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Balancing Secrecy and Democracy

“I don’t condone leaking secrets. But nor do I condone a policy that can only work in secret.” – Bernard Finel

We’re in agreement on both counts.

I’ve been arguing for quite some time — although not as long as my colleague Dave Schuler — that Afghanistan is about as good as it’s going to get and thus it’s no longer worth the cost in American blood and treasure to keep slogging on in vain.

There are legitimate operational secrets to be kept while we’re at war.  Additionally, the fact that information shared with the American people is also shared with our enemies and the publics of situational allies makes transparency and full candor difficult.   But our leaders owe it to us to present a realistic account of where we are in this thing rather than engaging in feel good propaganda.

The problem — and I don’t know whether Bernard and I are in agreement here — is how to balance these competing interests.

As noted in my early morning post on the matter, I don’t believe junior personnel who have taken an oath to protect classified information in order to receive it have the right to betray said oath in the name of whistle blowing.  The stakes are too high and, frankly, I don’t trust junior operatives to make that call.  And there are legitimate ways of questioning public policy that one finds immoral.

The problem with anointing those who leak classified information to the press as heroes of democracy is that we risk destroying a necessary system.   The upshot of the WikiLeaks phenomenon won’t be greater transparency and less casual classification — both of which, again, I support — but rather more stovepiping of information.

The first natural reaction will be for those who hold classified information to be even more stingy in sharing it.  If we can’t assume that people who’ve been read into the system will keep their word, then we’ll define “Need To Know” even more stringently.

Relatedly, foreign governments are less likely to trust our intelligence system to keep their secrets.

Even if the 92,000 pages of material leaked turns out to be no big deal in and of itself — which seems to be the working consensus in the hours since they hit the streets — it could be crippling in its ripple effects.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Tano says:

    “I’ve been arguing for quite some time — although not as long as my colleague Dave Schuler — that Afghanistan is about as good as it’s going to get…”

    I know this isn’t the main theme of your post, but I would like to ask you about this. My sense is that the issue is not so much whether we can make Afghanistan significantly better if we stay, but rather whether we can keep it from falling apart – and that primarily means falling into the hands of the Taliban again.

    Do you think that Afghanistan would be stable, as is, if we left. Or do you think that a Taliban takeover would not be a big problem for us?

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  2. Ugh says:

    How about this: make the penalty for improperly classifying information equal to the penalty for disclosing classified information.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Tano

    Do you think that Afghanistan would be stable, as is, if we left. Or do you think that a Taliban takeover would not be a big problem for us?

    I think we may be destabilizing Afghanistan more by being there than we would by leaving. And that, in any case, a large COIN-oriented mission is the wrong way to do stabilization.

    @Ugh

    How about this: make the penalty for improperly classifying information equal to the penalty for disclosing classified information.

    They’re very different things. And a lot of things are overclassified because of bundling and timing rather than malfeasance.

    Our system should more easily allow expiration of classification and release of non-classified material bundled with truly sensitive information. But that’s a matter of systemic inefficiency rather than bad intent.

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  4. Wayne says:

    I fall on the side of over classifying than under classifying. Very few people understand how some of the smallest and seemly insignificant details can get people killed. Just because it is unimportant to you doesn’t mean it is to everyone.

    Doing so will increase the chance of shenanigans but if they get too bad, congressional oversight or someone will likely expose them. Many of the so call “minor” information does little to enlighten citizens but do put increase the danger lever of those in the field.

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  5. PD Shaw says:

    Our Constitutional system was created towards the idea of keeping secrets, that’s why we have a single executive:

    “That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man in a much more eminent degree than the proceedings of any greater number; and in proportion as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished.”

    Federalist No. 70

    Also, Federalist No. 64 emphasizes the importance of secrecy in gaining useful intelligence.

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  6. Ugh says:

    Or how about: if the information released was not properly subject to classification then the accused walks? Or is this a defense already (methinks not)?

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  7. sam says:

    @JJ

    “There are legitimate operational secrets to be kept while we’re at war. Additionally, the fact that information shared with the American people is also shared with our enemies and the publics of situational allies makes transparency and full candor difficult. But our leaders owe it to us to present a realistic account of where we are in this thing rather than engaging in feel good propaganda.”

    It’s an enduring problem.

    If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.

    William Tecumseh Sherman

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  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    Jim, your faith in the probity of govt is touching, not to say ironic since much of the comment here revolves around questioning of the administration’s actions behind closed doors in matters that are far less consequential than the war in Afghanistan. With your purist view the difficulty arises, of course, from the fact that there is a mountain of evidence that governments routinely lie to or withold information from not only the American people but also congress. Quite apart from the egregious abuses committed during the Vietnam war and the Iran-Contra affair which are somewhat distant we have the events of the last 9 years where intelligence has been doctored, withheld from congress altogether or alternatively given to tiny number of senators and representatives who couldn’t even share it with colleagues because it was classified, and so on and on. This distortion occurred in matters large and small like WMD’s and the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman. You yourself admit far too much stuff is classified. As far as this cache of materials are concerned (there are allegedly another 15,000 pages) after redaction there appears to be nothing that I haven’t been reading in the paper for at least five years and the idea the Taliban don’t know all this stuff is ludicrous. The only people with a problem here are people in govt and the miltitary who have been misleading the country for nine years. I have no problem with exposing them, on balance it’s going to do more good than harm.

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  9. just me says:

    I think sometimes we classify things just for the sake of classifying them.

