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Two Kinds of Classified Information

by Mark Kleiman

The latest WikiLeaks flap raises, once again, the problem of revealing classified information. Some of the WikiLeaks Afghanistan material—the names of individual Afghans who are working against the Taliban, some of whom are now sure to die as a result—represents exactly the sort of stuff that any government would reasonably try to keep secret. The other classic examples are "order-of-battle" information, negotiating instructions, intelligence sources and methods, and technical details about the capacities and vulnerabilities of specific weapons and about how to create them.

Of course attempts to keep such things secret are never perfectly successful, but—especially against a distributed set of enemies rather than a single unified enemy such as the USSR—just making some kinds of information harder to get can serve legitimate security interests.

But equally of course, most classified information is not of any of the above types. It consists of information a government does not wish to be known, because having them known would make the government look worse in the eyes of other governments or of its own citizens, or because it would embarrass specific officials. That's not just about the extra-legal abuse of classification: it's right there in the statutes.

When I was young and irresponsible, I worked for the Justice Department analyzing drug policy. In that capacity, I was put through the full security mumbo-jumbo and received a Top Secret clearance and, on top of that, clearances for various very highly taboo Codeword categories. (The initiation ceremony involves being dipped in the blood of ... well, I could tell ya, but then I'd have to kill ya.)

Having been cleared, what did I learn that it would then have been a felony for me to reveal?

Nothing that would have helped the Russkis or the narco-bad-guys. But I did learn the names of assorted corrupt high-level officials in various of the Carribean banking havens Jeff MacNelly once lampooned as "Rinky-Dink and Tabasco." No elaborate spying had been required to learn the names; apparently it was routine cafe gossip in the countries involved. So why, I asked, is this material classified? Not that I had any desire to reveal it, but I was curious.

The senior security guy in the Criminal Division set me straight: Yes, everyone knew that the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese Finance Minister, or Central Bank president, or whatever it was, was crookeder than a dog's hind leg. He knew, we knew, the Prime Minister knew, the Prime Minister knew we knew, and we knew he knew we knew it. Maybe the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese voters didn't know; that was their lookout.

But it was our policy to make nice to Rinky-Dink and Tabasco (honest, I forget which contrylet we were talking about). If it were revealed publicly that the US Government had knowledge that Mr. So-and-so was on the take, that would embarrass the Rinky-Dink-and-Tabascanese government, thus impeding U.S. foreign policy. Ergo, <em>properly</em> classified.

Today, it's the policy of the Government of the United States to suck up to the House of Saud, because in a free election - if such a thing could be imagined - the Saudi voters would probably elect Osama bin Laden as President. And it's our policy to suck up to the Pakistani security forces, including the ISI, in hopes to get them on our side against the Taliban. The information we have showing Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attack, and the palsiness of various ISI factions with Mullah Omar, would, if revealed, interfere with those two suck-up operations, and is therefore <em>properly</em> classified according to law.

There's a story Khruschev used to tell, back when he was General Secretary of the CP-USSR (i.e., dictator). In the story, an Old Bolshevik goes crazy, and runs through the halls of the Kremlin shouting "Khruschev is a fool! Khruschev is a fool!" Naturally, he's promptly arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced, to twenty-three years' corrective labor: three years for insulting the Party Secretary, and twenty for revealing a state secret.

An enormous amount of classified information consists of state secrets of the Khruschev-is-a-fool variety. And the incumbent administration is completely free to decide that revealing any given bit of information would be consistent with our foreign policy, and reveal it. As Henry Kissinger used to say, "I never leak. I de-classify." 

The ability to withhold information from the debate, and the ability to pretend to superior knowledge based on information that can't be revealed, are both huge sources of power for the military and intelligence agencies in their bureaucratic struggles for policy dominance and resources. With the share of defense spending in GDP now close to its postwar highs despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat, I'm not sure they need any more help, thanks.

There's every reason to think that the Obama Administration is committing fewer war crimes and crimes against humanity than its predecessor. It's possible that, as policy, it's not committing any at all. But it has decided - rightly or wrongly; I suspect wrongly - that revealing the Bushies' crimes would be bad for business internationally. So all that stuff is classified:  <em>properly</em> classified.

And that, my friends, is why we mustn't ever think about anything resembling an Official Secrets Act. How often it's in the public interest for classified information to be revealed isn't clear, but the answer clearly isn't "Never." By publishing information that will probably cost lives, the WikiLeaks crew has given the Administration good reason to try to shut it down. But most of the secrets in the current trove weren't like that, and if they'd revealed no such information the impulse to shut them down wouldn't be any weaker.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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