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Steve Hansen Why some documents don’t deserve to be stamped ‘secret’

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 12:00 am

By now, just about everyone has heard of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who was arrested two years ago. He allegedly disseminated classified documents to the website WikiLeaks, thus possibly endangering several U.S. operatives and their allies. His trial is scheduled to begin in the fall.

Recently, a similar issue emerged when unnamed White House officials were accused of leaking classified documents, ranging from a terrorist "hit list" to disclosed cyber attacks against Iran.

This national security concern has two sides. One is the public's right to know based on First Amendment principles. The other is irreparable harm to our country. Some taking the latter position have argued that "arrogant" reporters or self-appointed leakers are not in positions to make such judgments since they seldom have all of the facts of covert operations.

When most people think of "covert operations," they tend to imagine James Bond, along with cloak and dagger intrigue. But that's a very small part. For the vast majority in the "business," work involves gathering and classifying data from all over the world. That usually takes place in a central location, such as the National Security Agency. The activity is not particularly exciting. Actually, it is often mundane and rather boring.

Guarding America's secrets is nothing new. Back in the 1970s, our government had over a billion classified documents. One can only venture a guess as to what that number is today — a figure that also happens to be "classified."

In those days, the job of a data analyst could be somewhat interesting. One confirmed story relayed to me at that time was when an OIC (officer in charge) was asked to update a report on a country that was perceived as being hostile toward the United States.

Doing an adequate job on this meant three choices: Travel to the country by an undercover agent, use informants, or get the information from reliable sources in the States. The brass was not about to authorize an all-expense-paid vacation to a place that only an idealistic movie star could love. There weren't any known local informants. That meant only the third option was left. The agency wasn't much help on this one, either. When the assigned OIC asked for assistance, he was told, "That's your job to figure out where to get information!"

At that point, the OIC and his crew headed for a university library. The "reliable source" turned out to be the New York Times. It was amazing how much information was available on a rather secretive and isolated country. His classified written report was based primarily on what was available from this newspaper.

The work was completed and handed to the supervisor, who promptly stamped each page twice with the word "SECRET." "Sir," inquired the report's author, "I know this is a dumb question, but why is this paper 'secret' when the information came from the New York Times?"

"It's like this," the supervisor replied. "One article from the New York Times is no big deal. But several, arranged in this configuration? Well, that's another story."

For years, I thought this approach to classified documents was rather ridiculous and wondered how many other secret reports were out there based on the New York Times. But one day, I was in Barnes and Noble and tried to find out information on another project. I was amazed at how one source could lead to another and presto, like a jigsaw puzzle, a picture of a former state secret began to take shape.

So after all these years, the debate continues: How much should the public know? Has our government become obsessed with secrecy?

There is a positive side to this controversy for those who may be concerned about sinister evil plots emanating from the darkest corners of the intelligence community. If it were so, I'm sure there would be at least one person, from somewhere in the government, who would be more than happy to place all he knows on a weird and wacky website, or give that information to an aggressive reporter, who considers this type of revelation a "patriotic" venture.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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