Tag Archives: secrecy

From the Arkin Archives: Why You Can’t Keep Secrets

I found a speech I gave twenty years ago to military and industry officers and officials at the annual U.S. Air Force National Security Leadership Course, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, delivered on 14 August 1996

William M. Arkin

I started thinking about this talk by polling friends in Washington to see if there were any good new jokes about secrecy.  In other parts of the world, political jokes are often the purest expression of zeitgeist, so I thought a current favorite — you know, some knee slapper about the new Executive Order on classification, or one about the latest string of Bill Gertz’ leaks —  would provide astute insight.

No dice though; people inside the beltway have never been renown for their humor.

In May, however, I was in Beirut, and the number of jokes about the Syrians were impressive.

Here’s my favorite.

Hafez Assad is with Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac on the Mississippi River to negotiate Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.  Assad drops his watch into the river and when he bend over the deck railing to look for it, snapping alligators thrust up from the deep.  Clinton tells one of the Marine guards to retrieve President Assad’s watch.  The Marine goes to the edge, looks over at the alligators and says to the President  Mr. President, you know we live in the greatest country on earth, and therefore I can decline an unlawful order.  If I jump in to retrieve Mr. Assad’s watch I would die, and besides I have a family…

So Chirac, thinking he can tweak the American nose says to a French soldier, jump in the water and retrieve Assad’s watch.  The legionnaire snaps to attention and runs to dive in, but he then looks over and sees the snapping alligators, and turns to Chirac and says Monsieur President, you know our democracy is even older than America, and besides, I have a family…

So Assad whispers something in the ear of a Syrian soldier, who runs to the railing and without hesitation, jumps in the water, swims through the alligators, retrieves the watch, and returns safely to the boat.  The Marine and the Legionnaire, both amazed, crowd around the Syrian to ask what Assad said.

Well, the soldier explains, I too have a family…

**

So what does this have to do with secrecy?

To me, it is a real world reminder that to level any kind of indictment about the evils of U.S. government secrecy is to be trivial.  One only has to visit places like the Middle East to appreciate how free our system is.

What is more, the very reason I assume I was invited to address you this evening is that I’ve made a living by revealing government secrets.  Throughout that career, I’ve always felt shielded by my rights as a citizen, and always felt confident that if there was public benefit resulting from my revelations, even those in government would grudgingly concede and respect my rights.

I am often asked if there is some secret I wouldn’t reveal, and the answer, frankly, is yes.  In short, it is information that has no public policy relevance.  Now granted there is lots of room for debate here as to what that means, and some right wingers have tried in the past to tar me as “the Philip Agee of nuclear weapons.”

Yet I have faced on a day-to-day basis the challenge of defining what information can do damage to U.S. national security, and what information can not.  That is because secrets have a quality like trees, and if one falls in the public and nobody hears it, I would concede that the public benefit is dubious.

Yet the process of revealing a secret, however, also provides a check and balance if you will.  Since the news media is most often enlisted to circulate secrets, in doing so, reporters and editors and publishers have to themselves make decisions regarding government harm and public benefit.  The point I’m making is that those discussions do take place, and national security concerns are taken into consideration.

In 1996, however, classic government secrecy is hardly the civil liberties and first amendment conflict that it has been in the not too distant past.  Yet it does remain in the news.  Particularly recently with the explosion of the Internet, and the new mania about information security that has emerged, extending from the counter-communication and encryption debates to firewalls to information warfare.

I’m suspicious though, because again there are Cold Warlike warnings of the dire consequences of letting information circulate too freely.  And there has also been a reemergence of 1950’slike images of hidden enemies plotting to destroy our way of life.  To me, this is a significant over-exaggeration of both the threats and consequences.

The new technologies of information might indeed involve some truly revolutionary challenges in terms of the way huge amounts of data can be gathered and transmitted, and the threat mongers of computer security and information warfare have already put us on the slippery slope by attempting to control information or access to what are now worldwide networks.  To these government threat mongers, I say operations security and systems integrity and counterintelligence, all of the things the government has been doing for decades, and is supposed to be doing anyhow, regardless of the information medium.  Let’s not create new constraints, ones that mean a reduction in civil liberties in this country and a reduction of human rights in others.

