving them the feeling you have information that could impact the lives of their soldiers but you’re intentionally withholding it while asking them to risk their lives.
So, I’ll leave you with a practical implication of what I’m talking about. Way back in the day, we had a British officer imbeded with our unit. One of his tasks was to write a base defense plan. Well, when he completed it and submitted it to the powers that be, they thanked him and promptly stamped it ‘NOFORN’ which means, ‘not releasable to foreign nationals’.
Just to recap. A foreign national created a document for the U.S. military who then promptly forbade foreign nationals from seeing it. I guess that would just be a routine SNAFU except some wiseguy at the MOD actually had the nerve to request that this officer convey a copy to British HQ (I guess so they could verify that he didn’t spend his whole tour eating kabobs and buying rugs).
What happened then was a very interesting game of ‘who’s on first’ where (if I remember right, my memory is getting a bit hazy) we were saying our hands were tied and couldn’t release the document (and do I remember a brief attempt to argue that we couldn’t even acknowledge it existed or what that have been too perfect?) and the Brit was getting increasingly frustrated. It all worked out in the end at levels way beyond me but it was a ridiculous farce that consumed far to much time.
It appears that the NOFORN problem was addressed (a year later) but, this remains a serious issue.
On the whole, I think Wikileaks is a good thing. Despite repeated guidance, rules and admonitions, classification of information is not always about security. It’s about protecting screw ups, trying to establish credibility via limiting access and a lack of understanding of the process. Hopefully a few more incidents like this will get some knuckleheads to focus on classifying and securing what really needs to be and let everything else go.