THE CYNICISM OF SECRECY
Last year the Republicans tried to cast a wider and more punitive net over anyone who violated what they said were "classified secrets."
It is a move that is either naive to the point of uneducable ignorance or it is cynical to the point of contempt for the public and for reality.
Anyone who knows Washington knows that ever since the Truman security program was instituted during the Joseph McCarthy Era, the use of classification has been employed less to truly keep secrets and more as a strategic weapon for bureaucratic in fighting for money. Or as a cynical weapon against citizens whom Attorneys General want to hurt.
I was a Washington correspondent for 15 years. I have been present, alone or in small "breakfast" groups of correspondents, when officials ranging from Presidents to members of Congress, make a point for the correspondents by pulling a document out of their briefcase, making sure you saw the big, uppercase stamp, "TOP SECRET SENSITIVE." They would then proceed to turn pages until they reach a well-marked page, and then read out a section that seemed to make their point—whatever it was for that session–-- valid by an incontestable source, namely, a top secret classified document and therefore close to the word of God.
The classifications, of course, vary. The lowest, merely, "Secret" means that it is probably already in public libraries. The labels then rise grim-looking step by grim-looking step, to "Top Secret." and up until you reach a realm that a classification is so secret it has no name. Special agencies, like the one for nuclear regulation, have their own system, some with letters like "Q." and some not.
Just two examples. In the midst of the Cold War, the Navy and Air Force were engaged in a battle for appropriations. Each released "secret" information to selected correspondents on the deadly perfection of each of the systems they were touting in Congress. In this case, the Navy wanted an enormous increase in large aircraft carriers, arguing they could operate when weather stopped airplanes in their bombing (this was before some of the more fancy systems of today) and would become, to repeat a popular phrase, "the nation's first line of defense anywhere in the world."
The Air Force, of course, considered itself "the nation's first line, etc. ). So in order to show that perhaps the proposed giant new Navy carrier fleet was not the invulnerable "the nation's first line...."), the Air Force planted an observer on a fleet exercise in the Caribbean and waited until there was a cloud cover over the fleet activity. The bad weather, of course, was, by Navy opinion, a dangerous flaw in the Air Force argument for its appropriation for more and bigger bombers. When the Air Force planted observer on the carrier sent a pre-arranged signal giving the carrier's position, the Air Force sent a plane with special radar and took a photograph of the carrier through a thick cloud cover. The carrier was highly visible from the air in good weather and bad.
Shortly afterward, I, and a few other correspondents, were quietly given a copy of the photograph, clearly marked on the back, "Top Secret Sensitive" but the red letters crossed out with a pen. The source, a lobbyist for the Air Force, said this made it clear that the country should not appropriate the vast funds the Navy had requested for a big fleet of such vulnerable national shields. He added that it also showed, of course, how superior the big proposed Air Force planes would be. The photo appeared in newspapers, including in The New York Times.
The other example occurred during a crucial moment in the Pentagon Papers case. The government had, of course, obtained a lower court order enjoining, first, The New York Times which began publishing the secret history of the Vietnam War, a history with very scary classification stamps on the whole thing. After the Times was stopped its printing by court order, the Washington Post also received the Pentagon Papers from a then-secret source (I was involved in that retrieval). The case moved quickly to the higher courts.
One session, attended only by top lawyers for the government and, in this case, the Post, and a few selected editorial people. I was one of those because I was an editor of the Post at the time and had obtained the Post's copies of the 5400 documents.
The session was in the office of Chief Judge of the Appellate court in Washington, Judge David Bazelon. A lawyer for the Department of Justice dramatically took out a sheaf of pages from the papers and told Judge Bazelon that these were at the highest and most crucial level of government secrets which, if put in the public domain, would make the United States dangerously vulnerable to Soviet attack. The government's argument was bolstered by an affidavit from the National Security Agency (the most secret of all the intelligence agencies).
Luckily our small editorial group included our chief Pentagon correspondent, George Wilson. He looked at the document and whispered to the Post lawyer, "I've seen that someplace. Stall for time, stall for time." As Wilson fished into his briefcase full of his own documents, the Post Lawyer asked the judge if he could look at the critical document again. Wilson, who had covered all the most important Pentagon appropriations, was quickly going through the pages of a book-size, green-covered Senate publication.
Wilson stopped, read something in the green book, and then handed it to the Post lawyer, opened to one section, and whispered to the lawyer. The lawyer looked at the identifying cover page of the green book, and then showed it to Judge Bazelon.
The government lawyer had assured the Judge that this particular Pentagon Paper document if became known to the Soviets and other known enemies of the United States would endanger the very defense of the country. Luckily, George Wilson had a sharp memory. The document was a copy of testimony before an executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later had been cleared for public consumption by the Government Printing Office. It was a document in public libraries, in open congressional offices, in diligent Pentagon correspondents, and, undoubtedly, in the files of dozens of countries around the world, including in the Soviet Union, whose military attache may have bought his copy from the bookstore of the Government Printing Office in Washington.
I think there are, now and then, some pieces of government information that are truly damaging to release immediately. But I think they are rare. No vast bureaucracy and bureaucratic game-playing is needed for them. During World War II we had no formal classification system for military secrets.