I suspect that, either consciously or subconsciously, the focus on hackers and terrorists as the Clancyesque information enemy also has as much to do with separating the public from its tax dollars, and in framing an interesting defense problem for beltway bandits and think tanks to work on and make money from, as it has to do with true threats.  Particularly when more than ninety percent of computer intrusions and security problems as plain old fashioned insider criminal activity, stealing if you will with a high tech twist.

**

As William O. Douglas said in the Pentagon Papers case, if everything is secret, then nothing is secret.  Because of the end of the Cold War and the lack of any overarching grand strategy or national security organizing principle, we seem stuck for now in a world where near everything and anything can compete for the mantle of being “strategic.”  But if everything is strategic, then nothing is strategic.

In such a free-for-all world, the consequence is that what is really important  that is, what should be secret and protected  remains poorly defined, and thus vulnerable.

Thus perhaps one answer to the question why you can’t keep secrets is that you can’t even determine and articulate what is truly important.  The public is buffeted by endless enemies du jour, never able to give their true consent regarding what they believe should be U.S. national interests  implosion in Russia, Islam, proliferation, terrorism, warlords, ethnic hatred, population explosions, resource wars, Ebola viruses, drugs, international organized crime, Asian dynamism, the Internet, militias, Freemen, “instability.”  The menu is so full, how can one possibly determine what should be secret?

**

In the wake of the FBI files flap at the White House early this year, The New York Times reported that the federal government spent $5.6 billion in 1995 to keep secret documents secret.  Beltway habitues will point out that such numbers are apocryphal, but the public message is far more simple:

First, there is the common and probably majority view that there are still lots of legitimate secrets for the government to protect; and that there are, of course, loads of threats, old and new, that we need to protect ourselves and our secrets from.

But, there coexists another deeply ingrained belief that $5.6 billion is merely another example of the government wasting huge sums of money to administer its programs; that the secrets are really just bureaucracies covering up their law breaking, incompetence, sloth, or self-interests.

And then there is a third and simultaneous corollary of these two views.  And that is that all those secrets are really dastardly and incredibly complex and competent coverups of,

A.  the existence of UFOs and aliens,
B.  the CIA’s responsibility for the assassination of John F. Kennedy,
C.  the government’s surveillance and mind control program,
D.  POWs and MIAs still languishing in Southeast Asia, and/or
E.  the latest, the truth that Saddam used poison gas, which the government also is covering up.

One doesn’t have to scratch the surface of American society too deeply to find the UFO-POW/MIA-Gulf War Syndrome-militia constituency.  These are views that absolutely cross the political spectrum and more often than not break out into the mainstream (say when 20 percent of the population votes for Ross Perot, erstwhile surveillance subject himself).

But take for a moment Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK.”  After the movie came out, it ended up that some huge percent of the public believed that the CIA might have actually killed President Kennedy.  That in itself says a lot and should be disturbing to anyone working in the national security field.  But what I would like to point out is that the movie and the brouhaha was enough to move the Congress to undertake the most rigorous and extensive declassification effort ever.

Had the CIA released those records earlier, and had the government made some attempt to answer the conspiracy crowd in the preceding decades, then maybe, just maybe, some percent of the population would have been educated and convinced.  And maybe just in general the credibility of the government and the national security community would have improved, thus making it more implausible for other grand conspiracies to emerge.

I say maybe because I don’t want to be too naive.  There’s no getting away from one immutable fact about our society: That no matter what the government says, people will continue to believe what they believe.

This is seen most starkly this summer with “Independence Day” and UFOs on the covers of Time and Newsweek and the popularity of shows like “The X Files” and the irrepressible Roswell story.  The bottom line is that some significant percent of the population is just demented.

But as with Oliver Stone’s JFK, if you can confuse and manipulate enough people so that they think that a UFO really crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, you can actually move the government.  Like the CIA, the Air Force declassified all of its files on the subject of UFOs, and wrote a Manhattan-phone book-sized White Paper on the subject, item by item refuting every last scrap of coincidence and inconsistency in the 50 year record.

Yet all to no avail.

For when life on Mars is reported in the news media, as it was last week, the kooks seem as prominent as the astronomers in offering sound bites.  The fact is that subcultures continue to believe despite reports and White Papers and Congressional investigations and commissions and blue ribbon panels.  Somehow, I lay this public confusion about reality partly at the government’s doorstop.

