from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2010, Issue No. 98
December 10, 2010

Secrecy News Blog:


The U.S. Government insists that the classification markings on many of the leaked documents being published by Wikileaks and other organizations are still in force, even though the documents are effectively in the public domain, and it has directed federal employees and contractors not to access or read the records outside of a classified network.

But by strictly adhering to the letter of security policy and elevating security above mission performance, some say the government may be causing additional damage.

"At DHS we are getting regular messages [warning not to access classified records from Wikileaks]," one Department of Homeland Security official told us in an email message. "It has even been suggested that if it is discovered that we have accessed a classified wikileaks cable on our personal computers, that will be a security violation. So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous."

"As someone who has spent many years with the USG dealing with senior officials of foreign governments, it seems to me that the problem faced by CRS researchers (and raised by you) is going to be widespread across our government if we follow this policy."

"Part of making informed judgments about what a foreign government or leader will do or think about something is based on an understanding and analysis of what information has gone into their own deliberative processes. If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don't, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we've been intentionally left out of the information loop. In any such instance, senior staff will be handicapped in their preparation and in their inter-governmental relationships," the DHS official said.

"I think more damage will be done by keeping the federal workforce largely in the dark about what other interested parties worldwide are going to be reading and analyzing. It does not solve the problem to let only a small coterie of analysts review documents that may be deemed relevant to their own particular 'stovepiped' subject area. Good analysis requires finding and putting together all the puzzle pieces."

So far, however, this kind of thinking is not finding a receptive audience in government. There has been no sign of leadership from any Administration official who would stand up and say: "National security classification is a means, and not an end in itself. What any reader in the world can discover is no longer a national security secret. We should not pretend otherwise."


The Department of the Treasury has recently produced a consolidated classification guide, detailing exactly what kinds of Treasury information may be classified at what level and for how long. It is in such agency classification guides, not in high-level government-wide policy statements, that the nuts and bolts of government secrecy policy are to be found, and perhaps to be changed. See "Security Classification Guide," Department of the Treasury, December 2010:

The Congressional Research Service yesterday offered its assessment of the Stuxnet worm, which was evidently designed to damage industrial control systems such as those used in Iran's nuclear program. See "The Stuxnet Computer Worm: Harbinger of an Emerging Warfare Capability," December 9, 2010:

Intelligence historian Jeffrey Richelson has written what must be the definitive account of the rise and fall of the National Applications Office, the aborted Department of Homeland Security entity that was supposed to harness intelligence capabilities for domestic security and law enforcement applications. The article, which is not freely available online, is entitled "The Office That Never Was: The Failed Creation of the National Applications Office." It appears in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 65-118 (2011).

The latest issue of the Journal of National Security Law & Policy (vol. 4, no. 2) is now available online. Entitled "Liberty, terrorism and the laws of war," it includes several noteworthy and informative papers on intelligence and security policy.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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