Opinion

Jack Shafer

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1998 lesson on the price of secrets

Jack Shafer
Dec 27, 2013 15:22 UTC

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.

The ease with which the United States government creates new state secrets masks the ultimate cost of the secret’s production. Once minted, a secret must be guarded lest a spy sneak in and pluck it from the bunch — or a Chelsea Manning, an Edward Snowden, or a lesser leaker with a security clearance release it into the wild. Vaults must be built, moats dug, and guards hired, trained, and paid. Add to that the cost of routine audits, to make sure nobody has picked the locks, and the expense of the annual security clearances for the spooks, bureaucrats, and IT specialists who make, sort, use, and maintain the secrets. At last count, nearly five million people in the U.S. were cleared to access Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret information, a number that includes both government employees (like Manning) and contractors (like Snowden).

Official secrets have been reproducing faster than a basket of mongooses thanks to the miracle of “derivative classification,” and this rapid propagation has compounded the maintenance costs. Whenever information stamped as classified is folded into a new document — either verbatim or in paraphrased form — that new derivative document is born classified. Derivative classification — and the fact that nobody ever got fired for overusing the classified stamp — means that 92.1 million “classification decisions” were made in FY 2011, according to a government report, a 20 percent increase over FY 2010. Once created, your typical secret is a stubborn thing. The secret-makers’ reluctance to declassify their trove is legendary: In 1997, 204 million pages were declassified, but since 9/11 only an average of 33.5 million pages have been declassified annually.

The secrets glut imparts another cost, one that can’t be measured in dollars, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in his 1998 book, Secrecy: The American Experience. Just as excessive economic regulation blocks efficient transmission of the market’s supply and demand signals, the hoarding of secrets locks vital knowledge away from politicians, policymakers, and the public, who need the best information to conduct informed debates and make wise decisions. However difficult the quandary when Moynihan was writing, it’s much worse now. By FY 2011, the volume of new classified documents created annually had risen to 92 million from six million at the time Secrecy was published.

While Moynihan nurtures a civil libertarian sentiment, his primary thrust is utilitarian: The stockpiling of too many secrets renders the nation less secure, not more, because it forces us to make decisions based on poor-quality information. In our attempts to blind our adversaries, he points out repeatedly, we end up blinding ourselves. The information blackout also hinders the public’s ability to hold the secret-keepers accountable for what they do. Kept too close to the vault, important secrets don’t get properly vetted, which results in policy being sent off course by “incorrect” secrets. (“The mistakes, you see, were secret, so they were not open to correction,” as historian Richard Gid Powers puts it in Secrecy’s introduction.) Secrets prevent sympathetic legislators — here Moynihan was writing about his relationship with President Ronald Reagan — from defending a colleague’s foreign policy positions without knowing what they are. And finally, the routinization of the classified process, this willy-nilly banging of “Secret” on the most banal documents, creates a surplus of secrets that increases the difficulty of protecting the vital ones.

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2013 22:47 UTC

Edward Snowden’s expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history—the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

What war on the press?

Jack Shafer
May 24, 2013 20:26 UTC

President Barack Obama has declared war on the press, say writers at Slate, the Daily Beast, Reason, the Washington Post (Jennifer Rubin, Dana Milbank and Leonard Downie Jr.), Commentary, National Journal (Ron Fournier), the New York Times editorial page, CBS News, Fox News (Roger Ailes) and even Techdirt. Scores of other scribes and commentators have filed similar dispatches about this or that federal prosecution “chilling” the press and pulping the First Amendment. Downie, who could open an aquatics center with the leaks his reporters collected during his 17 years as executive editor of the Washington Post, calls the “war on leaks … the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration.”

The most recent casualties in the alleged press war are Fox News Channel and the Associated Press. The phone records of reporters at these outlets were subpoenaed by federal investigators after the organizations published national security secrets. Then you have New York Times reporter James Risen. Federal prosecutors have been trying to force Risen onto the stand in the trial of alleged leaker-to-the-media Jeffrey Sterling (CIA) since the latter days of the Bush administration. When media strumming on the free-press topic reaches full volume, reporters and their defenders include the leak prosecutions of Thomas Drake (National Security Agency) and John Kiriakou (CIA), even though no journalist (or journalist record) appears to have suffered a subpoena in these cases. (However, the indictments in both the Drake and Kiriakou cases cite email communications with journalists.)