**

Let me switch gears for a moment to say that I’m not so sure you can’t keep secrets  particularly when a revelation like Tacit Blue, the flying bathtub, is made.  Despite all the speculation from Area 51, despite the foolish with their binoculars and discussion groups and Web sites, despite lawsuits and even a mighty Sixty Minutes expose, despite all this attention no one outside of the government had any clear notion of what was, or is, going on at Groom Lake.

I won’t even get into the question as to whether the technologies involved in Tacit Blue were worthy of the fights and the lawsuits.  Nor whether such secrecy is needed.  My cynical mind tells me that bureaucratic interests were probably served in making the existence public.

Tacit Blue reminds me of the revelation of another “black” program  Senior Surprise, the conventional air-launched cruise missile used by the Air Force in the Gulf War.  The missile’s existence was unveiled with fanfare on the first anniversary of Desert Storm  I think it was around budget time, but I’m sure that was pure coincidence.  Anyway, the industry newsletter Navy News reported that the Air Force press release came only after Time magazine crowned the Navy’s Tomahawk “missile of the year.”

So, you can keep secrets, but at the same time, you may have so squandered your credibility by playing these sorts of games that cynicism is rampant and conspiracies flourish and pseudoscience coexists with real science.  But most important, with so many secrets in the stockpile, and with so little true ranking done as to what is or should be secret, real traitors and threats, insiders like the Walkers and Ames, can gain access so much more easily and do far more complex and inscrutable damage.

So many secrets.  A couple of years ago, the CIA announced they were going to release their files on operations in the 1950’s and 60’s.  But it warned that there were just seven employees to wade through a stack of secret files taller than  I’m not making this up  50 Washington monuments.  I calculate that as 7.13 Washington monuments worth of files per employee (the WM seems always to be the government’s preferred unit of measurement).

Anyone knows that in order to preserve real secrets, they need to be identified.  If the government practices indiscriminate secrecy on this scale, sweeping up with the real secrets those things that aren’t really secrets or don’t need to be, then the end result is neither protection nor respect.  Maybe the government is a lot smarter than I think it is, and by keeping silly things like the intelligence community budget secret they intentionally divert investigative attention from real secrets.  I doubt it.  But I would submit that making routine organizational and budget information, and the policy-making process, secret only breeds trivial leaks and public suspicion.

And most important, it just makes the American public stupid.  Government shows a contempt for the public and public opinion when it acts as if details about its activities aren’t needed for oversight and consent.  This I think is at the root of the decline in government credibility.

Take the Gulf War syndrome as an example.  After arrogantly maintaining that the complaining GI’s were either suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or were malingerers and extortionists, the Pentagon has admitted that some combination of toxic substances and administered vaccines might have worked together to create an auto-immunological reaction and thus a true medical affliction.  This raises some important new questions about the toxicity of the battlefield and of other potential dangers in industrial and occupational health.  But instead of conciliation, treatment and future prevention, the media focus has been on meaningless “revelations,” such as the most recent, that the Pentagon “really knew” of the existence of an Iraqi chemical weapons dump in the far northern corner of the Kuwaiti theater.

This is a fact that is unconnected to most of the veterans problems and to the syndrome itself.  But it suggests that the government is hiding more information.  The end result is a “hard copy” free-for-all where any claim, any news story, any conspiracy, begins to seem plausible.

**

Let me speak for a moment about the emergence of the Internet and the relationship with secrecy.  I note that there have already been some secrecy flaps.  When one of Scott O’Grady’s fellow officers wrote up his exploits on Email, the Defense Department put out a warning about the use of Email.  Last year, it turned out that an intelligence document placed online in the Gulf War declassification registry contained information about “sources and methods.”  The document said something to the effect that human agents reported X, an ordinary counterintelligence blunder.

Around mid-March of this year, a San Francisco reporter wrote a story that the Department of Energy was secretly preparing new nuclear warheads.  The headline says it all: “DOE designing new bombs, Web site shows.”  The Department explained that the document cited in the article was old.  But one of the things about the Internet is that often its impossible to tell the date of a document or its origin and status.

What happened in these two cases?  The GulfLINK site was sanitized so that the declassification effort became more perfunctory than historically valuable.  The DOE shut down its Defense Programs Web site completely for a few weeks and sanitized it as well.  Now there’s nothing worthwhile on it, not even documents that if you are in Washington, you can get as a matter of routine if you know who to ask.

