I Could Tell You, But I'd Have to Kill You:
The Cult of Classification in Intelligence
18 September 2000
Two people are alleged to commit strikingly similar offenses. One,
Wen Ho Lee, spends a year in prison only to have an embarrassed
government agree to a plea bargain. Another, John Deutsch, hasn't
been charged with anything but watches as the investigation against
him expands, and expands.
Both cases perfectly illustrate one of the American intelligence
community's greatest problems: the cult of classification, in which
information both rare and commonplace is safeguarded with equal
zeal. Both cases also illustrate the intense political pressures on
intelligence and counterintelligence agencies, polluting the value
of the nation's intelligence. These are the parts of our system
that are broken, the ones that no one in Washington wants to talk
The Lee case is stunning in many respects. But no more so than for
this: Many people regularly mishandle classified information,
befuddled at the complexity of regulations over what is classified
and what is not. Most of these cases never become legal matters at
all; they are handled administratively or simply ignored. Lee was
probably singled out because U.S. intelligence discovered in China
nuclear data similar to what Lee worked with at the laboratory. His
plea bargain may mean that in learning the whereabouts of his
missing tapes, the government may get what it wanted all along and
uncover an espionage ring.
But a second scenario now seems more plausible: Under intense
political pressure from Washington, U.S. counter-intelligence
grabbed the wrong guy. Either someone else passed sensitive
information, similar to Lee's, to the Chinese government, or there
was no spy network. The information itself was already so widely
disseminated that the Chinese government could readily find it.
Throughout the Lee case there was a recurrent theme: At least some
of the material he was accused of stealing had already been
This raises a series of fascinating questions. If something has
already been published, does mishandling it or stealing it really
constitute a crime? Did the Chinese government really have to
penetrate Los Alamos National Laboratory to steal nuclear secrets
or could an efficient open source intelligence operation have
yielded what was needed? For the U.S. government, the question is
more profound. Does anyone really know anymore which of the
millions of bits of classified information are already in publicly
accessible databases, books, articles and, of course, the Internet?
The intelligence community underestimates the massive amounts of
information available in the open source. In 1995, for instance,
the Central Intelligence Agency held a competition to see who could
gather the most information, most quickly, on Burundi. The winner
was a Washington company, Open Source Solutions, which left the CIA
team in the dust. In 24 hours, OSS compiled huge amounts of
information, ranging from statistics to scholars; the CIA team
finished dead last, compiling little more than their own World
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There is certainly vital information that must be protected from
foreign espionage. These secrets worth saving should be held
closely indeed. Far too much effort is being wasted protecting non-
secrets, which allows vital secrets to slip through. In Washington,
classification has led to a sort of game, creating those in the
know and those not in the know. This game heightens the power of
bureaucrats. But so much is classified, that it is impossible for
people with security clearances to know what is derived from a spy
satellite and what is plucked out of a newspaper.
But social status derived from clearances is even more insidious. A
delightful Washington game is sitting around at lunch chatting with
various officials about Paraguay or Cambodia. The conversation
turns to details when suddenly, the person you are talking to gets
a faraway look in his eye and says, "Sorry, I can't talk about
that." Conversation over, and he's the winner. You see, he knows
things that he can't tell you. He's wired. You're not. The
delightful pause, indicating that he is sifting through his vast
store of classified information, trying to determine the source of
the particular nugget he can't impart, and the reluctance with
which he refuses to go on, is part of the pure joy of holding a
clearance. It is not what you know, but what you can't talk about
that makes you cool.
Compounding the problem is political pressure. If nearly everything
is a state secret, then what to do about and with those secrets is
of paramount political importance. The Lee case is increasingly
turning out to have been deeply impacted by Washington's political
mood, the search for a China conspiracy in Congress and the hyper
defensive political calculations of the Clinton administration. Lee
may not just have been the wrong guy; he was the wrong guy at the
wrong place, at the wrong time.
On a day-to-day basis, members of the intelligence and counter-
intelligence communities are bombarded with highly political
demands. Indeed, the politics and policy demands of the
administration and Congress are never far from the minds of
investigators and analysts. In this environment, the power and
value of intelligence itself becomes twisted and biased. Ultimately
the utility of the country's base of national security knowledge is
Consider the case of Deutsch, a former top official of both the CIA
and the Defense Department. As a high official he has had every
right to read classified information in his office, but not at
home. There is no indication that he ever intended to sell or pass
the information, just that he mishandled it, much like Wen Ho Lee.
But here's where the politics comes into play: If they're going to
hammer Lee, then they're going to hammer Deutsch. It would look too
bad not to do so.
So, what is a secret? Nuclear secrets should be kept secret. The
names of U.S. agents in other countries must be kept secret.
Operational capabilities of U.S. weapons should be kept secret.
Unlike today's situation, a secret requires that there be not the
slightest hint that the secret even exists. To do that, the
government would need to follow just a few simple rules, instead of
the myriad complexities it has erected.
First, there must be few secrets; unless you are willing to stash
people at Area 51, it's easiest to keep a small number of secrets.
Second, give secrets to fewer people. The idea of hundreds of
thousands of people wandering around with secrets is absurd. Do not
use access to classified materials as the justification for doing
background checks on military officers. Just do background checks.
Don't classify as secret that which is in the The New York Times
and on the Internet. Don't use secrecy as a shield, to protect
idiotic political and policy decisions.
The Lee and Deutsch cases turn out to be identical in the sense
that, in the end, the most either man can be charged with is a
procedural violation. Both were careless at most.
And both incidents call Napoleon to mind: He who defends everything
defends nothing. Anyone trying to protect all of the government's
classified information protects nothing. Washington has succeeded
in making the vital secrets of the republic indistinguishable from
banal drivel. The reason to de-classify is not to make civil
libertarians happy. It's to stop cases like Lee's and Deutsch's
from proliferating, leaving everyone puzzled as to whether a real
secret has been compromised.
And while we obsess over these, the true secrets will fly out the
door to the four corners of the earth.
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(c) 2000 Stratfor, Inc.