Championing the besieged press has become so popular that some Republicans have switched sides. Even the commander-in-chief of the alleged war, Barack Obama, has proved himself capable of making sad faces about the “war” on journalism! In his national security speech Thursday, he said, “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.” Obama went on to promise a review of the Department of Justice guidelines on press subpoenas. These are the guidelines that ordinarily exempt reporters from federal subpoenas and which his Department of Justice ignored in the AP and Rosen investigations. To make nice with the press, Obama promised to convene a powwow of DoJ bigwigs and media organizations to address the press corps’ “concerns.” (Word to my press colleagues: Invitations to discuss “concerns” with bureaucrats are usually a prelude to a kiss-off.)

The battle over Benghazi

Jack Shafer
Nov 2, 2012 22:35 UTC

When Washington bureaucracies rumble, they often avoid directly savaging one another by using the press as proxies. By leaking selectively to news outlets they believe will give them the most sympathetic hearing, they hope to shape the news by making it. The strategy doesn’t always work. Sock puppetry revolts good reporters and some bad ones, too, because they know carrying tainted water for a source today may stain their reputations tomorrow.

The Benghazi story hasn’t turned any reporters into absolute dummies—yet—but as the tag-team match of blame being played by the White House, the State Department, a congressional committee, and the CIA escalates–and with the Romney campaign eager to pounce on anything that makes the administration look bad–don’t be surprised if unnamed sources start spinning the facts in a self-serving manner.

You shouldn’t feel bad if you’re confused about Benghazi and have no idea who should be sacked for not doing his job: Press accounts and comments from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all congealed into one murky, confusing stew. Now, clarity has arrived in a new ultra-narrative given yesterday to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others, sourced to a “senior administration official,” “senior intelligence officials,” “a senior American intelligence official,” “a senior U.S. intelligence official,” and “U.S. intelligence officials,” respectively.

Why leaks are good for you

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2012 22:16 UTC

Every leak of classified information benefits somebody. With maybe one exception, I’d say that the recent sluice of leaks that has opened up and been reported in the press benefits you.

Let me explain. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently theorized that the press disclosures about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran and about American drone warfare were leaked by the White House to portray Barack Obama as a decisive wartime president to aid in his re-election. That an administration might leak national security information for political advantage is no fantasy: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times documented several examples of President George W. Bush’s administration leaking classified material to change public sentiment in his favor.

But Noonan’s reductionist thinking fails to explain last month’s messy leak in the underwear bomber plot. That particular leak blew a double agent’s cover, endangering the agent’s life and benefiting the White House in no way.

Anatomy of a leak, 1966-67

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2012 15:27 UTC

Every leaker of information has an agenda. The leaker can be an honest whistleblower, a spinner, a junior Machiavelli, a nut job, a misinformed flunky or a combination of several of the above. But with every trickle of privileged information, the leaker invites other interested parties to leak their side of the story, setting institutions against institutions and publications against publications.

An extraordinarily well documented account of battling leaks appears in Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam, a new book by George Washington University history professor James G. Hershberg. Professor Hershberg’s exhaustive book – and by exhaustive I mean 936 pages long – draws on declassified diplomatic cables, foreign archives, countless interviews, and reporters’ private notes to recount the breakdown of secret Polish-Italian efforts in 1966 – code-named “Marigold” – that hoped to coax the United States and North Vietnam into direct peace negotiations.

Like all history lessons, Marigold charges a high price for admission. If you’re not already a student of the Vietnam War or weren’t reading newspapers in the 1960s, the players will sound sketchy and the dispute ephemeral. But I promise a payoff: Marigold etches a template that can provide relief for today’s news consumers who find themselves perplexed by dueling accounts in competing publications. It teaches that sometimes the real news is often who is leaking, and that’s news that can’t often be found in newspapers.

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