People acting out of their best intentions were trying to make a ton of stuff available on the Internet, and there were teething problems.  But it was the novelty of the new medium that magnified the significance of any leak.  And no one actually claimed that damage was done to national security.

The lingering message is that the Internet is a threat.   Here Internet enthusiasts and government gumshoes form a devil’s alliance, which is always dangerous.  Internet boosters  you know, the type of people who like Wired magazine  claim with wide-eyed enthusiasm that the Internet is the biggest threat to traditional secrecy that could exist.  That it portends a re-conception of national security based not on secrecy but on transparency.  That there won’t be any more secrets.  That the potential, with the Internet and high resolution imagery, will be for everyone to know everything instantly.

The same cyber utopia seems to be the operating threat scenario for gumshoes and information warfare gurus.  This is what a breathless Navy special agent assigned to the computer security said recently: “Right now, it’s bigger than all of us put together.  It’s bigger than counterintelligence, it’s bigger than fraud, it’s bigger than criminal investigations.  If Federal Agencies don’t stick with this, it’s going to eat us up.”
Internet junkies assert that the technologies for openness are growing faster than the technologies for keeping secrets and that the power balance is shifting towards individuals.  Their Pentagon analogues  information warriors  struggle meanwhile to develop new weapons, to define the military dimensions, focusing on network and essential infrastructure protection and attack.

The pace with which a new information warfare bureaucracy has taken hold in the Pentagon is astounding.  Now everything that used to be labeled electronic combat or psychological operations poses with new terminology such as battlespace and information dominance.  And old nuclear warfare scenarios and models  like the Day After game you are playing here  are retread.

Secrecy has also proliferated.  I’m sorry, but I just see beyond the bureaucratic and institutional self-interest of another new rage within the national security community, one that might have noble purpose and important justification, but ultimately just serves to frighten and thus control the public.  Not being an enthusiast though, I also admit that perhaps I just don’t understand the cult.  And cult it is, for the believers have adopted the very definition of “cult status:” It’s so good, so smart, so hip that it’s over the head of the idiot masses.

Being one of those idiots, there’s nothing like a new national security fad  with beltway bandits and defense industry swarming around the government trough  to get my juices going to find out the truth and to challenge the bureaucracies’ misguided assumption that it is in charge.

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We are SAPs: forty companies currently working on “special access programs”

News of slowed declassification activity by the Obama administration – vigorously rejected by the National Archives – punctuates the fact that government secrecy, despite any statistical shenanigans and worship at the altar of transparency, continues to grow.

Perhaps no area of that growth is more alarming than in programs officially designated “special access programs” or SAPs, where additional security measures restrict the kind of routine knowledge that government officials, auditors, inside kibitzers, and even Congress needs for effective oversight.  What is more, SAPs are a license to lie.  If an official with knowledge of a SAP is asked about it by a member of the press or Congress, he or she can simply brush away the inquiry.  Oversight doesn’t have the right security clearance.

Over the years, various Defense Department, executive branch and Congressional efforts have attempted to review, regulate, reign in, and reform the SAP system, and certainly SAPs to the detriment of the war-fighter – that is, when a secret program exists that is not used to help the normal Joe on the battlefield – are an indefensible no-no.  But since 9/11, it appears that the way in which “access” to SAPs is governed in warfare is merely to increase the number of people with casual access to them, thus making them less SAP-py on the battlefield, though certainly still powerful at hiding in Washington.

Stealth technology, certainly one of the largest continuing programs covered under an official SAP, infect both the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs and account for a significant number of the clearances.  (The SAP associated with the F-22 Raptor is called Senior Jersey Raptor (SJR).)   Other technology programs that includes important current SAPs include the Air Force’s new small MC-12W Liberty program, certain Predator and Reaper capabilities (and entire SAP drones), and the whole world of “special” special operations and submarine capabilities.

Virtually all counter-space programs – that is, those that involve the ability to shoot down or disable satellite capabilities – are also SAPs.  As are large swaths of computer network operations, “special technical operations,” and “national technical means,” all pieces of the space-digital-intelligence-cyber-mischief continuum.  Nuclear weapons programs, particularly those associated with nuclear weapons command and control, are mostly under restrictive SIOP-ESI clearances rather than SAPs, though there appear to be some SAPs dealing with the specifics of Presidential strike means and nuclear weapons security, including the NATO nuclear weapons infrastructure.  Directed energy weapons – particularly high-powered microwave and laser weapons of operational and strategic significance, also are covered by SAPs.  The counter-IED program has certainly acquires as many SAPs as it can get its robots on, building its own intelligence and special operations empire beyond any sensible reach.

