Amy Zegart

No Easy Day for Secrecy

The Navy SEAL tell-all vs. our government's classification complex. 

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

The brouhaha over No Easy Day, the Osama bin Laden raid-and-tell book written by an ex-Navy SEAL, got me thinking about Fawn Hall. Remember her? In 1986, as the U.S. Justice Department’s Iran-Contra investigation was gearing up, Hall and her boss, Lt. Col. Oliver North, started sneaking documents out of their classified filing cabinets. They were convinced that if only they destroyed the papers, nobody would ever know about the arms-for-hostages deal. There she was, with all that hair, at the National Security Council shredder, with all those documents. Papers. Shredders. Filing cabinets. It was all so 20th century.

Twenty-six years later, we are facing a 21st-century cyberworld with the same old secrecy regime. At the core of this antiquated system is the idea that secrets can be clearly distinguished and tightly controlled. This may have been viable in World War I, when the Espionage Act was passed. Or in 1951, when President Harry Truman established the modern "confidential/secret/top secret" classification system for people who wrote memos on manual typewriters and "made copies" using carbon paper. But distinguishing and controlling secrets has become much more problematic in the wired world of today. Now, information is easy to get out and hard to take back. A guy with a fake Lady Gaga CD can surreptitiously download hundreds of thousands of classified pages at lightning speed. And keeping the lid on anything — from the Stuxnet virus in Iran to the Bo Xilai scandal in Beijing — seems almost unimaginable.

"Mark Owen," the pen name of the ex-SEAL who wrote No Easy Day, faces potential prosecution, seizure of all his profits, and other punishment if Pentagon and CIA officials conclude that his book contains classified information. But what exactly constitutes "classified" information? The question is not some philosophical musing, but a growing policy problem. This summer, a federal judge ruled that several State Department cables posted on WikiLeaks were still technically classified, even though my 12-year-old son, along with millions of other people with Internet access, can click on them. For a while, a State Department official advised graduate students at Columbia University to avoid tweeting or posting on Facebook about WikiLeaks documents if they ever wanted a government job. The Air Force went further, telling personnel that if a family member accessed WikiLeaks from home, Little Johnny could be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. Thankfully, the Air Force soon realized that sending family members to the slammer for clicking on a New York Times link might not be the best idea, and the guidance was rescinded.

This classification messiness is pervasive. When President Barack Obama announced that CIA drone strikes had killed terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last fall, he could not utter the words "CIA" or "drone" because that information was classified. In February 2011, I had to cancel my testimony about the 2009 Fort Hood terrorist attack before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Why? Because the FBI decided at the eleventh hour to classify the name of the foreign terrorist who was communicating with Maj. Nidal Hasan before his alleged rampage — and I had planned to speak, in a public hearing, in detail about the FBI’s failure to pursue that connection. How did I know this foreign terrorist’s deep, dark secret identity? From an earlier public hearing by the same Senate committee, which was posted on its web page, and from dozens of mainstream media news reports carried online. Former interrogator Matthew Alexander had to sue the Pentagon to get his book, How to Break a Terrorist, out of classification review. Defense Department officials later insisted on 93 redactions, "nearly all of them ridiculous," Alexander says. "In one case, they blacked out something that was on the Army website. They told me I couldn’t say that soldiers were riding on the outside of a helicopter and in what configuration. But the Army flew guys into a NASCAR event on the outside of helicopters and made a YouTube video about it!" Scott Shane of the New York Times calls this new information universe "public but classified." It’s Fawn Hall 2.0: Pretend nobody knows and hope nobody notices.

Classification has long been used for noble purposes (protecting vital national security information) and less noble ones (silencing critics, avoiding embarrassment, and advancing careers). In the Senate’s Fort Hood report, the FBI was not protecting information. It was protecting itself, an instinct that started with J. Edgar Hoover and never left. Alexander’s experience is not new either. Security people have been making silly classification decisions for years. One of my all-time favorites was a document about U.S. strategic nuclear forces that was declassified by the Pentagon in 1971, discussed openly by four defense secretaries over the next 35 years, and then, incredibly, reclassified in 2006. The nongovernmental National Security Archive had to protest to get the reclassified document declassified again.

What’s different today is that the entire secrecy system has become so publicly dysfunctional. It used to be that fights over secrecy were often quiet affairs, the stuff of intelligence wonks and lawyers. Before wikis, blogs, tweets, Facebook, LinkedIn, apps, links, clicks, and other snappy-sounding ways of transmitting information all the time, everywhere, to everyone, a book about a secret operation or agency would simply appear one day in the local bookstore. The sordid details of how it came into the public domain were themselves often kept in the shadows. In the 1950s, for example, the National Security Agency classified and banned publication of Roberta Wohlstetter’s award-winning book about the intelligence failures at Pearl Harbor even though all her sources were unclassified. She was told to destroy every copy. Fortunately, she didn’t. John F. Kennedy’s administration finally authorized publication five years later, and we are still learning from her analysis today. But when Wohlstetter was trying to get her book into daylight, nobody was blogging or reporting about her ordeal. By comparison, No Easy Day‘s no easy time is unfolding in a public drama all its own. It is a telling moment: Information is so hard to control that even the fight to keep things secret is not secret anymore. And the whole information cycle is spinning ever faster. It took decades for Americans to learn key aspects of the Cuban missile crisis, months to get details of the highly classified bin Laden operation, and just hours to learn Mark Owen’s real identity after word of his book first surfaced in the media.

It is an uncertain and unsettling time for secrecy. As an academic who relies on public information about secret agencies to teach students the lessons of history, I am optimistic about this new information universe. As a citizen who wants the U.S. government to develop every advantage against adversaries to protect lives and advance national interests, I am deeply worried. Secrecy and openness have always been in a tenuous dance because one is essential for security while the other is essential for democracy. But the world is changing. The disconnect between America’s 20th-century secrecy regime and 21st-century information realities is growing, making secrecy seem increasingly arbitrary and less meaningful. And in the end this threatens both security and accountability.


POST-SCRIPT: Since this article was published, several readers in the military and Intelligence Community have told me that the SEAL team’s role in the bin Laden operation should never have been publicly acknowledged — by the White House, "Mark Owen," or anyone else. As one former special forces operator put it, revealing the unit that carried out the mission "greatly dilutes the mystique and ‘fear factor’ that we do want to elicit in all groups or individuals around the world that seek to do us harm. We want them to feel uncomfortable about not knowing quite what we are really capable of achieving operationally…. This is a powerful construct that is only leveraged by silence." Unfortunately, he said, "the generation of operators that appears to have followed my own does not comprehend the matter of the deed being greater than the glory." Sure, the world can suspect that Navy SEALs were responsible for taking out bin Laden. But there’s a big difference between suspecting and knowing for sure. And as one Navy friend once said, "I never want a fair fight. When you’re up against an adversary, you want every advantage you can get."

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