David Rothkopf

Town of Secrets

How classified information became Washington’s currency of choice.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hey, Sean Penn, where is your righteous indignation now? Where is your star-studded Hollywood blockbuster about how cynical Washington insiders are playing fast and loose with America’s national security laws to advance their political interests?

You nailed George W. Bush and company with Fair Game, and there is little doubt the Bush team deserved it for exposing CIA officer Valerie Plame and by extension the undercover contacts she had made worldwide. But somehow I doubt you are working on the sequel about how Barack Obama’s administration has presided over a period of potentially far more damaging leaks that just happen to promote the president’s image as being a tough guy with his hand on the trigger.

Oh sure, the investigation into (at least some) of the leaks has just begun and in all likelihood will be hijacked by Republicans for political gain in the months leading up to the presidential election this November. And we can’t be sure that the leaks were orchestrated or approved high up, or even who did what — though there is a bit of a guessing game going on in Washington on the latter. But this we know: From the moment we first heard too many details of the Osama bin Laden mission to the damaging over-reporting of the Stuxnet cyberattacks to the reports of the president poring over kill lists and supervising closed meetings of top advisors at which secret missions were approved, and, on to recent leaks about the CIA covert work supporting the Syrian opposition, we have been fed a steady stream of information we should never have had.

It is possible that this all slipped out due to the inattentiveness of our secret keepers or an administration-wide outbreak of some new strain of Tourette’s Syndrome that forces senior officials to uncontrollably blurt out closely guarded secrets. Perhaps no senior official was involved. But wait — who are we kidding? Of course senior officials were involved. Some of the meetings being reported on and some of the plans were really only known to a handful of top people.

Which brings me back to Sean Penn and friends. If a Republican were manning the Oval Office right now, is there any doubt that they would be harkening back to the orchestrated outing of Plame and calling it part of an insidious pattern? But as it is — despite expressions of concern about recent leaks from both Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and mainstream Republicans like Sen. John McCain and absolutely unconvincing expressions of "shock, shock" from President Obama, most of those who were outraged the last time around have kept quiet about the current debate. Or, alternatively, as in Bill Keller’s New York Times op-ed "The Leak Police," they have focused on how vital such leaks and their reporting are to the national interest.

The truth is, I agree completely with the thrust of most of those op-eds including Keller’s. As Americans, we benefit from knowing much of what has been reported. And the reporters who have reported these facts are not only just doing their jobs — they’re doing it well. (As Feinstein said regarding David Sanger’s excellent recent book covering many of the Obama team’s secret operations, Confront and Conceal, "You learn more from the book than I did as chairman of the intelligence committee.")

But these leaks are in fact, part of a cynical pattern of abuse of U.S. national security laws that has taken place in this administration and the ones that immediately preceded it — abuse that is endemic to the conduct of regular national security business in Washington and has been for decades. (Keller quotes former Times editor Max Frankel way back in 1971 as saying "Presidents make ‘secret’ decisions only to reveal them for the purposes of frightening an adversary nation, wooing a friendly electorate, protecting their reputations." Frankel, who was defending the Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers, then goes on to enumerate how playing the leak game is part of doing business in D.C. for the military and officials of every rank.)

Just as poppet beads are the currency used to conduct business at Club Med, leaks are the currency long favored by senior officials and reporters here in our nation’s capital. Bits and pieces of unreported news are fed to journalists in exchange for good relations. Perversely in Washington, secrets become used as hush money — give a secret, keep a secret, or gain a leg up on someone. That’s not so bad when the whispered exchanges are about who’s in line for some top job or who had a spat with whom. The problem comes when the leaks create threats to the U.S. national interest or they violate national security laws.

I draw a distinction between real threats and the law because one problem we face is that our culture of secrecy in Washington has led to the over-classification of information. Too many documents get stamped "Confidential" or "Secret" or "Top Secret" that shouldn’t be. Why? In part, it’s because when you stamp a document that way it, you (and your readers) become more "important" — or at least feel that way. It also happens, in part, because officials are cautious and worry about what might cause embarrassment, so they over-compensate by over-classifying.

But all this over-classification of documents carries many direct and indirect costs. It forces us to give too many people security clearances. It forces us to create costly and vast secure systems. And most importantly, it limits the transparency that is essential to a functioning democracy. (On top of leaks and excess secrecy, a related trend in this administration has been a focus on conducting foreign policy via secret missions that carry much less political risk because few can see them — unless the highlight reel happens to, selectively, make its way into the press.)

For all the mystery and intrigue associated with Washington’s secret world, the solutions for this problem are straightforward. First, we need to have fewer secrets. Set higher and clearer standards for classification. Enable fewer people to classify documents. Unclassify as many documents as possible.

Next, we need to have many fewer people with clearances. According to a 2011 report mandated by Congress, an astonishing 4.2 million people have security clearances a number which, per the Washington Post, "nearly rivals the population of metropolitan Washington." If the standard were actually protecting secrets that were essential to U.S. national security, the number could be a tiny percentage of that. That’s especially true in this age of vast resources of open-source information.

Gen. Tony Zinni, former Centcom commander, once told me that he had looked at the classified information he received and concluded that 80 percent of it was available from open sources, and 80 percent of what remained could be found from open sources if you knew what you were looking for. In other words, only about 4 percent was unique information.

Finally, if the goal is real secrecy, then we need a permanent special prosecutor empowered to go after any hint of a leak at its own discretion. This needs to be permanent so that no administration can protect itself — nor any Congress. (It has long been known in the executive branch that the best way to leak something is to send it in classified form up to the Hill, which is leakier than the Titanic.) If we stop classifying everything from the blandest State Department cable traffic to reports about Kim Jong Il’s video collection (see WikiLeaks for proof that much of what’s classified would be protected simply because it’s too boring to read and remember) and if there were a sense that real prosecutions would follow leaks and that they could not be manipulated politically, then not only would we have fewer damaging and dangerous leaks, we’d save money, have greater transparency and, with some luck, enable Sean Penn to go back to making better movies about more interesting subjects.

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