The theory is that a SAP is denying knowledge of some capability is going to preserve it from the enemy.  If the enemy is Congress and the public debate, the “sensitive” parts of a program can be turned into SAPs.  That is absolutely prohibited by regulations, but the assignment of SAPs has become so promiscuous, it is the effective result.  Thus the proliferation of SAPs into the counter-intelligence and “CI/LE” world (counter-intelligence/law enforcement) world could be alarming, if we knew exactly what they were, and the current large scale North American Air Domain Awareness Surveillance (NAADAS) Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) – with its many SAPs – seems to be scared of its own shadow in terms of what needs to be done to secure America’s skies, that is, what will be done without public debate if possible.  Finally, NORTHCOM and its Army law enforcement component – Joint Task Force North in Texas – seems to be involved in a number of SAPs, all of which I’m sure are SAPs merely because their revelation would be politically controversial.

Right now – this week – almost 40 companies are advertising over 200 jobs requiring Top Secret clearances with ability to gain access to special access programs.   I made a list, of course of the companies and the locations of the work (some are contingent on award of contract):

  •  Apogee Solutions Inc.: Langley AFB, VA
  • Automation Technologies, Inc. (ATI): Augusta, GA; Columbia, MD
  • BAE Systems: Lexington, MA
  • Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.: Broomfield, CO
  • Boeing Global Services and Support: Oklahoma City, OK
  • Booz Allen Hamilton: Dayton, OH
  • BOSH Global Services: Ellsworth AFB, SD
  • CACI:  Arlington, VA: Springfield, VA
  • Chenega Corporation: Langley AFB, VA
  • CSC:  Huntsville, AL; Washington, DC (area); Nellis AFB, NV
  • Cubic Mission Support Services: Washington DC (area)
  • General Atomics: Poway, CA
  • General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems: Dayton, OH
  • Honeywell International: Clearwater, FL; Herndon, VA
  • Insignia Technology Services: Shaw AFB, SC
  • KEYW Corporation: Annapolis Junction, MD
  • L-3 Engility Corporation: Dayton, OH
  • L-3 Global Security & Engineering Solutions: Beale AFB, CA; Offutt AFB, NE; Arlington, VA
  • Leonie: Washington, DC (area)
  • LinQuest: Washington, DC (area)
  • Lockheed Martin: Yuma, AZ; Edwards AFB, CA; Palmdale, CA; Eglin AFB, FL; Fort Worth, TX
  • MacAulay-Brown, Inc.: Dayton, OH
  • ManTech International: Huntsville, AL; Los Angeles, CA (area); Hickam AFB, HI; Barksdale AFB, LA; Kirtland AFB, NM; Dayton, OH; Arlington, VA; Dahlgren, VA
  • MYMIC LLC:  Arlington, VA
  • Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems: Palmdale, CA
  • Northrop Grumman Information Systems: Beavercreek, OH; Arlington, VA; Chantilly, VA
  • Northrop Grumman Special Projects: San Diego, CA
  • Northrop Grumman Xetron: Cincinnati, OH
  • PL Consulting Inc.: Arlington, VA
  • Raytheon: Tucson, AZ
  • Raytheon Applied Signal Technology: Annapolis Junction, MD
  • Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems (IIS): Aurora, CO; Garland, TX
  • Raytheon SI Government Solutions: San Antonio, TX
  • Riverside Research: Dayton, OH
  • SAIC: Adelphi, MD; Columbia, MD; Springfield, VA
  • Scientific Research Corporation (SRC): Colorado Springs, CO; Tampa FL; Honolulu HI (area); Arlington, VA; Norfolk, VA (area)
  • SI Organization: Chantilly, VA
  • SOS International Ltd. (SOSi): Northern VA (CIA)
  • Summit Technical Solutions: Edwards AFB, MD
  • TASC: Vienna, VA
  • Textron AAI Corporation: Hunt Valley, MD
  • Trinity Technology Group, Tampa, FL; Fort Washington, MD
  • U.S. Falcon:  Beale AFB, CA; Ellsworth AFB, SD
  • WBB (Whitney, Bradley, & Brown, Inc.):  Hampton, VA
  • XL Associates: Langley AFB, VA

Homeland Security Decides ‘Open Source’ is in Name Only

Here’s an oddity of the Obama administration’s promoted transparency campaign, and a contradicting trend to the routine availability of government information online: The Department of Homeland Security has ended public distribution of its “open source” reports, pulling them behind a controlled firewall and limiting their distribution.

