Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Emailgate and the Perils of Secrecy

Maybe something good will come out of the brouhaha over Hillary Clinton's mysterious email practices. She has been accused of discussing classified information over unprotected networks, but as Matthew Miller explains, our government's definition of secrets is so broad that this is almost impossible to avoid:
The sheer volume of information now considered classified, as well as the extreme, and often absurd, interpretations by intelligence officials about what is and is not classified, make it nearly impossible for officials charged with operating in both the classified and unclassified worlds to do so without ever mixing the two. . . .

The Associated Press reported last week that one of the Clinton emails that intelligence officials claim is classified—something the State Department disputes—involved a discussion of drones operating in Pakistan, a fact that is still considered top secret even though it has been openly discussed by government officials on numerous occasions.

The continued top secret classification of drone strikes is silly enough on its own, but the way in which intelligence officials would judge any email conversation about them is even more farcical. According to the AP, the email exchange in question began with an aide to Clinton circulating a news story about the drone program. . . .

Intelligence officials also often argue that information is classified even when the same information can be gleaned from unclassified sources. While still at the Justice Department, I once wrote a draft press release that a Department attorney claimed contained multiple pieces of classified information. He accused me of a grave violation of the rules for handling classified information, instructed me to destroy all copies and threatened to refer me for investigation. But I had drawn the release from unclassified sources and had never even been briefed on this particular underlying secret—how could I possibly have exposed something of which I wasn’t aware?

Ironically, by implicitly confirming the existence of this top secret information to me, the Department attorney had himself violated the rules governing sharing classified information, since I hadn’t yet been authorized to be briefed on this program.
I think the constant expansion of secrecy is a terrible problem that needs a lot more attention.

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