Classified Stupid

It is not so much the major media’s biases that bother me as it is their sheer incompetence. The New York Times story, “U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review” by Scott Shane is laced with both.

The lead graph:

In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.

and later:

Mr. Aid was struck by what seemed to him the innocuous contents of the documents — mostly decades-old State Department reports from the Korean War and the early cold war. He found that eight reclassified documents had been previously published in the State Department’s history series, “Foreign Relations of the United States.”The stuff they pulled should never have been removed,” he said. “Some of it is mundane, and some of it is outright ridiculous.”

Gosh, how weird, why reclassify stuff that is already publicly available? I’m sure our intrepid reported will soon tell us.

While some of the choices made by the security reviewers at the archives are baffling, others seem guided by an old bureaucratic reflex: to cover up embarrassments, even if they occurred a half-century ago.

Any other reasons?

But the historians say the program is removing material that can do no conceivable harm to national security. They say it is part of a marked trend toward greater secrecy under the Bush administration, which has increased the pace of classifying documents, slowed declassification and discouraged the release of some material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Okay, we saw that one coming from the Times but don’t worry:

Experts on government secrecy believe the C.I.A. and other spy agencies, not the White House, are the driving force behind the reclassification program.

At this point, I, as a consumer of the news and a citizen, want to understand the reasoning behind the various intelligence agencies’ reclassifications. To this point their actions have been portrayed as a mixture of bureaucratic buffoonery and sinister political secrecy. The agencies themselves can’t comment of course but surely, one of the many “experts” interviewed for the story can provide us with some context. After all there must be some kind of prima facie justification that people familiar with how real-world intelligence works could provide.

Lets see:

Wow, apparently neither our reporter nor any of his “experts” can think of one reason why a bunch of seemingly innocuous documents might get reclassified. We can only come to one conclusion: The reclassification results purely from some mixture of stupidity, sinister secrecy and ass-covering.

But maybe not.

Now, I’m no big-city intelligence expert but I have read a book or two on the subject, so maybe I can help out just a bit since Scott Shane, et al seem so stumped.

One thing I have learned is that the popular conception of how intelligence works is wrong. Generations of spy stories have conditioned us to think of sensitive information as occurring in small discrete units, like a particular document or photograph. Spy stories portray important information this way because it creates a plot device, a McGuffin, the pursuit of which by the characters drives the story. In the stories, the key is to find the uncut diamond in a pile of glass.

In the real world, useful intelligence almost never comes in discrete chunks. Instead, it arises from the painstaking assembly of many pieces of information, from many different sources, into a coherent picture. In one famous example from WWII, Allied intelligence used the price of oranges in certain parts of France to determine when the railroads needed to be bombed. Real intelligence work is data mining, not treasure hunting. It is the pattern of the glass shards that is important, not the occasional diamond.

So, immediately we can see that dholding up one particular document and claiming that it shouldn’t be classified is silly on its face. Without an understanding of how a particular document fits into a broader context, an honest person can’t make a judgement of whether it presents a security risk or not.

But wait, these documents have already been made public. Wouldn’t the process of reclassifying them in itself tell a hostile observer that they contained important information? Yes, it would and that explains why most of the material that got reclassified is in fact totally harmless. They got reclassified so that some important information can be hidden in a batch of dross. If a hundred documents get reclassified it will signal there is something of interest in one or more of the documents but which ones?

Beside the basic incompetence and inability to provide even the barest background, this story annoys me because it is a recurring one. Every couple of years somebody writes a “stupid classification” story. The stories always follow the same template as this one and they never provide any context or background. The presumption of the story is always that the the classifications are unjustified. These stories have become tedious in their repetition. Just once I would like a reporter to put some thought into the story.

In the future, if Scott Shane or any other reporter cannot get the answers they need about declassification from historians, writers, self-appointed watchdogs and others with a vested interest in making it harder for intelligence agencies to keep things classified (like journalists), they can feel free to contact me and I will try to explain things for them.

5 thoughts on “Classified Stupid”

  1. Didn’t we just go through the whole process of condemning the federal bureaucracy for failing to ‘connect the dots’ in the time leading up to 9/11? Now someone is complaining that some of our dots are being removed. Go figure.

  2. A couple of points:

    1. I’ve been reading versions of this story for many years. However, carrying forward your ‘Big Picture’ theme, it DOES add another entry in to the “most secretive administration ever” storyline that the Democrats/MSM folks have been selling. So from that point of view, it advances their political agenda and is therefore a story worth doing. The big picture is not the bigger intelligence picture, it’s the bigger political goal of the story writer.

    2. On the other hand, I haven’t the slightest doubt that in some cases documents are classified simply to cover up some gigantic mistake, misjudgement, etc. That’s more of real-time activity though, happening on the fly and as soon as they are able to it.

    3. The media’s interest in keeping as much of the government’s records unclasified IS self serving, but it DOES provide a net benefit (usually) to society. All bueaurocracies and organizationsa of power (of any sort) are inhernetly self serving and secretive.

  3. Shannon,
    I’ve never run across this orange story you mention. Do you have a convenient link or reference so I can read more about it? Thanks.

  4. Don Greenfield,

    I don’t have a link but the story is fairly simple. During WWII allied intelligence needed a way to gauge when the germans had succeeded in repairing railroads in northern France. They figured out that the price of oranges in certain city markets reflected the condition of the tracks because the oranges were shipped almost exclusively by railroad. So, when bombings crippled the railroad, the cost of oranges rose and when the rails got repaired the price fell. By tracking the price of oranges they could tell when to bomb again.

    I’ll see if I still have the book that has the story in it. All kinds of strange indicators have been used to provide intelligence. Counting cigarette butts by a refueling station was used in another case to calculate how many trucks had passed during the night.

  5. The subtext is of course that the Times has violated espionage laws by warning terrorists of our NSA programs. In fact, if they had any journalistic ethics, there would be a big, fat, juicy disclaimer at the top of the article–I said “if”.

    Indeed, why quote Mr. Aid at all? The Times has its own staff of experts who are able who divine what classified information should be released to the public–and therefore, to our enemies.

Comments are closed.