I know this because I’ve been receiving these reports – such as the DHS Daily Cyber Report — for years, and even note that when they did arrive in my inbox, the formerly helpful department “encouraged” redistribution.  “Please feel free to forward this email w/attachment to your co-workers and colleagues that might be interested in this product,” the daily email said.  The Report mostly ended up in my trash – they were little more than clippings and news summaries – but they were useful to get a sense of what DHS was distributing.

Now the Department is developing a closed “Community of Interest (COI)” on the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) and inviting its “partners” to apply for “secure” access to the reports.  If one is not already an HSIN user – limited to government, law enforcement, and contractors – one can apply for access.  New users should be nominated for access into one or more of the following HSIN communities:

  • DHS Federal Operations
  • FEMA Emergency Management
  • Emergency Services Information Sharing
  • Federal Law Enforcement
  • HSIN Critical Sectors

Oh, and only government and contractor personnel who are citizens of the United States will be given access.

The A-students of the Obama government have already elevated the status of unclassified information – that is, information whose release has no impact on national security – by creating a new category called “controlled unclassified information” (CUI), a way in which more not less can be withheld in the name of standardization.

The DHS, always seeking ways to be more national security, is intrinsically also forcing everyone to get special privileges before they can be members of a not very exclusive club.  This is the story of government, particularly in the excuse-laden era of cyber defense and Wikileaks: Nothing will be voluntarily surrendered to the people unless legislation demands it, and even then, what is formerly innocuous is then declared controlled and security in order to serve only the interests of those inside.

Whistleblower Tribulations

My post yesterday about Thomas Drake was hardly noticed compared to the list of NSA code names I threw out there.  But Drake noticed.

“You have any number of significant errors in your blog, including the fact that no charges by the government were reduced to misdemeanors,” Drake wrote me in an email.  He invited me to meet with him and his attorney.

I thought: What kind of person invites someone to meet with them and their attorney?  And then I remembered: He’s from Washington!   And more important, he’s now a whistleblower, and the maintenance of reputation and scrupulous adherence to the facts is part of the role.

I invited Mr. Drake to correct the record, but haven’t yet heard back.

But this morning, I did hear from a former editor, who tells me that he’s gotten to “know” Drake and his attorney over the past few months, and that I “got some things wrong” in the blog:

“Most importantly, the government’s case failed precisely because their contention that Tom had retained classified documents was falling apart. The judge ruled definitively that he did NOT give classified documents to the reporter. The government was forced to admit that other counts were for documents that had been declassified. And the only remaining count was classified only AFTER it was taken from Tom’s computer, an ex-post facto abuse that so enraged George W’s very own classification czar, William Leonard, that he filed formal complaints against the NSA and the Justice department for claiming documents were classified that contained no secrets. He said, “I’ve never seen a more a more deliberate and willful example of government officials improperly classifying a document.”

In my former editor’s email, the word “documents” is repeated five times in case I don’t get it.

But I went back and looked at my blog and I never used the word once.  I said classified information, in fact because I know the difference.  My point was and is that the government – the executive branch — decides.  The criteria – information the release of which would do damage to the U.S. national security – is maddeningly vague.  Hence the tug of war with the news media or whistleblowers when the government feels that its secrets have been compromised; in Washington at least, this is a deadly word game.

I can only speak from experience: News organizations and journalists invariably claim (hide behind?) the argument that information that they want to publish is in the public domain, that is, that it is already compromised in some way.  I’ve sat in many such a discussion and negotiation with government people to demonstrate that some piece or body of information was obtained using open sources.  I’ve listened to editors (and others) argue that the information is “unclassified” and I’ve listened to and watch government people squirm in frustration, trying to explain that just because a piece of paper is stamped “unclassified” or has no markings doesn’t mean its release won’t do harm, that many pieces of paper or information put together makes for classified information – the so-called ‘mosaic’ theory – or that circumstances warrant the information not being published.  I’ve listened to editors and security people and lawyers talk past each other for hours because the classification system isn’t perfect and because, well, we are talking about national security, a fairly grandiose and consequential concept.

