from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 56
June 14, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:


The legitimacy of official secrecy policy that is taken for granted within official circles is increasingly open to question within the press and among many members of the public.

"Government officials must... accept the enduring reality of a media culture that is prepared to publish official secrets and considers such disclosure a patriotic contribution to democratic discourse," said the Congressional Research Service in passing in a new report. See "Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share," June 6, 2011:

This is not quite precise, since no U.S. news organization publishes official secrets just because they are secret. No one seriously views the publication of a classified technical manual as a contribution to democratic discourse. The secrets must also be newsworthy, and even then most news outlets will exercise discretion and will give consideration to national security claims.

But it is certainly true that reputable news organizations of liberal, conservative and other editorial persuasions will publish classified information over government objections. That is the privilege and the right of a free press.

Strangely, the obverse is also true: Government officials will sometimes insist that information that is irreversibly public is nevertheless classified and subject to official security controls.

This was demonstrated most recently in a Justice Department policy for habeas attorneys regarding limitations on access to records published by WikiLeaks concerning detainees at Guantanamo, as first reported by the New York Times on June 11.

"While you may access such material from your non-U.S.-Government-issued personal and work computers," the attorneys were told, "you are not permitted to download, save, print, disseminate, or otherwise reproduce, maintain, or transport potentially classified information."

But the idea that information can be "accessed" online without "downloading" it is garbled, and it illustrates the confusion that prevails in government regarding classified information in the public domain. See "Feds' policy on reading WikiLeaks docs 'incoherent,' critics say" by Josh Gerstein, Politico Under the Radar, June 12:

The gap that separates the two cultures of government and media over official secrecy could be narrowed if not eliminated by a concerted effort to limit secrecy to its least ambiguous, most broadly accepted purposes. But currently, the Obama Administration is devoting far more effort to enforcing the existing secrecy regime than to fixing it.


With little fanfare, the White House last month transmitted the protocols of two treaties on nuclear weapons free zones in the South Pacific and Africa to the U.S. Senate for ratification. The Protocols generally commit the signatories "not to use or threaten to use a nuclear explosive device" against any other party to the Treaty.

Protocols 1, 2, and 3 to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty had been signed by the United States in 1996, but were not submitted for Senate ratification until now.

Likewise, Protocols I and II to the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty were signed by the U.S. in 1996, but never ratified.

In each case, President Obama wrote in his transmittal letters on May 2, 2011 that "I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the United States to ratify [the Protocols]. This step will strengthen our relations with our... friends and allies and enhance U.S. security by furthering our global nonproliferation and arms control objectives."

Entry into force of the Protocols "would require no changes in U.S. law, policy, or practice," the President wrote.

The Protocol packages transmitted to the Senate provide detailed accounts of the history of each agreement, along with an explanation of the Protocols' provisions. The Senate has not yet taken action to consider ratification of the Protocols.

There are five treaty-based nuclear weapons free zones around the world, as noted by the Arms Control Association, including Latin America and the Caribbean, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia.


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

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