    I also think we keep some things classified too long. Some information makes sense to keep and stay classified as they happen, but after a few years, not so much.

    I think, just like thinking about our military, we really need to figure out what the goals are with regards to classifying certain materials, and why we keep some things classified.

    But either way, I don’t think somebody in the chain of command without the power to declassify something should be given carte blanche to decide to send something to the media, because they do not like what is being classified. Whether we like it or not, there is good reason to keep things secret, and if they don’t like it, they need to work within the system, rather than violating a trust because they don’t want to be bothered or they want to play gotcha.

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  10. Wayne says:

    Yes there are times when classifications have been abuse. Sometimes out of concern political sensitivity, personal sensitivity, or simply CYA. Vast majority of them are not. A unit movement may be common knowledge in some circles but several unit movements are not common knowledge throughout all groups. A good Intel organization may not know the significant of one unit movement but will have a good idea when several units are involved.

    Re “. The only people with a problem here are people in govt and the military”

    The big reason for that is it is usually their life that is on the line. Put your and your friends’ lives on the line and a great deal of those “insignificant information” will all of the sudden become important.

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  11. just me says:

    Brummagen-what is your solution then? Have nothing classified, classify some stuff, but take no action against those who release it? You make no sense other than that you seem to argue the government should have no secrets, and if they do have secrets the policies they set up for releasing those secrets shouldn’t matter, because the secrets they keep probably aren’t worth keeping anyway.

    So what system would you create that would keep secrets safe?

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think we classify in part so that Terribly Important People will feel Terribly Important. After all, we can’t have these people reading the same things the rest of us read. Why, that would make them ordinary. And they didn’t work their way into the Pentagon, the State Department or the White House just to be ordinary.

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  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    just me says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 18:25
    “Brummagen-what is your solution then? Have nothing classified,”

    The fact you think this is all black and white attests, I’m afraid, to a rather simplistic view of reality. I don’t have the answer. However, I do know there is a lot of over classification and the govt has a history or lying and distortion, so against that background the idea that we should reside complete faith in govt strikes me as naive to say the least.

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  14. just me says:

    The fact you think this is all black and white attests, I’m afraid, to a rather simplistic view of reality.

    I don’t think the issue of how we classify things and what is classified is black and white. I do think it is pretty black and white though when it comes to somebody choosing to ignore the rules and go to the media with their problems.

    But you seem to be pretty black and white as well. Your opinion seems to be-lets have things classified but there shouldn’t be any rules about how that information is released, because the government lies.

    If information is worth classifying and there are rules about what is to be classified and how it is unclassified and released, then people can’t have carte blanche to release whatever they want if it suits their purposes.

    My opinion is we need to revamp what it is we classify, how we classify it, and even more so how long we keep it classified, but leaving rules about releasing it in place. You seem to want to hold nobody accountable for releasing information, and if you do want some held accountable, what is your criteria for who is or isn’t called to account?

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  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    just me says:
    Monday, July 26, 2010 at 19:41
    “But you seem to be pretty black and white as well. Your opinion seems to be-lets have things classified but there shouldn’t be any rules about how that information is released, because the government lies.”

    On the contrary I think it’s a mass of greys and one of the factors at play is a long record of govt malfeasance in this area. Using your criteria Ellsberg should never have leaked the Pentagon papers and deep throat should never have blown the whistle on Nixon. You’d be happy about that would you?

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  16. tom p says:

    Hey, I have an idea… How’s about we end all foreign entanglements? (I think some one said that before, but I don’t recall his name…)

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  17. ponce says:

    It’s folly to think the people of Afghanistan don’t know how many of their fellow civilians our troops are killing.

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  18. Wayne says:

    Most of the classified (classified, secret, etc) information is boring as hell. Most of it in itself is not any big secret. It is a matter of having all the little known pieces in one accessible piece and\or put together in a meaningful manner. There is also a fact of understanding what it actually says and how it fits with other information. Intel is an art.

    For example, military personnel evaluations of a scenario can and often do vary greatly within the same unit. The art is to sort out who is reliable and over sense of those various opinions in hope of getting a good picture. Intel dumps usually result in people with agendas taking whatever piece of info that helps promote their agenda or career which often result in a false picture.

    The Government and military have given false impressions at times but the MSM and politicians do it way more often.

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  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    ponce says:
    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 00:00
    “It’s folly to think the people of Afghanistan don’t know how many of their fellow civilians our troops are killing.”

    Of course they know. There are reports of another big civilian death toll (50) last Friday which is currently being denied by the military. And it goes beyond deaths. There’s a picture in this morning’s NYT of some afghan guy being frisked as he goes about his mud village. Now imagine for a moment that this country was occupied and we were being regularly frisked at random on the street. What reaction would this evoke. I’ve no doubt most of these people loath us and our mere prescence is making the situation worse.

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  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    Wayne says:
    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 01:54

    “The Government and military have given false impressions at times but the MSM and politicians do it way more often.”

    The govt is politicians!! The media get their info in the main from the military and govt, although on the whole I’d say they have been much realistic about prospects in Afghanistan than official circles.

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  21. Wayne says:

    Re “The govt is politicians!!”

    Politicians are those who run for elections. The vast majority of those working for the government are not politicians. Also the various Departments are for the most part stable. We don’t elect to keep the DOD,CIA, etc every few years. We vote for those who will vote on how much that will be spend on them.

    By your logic, a private in the military or a FBI agent is a politician since they are part of the government.

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