I’ve also been involved in discussions when classified information was involved, that is, information that the government has actual reason to believe is legitimately classified, and where the news organization can’t really argue that they obtained something already in the public domain.  These are, shall we say, more complicated negotiations, and they are usually resolved by editors agreeing not to publish some detail or fact – even if it is already in the public domain – as a gesture.  Editors like to call it something other than acceding to the government’s demands in order to maintain the balance of power.  The government is invariably unhappy but content that the negotiation at least took place; that the publication in question plays its role and is inside the Washington vortex.

If someone works for the government – or has a security clearance granted by the government – and breaks away from that vortex, takes independent action, the government retaliates.  Whether it’s a former CIA director (John Deutch) accused by the security people of mishandling classified information or a standard issue whistleblower, the bureaucracy can be brutal, unforgiving, and duplicitous.  The Wen Ho Lee case comes to mind.  Government lawyers love to, need to, make examples of people, both to enforce the system of behavioral conformity and create legal precedent.

I’ve dealt with many a whistleblower in the past and the patterns are pretty much the same: the whistleblower feels – feels – all of the inconsistencies and injustices, they want to tell their story.  But at the same time, as former government employees, as vulnerable targets well aware not only that journalists will squeeze them dry and throw them away as quickly as the security types will pounce on any additional disclosure of ‘classified’ information, the whistleblower plays this little game of holding closely to their facts.  In some cases, it’s all that they have.

In Washington, in Washington culture, value is measured by information; that’s the power.  Outside Washington, evil government is a better sell.

If I wrote anything in my blog that is factually wrong, I’ll correct it.  I see that what I wrote isn’t pleasing to Mr. Drake.  I wish him the best.

Kuwait has a secret military band!?

I last wrote about the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing and its classified location.   But this little news clip from the Air Force even more demonstrates the inanity of official secrecy, as the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, location classified, held an open house with the “host nation,” inviting families on the undisclosed location.  Even the “host nation band” — that’s all the Air Force can say — played.

Secret Kuwaiti Military Band Playing at Classified Kuwaiti Location

According to the 386th Wing “Welcome Packet:”

“Due to host nation sensitivities, the 386th AEW is in a non-releasable location.  It can’t be referred to by name, nor can you list the host nation. It must be referred to as a “deployed location” or an “undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.” It can also be referred to as 386th Air Expeditionary Wing or the “Rock.”

Wikipedia and other web sources readily identify the 386th as being deployed at Ali al Salem airbase in Kuwait, which is where it is, even stated in its own official Packet.  Has anyone seriously examined what the cost is to us (or to Kuwait) of having these bases that are known to all and our adversaries but are official secrets?

Today in Secret History: January 31

(From my own archives; here’s a DOT.MIL column published at Washingtonpost.com on January 31, 2000.  I was already thinking about Code Names and the cost of secrecy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 period.)

Making a Molehill out of a Mountain

William M. Arkin

Last September, the USS Kamehameha pulled into the Jordanian port of Aqaba, the first U.S. Navy submarine ever to visit the Hashemite Kingdom. The next day, the crew “manned the rails” in a solemn ceremony while King Abdullah Bin Al-Hussein and other dignitaries piped aboard and toured the submarine from end to end.

The Navy’s press release announcing the visit stated that the crew participated “in several community relations projects, prepared … for their next underway, and explored the sites in Jordan.”

But Kamehameha is no normal submarine, and the visit was neither tourism nor pomp and circumstance. The purpose was to conduct the very secret “Early Victor” exercise.

Early Victor is just one of hundreds of exercises and operations conducted annually by the U.S. military around the globe. Some are well-known, and most, when they are reported, are portrayed as mom and apple pie opportunities for training and good works.

But more often than not there days, there is a secret side to exercises where little more than some felicitous code name is revealed. It is without a doubt the busiest and most vivid engagement in American foreign policy. Or, I submit, in some ways it is American foreign policy.

The Secrecy Factory

What do Diagonal Glance, Promise Kept, Nectar Bend, and Eager Initiative all have in common? They are not they latest porno websites. They are classified exercises where the who and the where and the why can’t be known. An unclassified fiscal year 2001 Pentagon budget document leaked to washingtonpost.com lists hundreds of such exercises conducted with militaries and police forces and intelligence establishments overseas.

