- Two people are alleged to commit strikingly similar offenses.
One, Wen Ho Lee, spends a year in prison only to have an embarrassed government
agree to a plea bargain. Another, John Deutsch, hasn't been charged with
anything but watches as the investigation against him expands, and expands.
- Both cases perfectly illustrate one of the American intelligence
community's greatest problems: the cult of classification, in which information
both rare and commonplace is safeguarded with equal zeal. Both cases also
illustrate the intense political pressures on intelligence and counterintelligence
agencies, polluting the value of the nation's intelligence. These are the
parts of our system that are broken, the ones that no one in Washington
wants to talk about.
- The Lee case is stunning in many respects. But no more
so than for this: Many people regularly mishandle classified information,
befuddled at the complexity of regulations over what is classified and
what is not. Most of these cases never become legal matters at all; they
are handled administratively or simply ignored. Lee was probably singled
out because U.S. intelligence discovered in China nuclear data similar
to what Lee worked with at the laboratory. His plea bargain may mean that
in learning the whereabouts of his missing tapes, the government may get
what it wanted all along and uncover an espionage ring.
- But a second scenario now seems more plausible: Under
intense political pressure from Washington, U.S. counter-intelligence grabbed
the wrong guy. Either someone else passed sensitive information, similar
to Lee's, to the Chinese government, or there was no spy network. The information
itself was already so widely disseminated that the Chinese government could
readily find it. Throughout the Lee case there was a recurrent theme: At
least some of the material he was accused of stealing had already been
- This raises a series of fascinating questions. If something
has already been published, does mishandling it or stealing it really constitute
a crime? Did the Chinese government really have to penetrate Los Alamos
National Laboratory to steal nuclear secrets or could an efficient open
source intelligence operation have yielded what was needed? For the U.S.
government, the question is more profound. Does anyone really know anymore
which of the millions of bits of classified information are already in
publicly accessible databases, books, articles and, of course, the Internet?
- The intelligence community underestimates the massive
amounts of information available in the open source. In 1995, for instance,
the Central Intelligence Agency held a competition to see who could gather
the most information, most quickly, on Burundi. The winner was a Washington
company, Open Source Solutions, which left the CIA team in the dust. In
24 hours, OSS compiled huge amounts of information, ranging from statistics
to scholars; the CIA team finished dead last, compiling little more than
their own World Factbook.
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- There is certainly vital information that must be protected
from foreign espionage. These secrets worth saving should be held closely
indeed. Far too much effort is being wasted protecting non- secrets, which
allows vital secrets to slip through. In Washington, classification has
led to a sort of game, creating those in the know and those not in the
know. This game heightens the power of bureaucrats. But so much is classified,
that it is impossible for people with security clearances to know what
is derived from a spy satellite and what is plucked out of a newspaper.
- But social status derived from clearances is even more
insidious. A delightful Washington game is sitting around at lunch chatting
with various officials about Paraguay or Cambodia. The conversation turns
to details when suddenly, the person you are talking to gets a faraway
look in his eye and says, "Sorry, I can't talk about that." Conversation
over, and he's the winner. You see, he knows things that he can't tell
you. He's wired. You're not. The delightful pause, indicating that he is
sifting through his vast store of classified information, trying to determine
the source of the particular nugget he can't impart, and the reluctance
with which he refuses to go on, is part of the pure joy of holding a clearance.
It is not what you know, but what you can't talk about that makes you cool.
- Compounding the problem is political pressure. If nearly
everything is a state secret, then what to do about and with those secrets
is of paramount political importance. The Lee case is increasingly turning
out to have been deeply impacted by Washington's political mood, the search
for a China conspiracy in Congress and the hyper defensive political calculations
of the Clinton administration. Lee may not just have been the wrong guy;
he was the wrong guy at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
- On a day-to-day basis, members of the intelligence and
counter- intelligence communities are bombarded with highly political demands.
Indeed, the politics and policy demands of the administration and Congress
are never far from the minds of investigators and analysts. In this environment,
the power and value of intelligence itself becomes twisted and biased.
Ultimately the utility of the country's base of national security knowledge
- Consider the case of Deutsch, a former top official of
both the CIA and the Defense Department. As a high official he has had
every right to read classified information in his office, but not at home.
There is no indication that he ever intended to sell or pass the information,
just that he mishandled it, much like Wen Ho Lee. But here's where the
politics comes into play: If they're going to hammer Lee, then they're
going to hammer Deutsch. It would look too bad not to do so.
- So, what is a secret? Nuclear secrets should be kept
secret. The names of U.S. agents in other countries must be kept secret.
Operational capabilities of U.S. weapons should be kept secret. Unlike
today's situation, a secret requires that there be not the slightest hint
that the secret even exists. To do that, the government would need to follow
just a few simple rules, instead of the myriad complexities it has erected.
- First, there must be few secrets; unless you are willing
to stash people at Area 51, it's easiest to keep a small number of secrets.
Second, give secrets to fewer people. The idea of hundreds of thousands
of people wandering around with secrets is absurd. Do not use access to
classified materials as the justification for doing background checks on
military officers. Just do background checks. Don't classify as secret
that which is in the The New York Times and on the Internet. Don't use
secrecy as a shield, to protect idiotic political and policy decisions.
- The Lee and Deutsch cases turn out to be identical in
the sense that, in the end, the most either man can be charged with is
a procedural violation. Both were careless at most.
- And both incidents call Napoleon to mind: He who defends
everything defends nothing. Anyone trying to protect all of the government's
classified information protects nothing. Washington has succeeded in making
the vital secrets of the republic indistinguishable from banal drivel.
The reason to de-classify is not to make civil libertarians happy. It's
to stop cases like Lee's and Deutsch's from proliferating, leaving everyone
puzzled as to whether a real secret has been compromised.
- And while we obsess over these, the true secrets will
fly out the door to the four corners of the earth.
- For more on the North America, see: http://www.stratfor.com/services/giu/region/namerica/
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