The document provides only a hint as to the day-to-day life of the military machine. The focus, according to sources, is increasingly counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics, and counter-proliferation, and counter-information. So many cons one wonders who’s being conned, and what commitments are being sown in the name of military preparedness.

Atlas Gate, Dimming Sun, Eastern Eagle, Ellipse Echo, Frequent Storm, Noble Piper, Phoenix Jomini, Sacred Company, Trojan Footprint. All were held in 1999 – the details remain classified. In the coming months, more secret exercises with names like Blue Advance, Clean Hunter, Earnest Leader, Inferno Creek, Inherent Fury, Initial Link, Inspired Gambit, Juniper Stallion, Lucky Sentinel, and Ultimate Resolve will be held.

The mountain of secrets seems to have only gotten bigger with the end of the Cold War.

One has to wonder how many involve operations that by their very existence suggest covert commitments to foreign countries undertaken for the benefit of access to bases or exchanges of information or “training” opportunities.

Early Victors, Late Losers

Back in Jordan, after the bunting was stowed away on the Kamehameha, Navy SEALs emerged from special compartments, joining Jordanian commandos to conduct their annual Early Victor Red Sea exercise.

The Kamehameha is no stranger to secret missions. The nuclear-powered submarine was commissioned in December 1965 to launch Polaris ballistic missiles. For almost 30 years, it stealthily plied the waters of the Atlantic, remaining underwater for as much as 60 days at a time, always ready to fire its nuclear weapons in a moment’s notice at the Soviet Union.

Kamehameha had a good Cold War run, but in July 1992, the aging boat was modified for the post-Cold War era. Its missiles were removed and the spaces converted to accommodate Navy SEALs and divers, with special shelters and underwater vehicles able to stealthily place American commandos on an enemy shore. Exercises like Early Victor in Jordan undoubtedly hone these skills, but at what cost?

Special Operators

Early Victor is one of a dozen classified special forces exercises with Middle East commando units. The grand-daddy of secret operators is Special Operations Command. From its headquarters in Florida, SOCOM as it is called, controls the Navy SEALs and Green Berets and Delta Force elite.

SOCOM has a mind-boggling list of classified exercises and operations: Stablise, Skilled Anvil, Desert Sprint, Elegant Lady, Project 46, Link Acorn, Constant Gate, Able Sentry, Assured Response, Promise Kept, Polar Moon, Utopian Angel, Poise Talon, Operation Maraton, Present Haven, Silver Wake, Guardian Retrieval, Bevel Edge, Shepherd Venture, Joint Anvil, Autumn Shelter, Shadow Express. One wonders how many of these are building covert ties to governments and elites who may prove to be on the wrong side of democratic forces and change in the future.

Human rights activists may focus their ire on the military’s School of the Americas for training tomorrow’s secret policemen and dictators in Latin America, but these are whole extension campuses that get to tutor in utmost secrecy.

The secrecy exists because each of the so-called unified commands, such as SOCOM, sets their own priorities for building relations in their area of responsibility. The number of exercises and secret operations is so large, moreover, it is doubtful that many people, even inside the government, can see the forest for the trees.

Another Foreign Policy

I’m a believer that the more secrecy you have, the more likely you are to get into trouble. If there is even more secrecy in military relationships and exercises today than there was during the Cold War, there has to be a good explanation. Is all the secrecy necessary because our security is at stake as it was in the Cold War? Is it required to thwart countermeasures on the part of potential adversaries? Or is it merely avoidance of public involvement and political oversight?

In the Middle East, secrecy is the product of relationships which operate under the constraint that our friends get to call the shots with regard to candidness. The fact that the U.S. military exercises with Israel and Jordan and Egypt all at the same time makes for local sensitivities. Whether the ostensible benefit really enhances anyone’s security, or human rights, or democratic values, seems hardly considered.

The monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East (and elsewhere) are not interested in any details of their covert relations with the United States to get out. Thus the regional commands have particularly full plates of secrets they must manage. The web of relationships, regardless of the real return on investment, become its own justification for both the activity and the secrecy. Thus the Pentagon’s mountain of secrets is also a slippery slope.

(This article was originally published January 31, 2000.)