us-coversheetsAs flaps go, the one about Hillary Clinton’s classified emails is one for the history books.  It might even be pivotal in the general election.  But how many people actually understand the nature of the problem?  Not many, I submit.

It is widely-reported that Hillary is the subject of an FBI investigation into the matter, but it is important to understand that the word “subject” is a legal term of art.  If she were suspected of intentional malfeasance, the word “target” would be used.  The investigation’s purpose is to find systemic problems, not nail a criminal.  It is notable, in fact, that as Secretary of State, she herself had the authority to both classify material and declassify it.  That’s how absurd this is.  Nevertheless, the damage was done when she, like numerous other government heads before her, made the now-admittedly poor decision to put work-related material on her own server.

In understanding classified material it is important to consider who is allowed to classify and under what criteria.  The answer is shocking.  Every agency makes up its own rules and it’s subjective. All this smoke hides the nature of a monumental national problem, the bloated and out-of-control national classification system itself.  Virtually everybody in government is aware of it, numerous studies have been done on it, and there’s no sign it is ever going to be fixed. The stuff on that server now considered classified was categorized as such after the fact.  Who decides such things?  They are nameless bureaucrats and they are unaccountable for their opinions.  There is no penalty for over-classification and every incentive to do so.

One of the early jobs I was given as a junior naval officer on a submarine was “Communications officer.”  This was a long time ago, around 1962, and even then the security system was farcial.  The intelligence system sent our ship classified material by the case-load every month, more than any one person had time to digest and much of it unrelated to our mission, or even to the Navy.  We were getting Army and Air Force stuff even.  Clearly, the various agencies wanted to bolster their client lists by shotgunning the distribution.  Every month or two I would have get a witness officer to go with me and pack 10 or 20 pounds of the stuff off to a special burn facility.  Every piece had to be documented as to its destruction.

Later on, it only got worse.  It was not unusual, when I was on a research and development staff, to learn of instances of senior officers’ safes holding reams of classified material being inadvertently left unlocked overnight.  No action was ever taken on these to my knowledge.  The stuff was everywhere and most of it was dull and dated.

Now I’m not saying that classification isn’t needed.  It is, if you are talking about the identity of spies and informants or plans for weapons.  But classification of the highest kind didn’t prevent the USSR and China from stealing our atomic secrets, nor a lot of other stuff as well.  A classification system is like a chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link, and it is usually so clumsy that the information is dated.  We used to joke that if you wanted the latest on military technology, the New York Times was your best source.

derivativeThe practice of over-classification is ubiquitous and is regularly used for political purposes and to frustrate official oversight and public insight.  Even entire agencies have been able to remain secret for years from public scrutiny and budget review this way – example, the National Reconnaissance Office (spy satellites).  Did you know that some stuff can’t be declassified for 75 years?

The system cries out for reform.  Barack Obama has tried, but with little effect.  At least one excellent paper has been done on the matter by the ACLU.  It details not only how bad it is but how much worse it has gotten since 9/11.  It is a system that feeds on itself and it is the antithesis of a free and open society.

Hillary’s classification flap is pure demagoguery.  The only good that might come out of it is some kind of reform to the system.  But I’m not holding my breath.  I wonder how large a hard drive ships now need to hold all the crap from the current 17 intelligence agencies?  But there is one advance – people can now pretend to read it all with the click of a mouse, I presume.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Federal Government, Information Technology, Nuclear weapons, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Secrets

  1. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: You are absolutely right about over-classification. In 1956 as the 1st Marine Brigade’s one of two cryptographers at Kaneohe Bay TH, I saw this daily. All traffic from the states to us or to anywhere west of us we either decrypted or relayed to Pacific stations. If to us at KBay, I would decrypt a Top Secret Eyes Only message to the CO such as”1Bn1 MarBrig, will depart Honolulu 0700, for training exercises in Sector 6. Orders follow.” I would dutifully strap on my 911 and hand-carry the message to the CO. The following morning an article would appear in the Honolulu Advertiser noting that the First Battalion of the First Marine Brigade will leave for training exercises in South Pacific. The exercise will last approximately three weeks.” Security was so lax that occasionally the newspaper article would appear before the Top Secret encrypted message.
    When I asked my Commo who encrypted these messages, he replied, “Just about anybody.” He said he thought that it gave some a feeling of importance to be dealing with so much classified information. I rarely saw any info come across our teletypes that needed to be classified. It presented a mountain of work for the cryptographers who had to deal with the traffic. I have often wondered in the nearly 60 years since those days if anything has changed. Doesn’t sound like it. Bud


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      That’s a great story to buttress the point, Bud.

      For the uninitiated, and I suspect there are some out there these days, what with a shrinking military and no draft for 10 decades now, Bud’s “911” refers to the revered M1911 45-caliber semi-automatic pistol that was a standard military sidearm for over 75 years. My, how time flies!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim Ruebush says:

    It is good to see your insights into this ‘problem’. I assumed most of the flap was political spin and not really of substance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elyse says:

    I hope you will rerun this post when the general election is on and they bring up this bs again ….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim,

    Thanks to you for the important information you have made available to us. Now, if you would only go on CNN, MSNBC, and all the nightly news shows and explain it to journalists, most of whom present this email mess as an existential crisis, not just for Hillary, but for the country!

    Oh, don’t bother with Fox. The network is invested in perpetuating this nonsense, since it is perfectly ripe for Donald Drumpf demagoguery, a man who has taken the dishonest practice to new lows.



  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    You are right, Duane, that education is needed, but it’s sure not easy. The ACLU paper at the link in the post is about as clear an expose’ that one could wish for, detailing the history of the problem but I’m guessing that most people won’t read it because classification is a meme linked to patriotism and national security. It’s kind of like the other meme, that every soldier and sailor is a hero. Embedded in the culture.


  6. PiedType says:

    I’m suprised the government hasn’t just declared all its documents “classified.” It would save so much nit picking, hair splitting, decision making, and investigating. Besides, national security is at stake. Who would object to increasing national security?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ PiedType and shimoniac,

    Classify ’em all? It could happen. Maybe George Orwell just got the date a century off? Only 68 years to go.


  8. Well said, Jim. And as long as right-wingers keep using the words “scandal” and “indict” then others begin to think there must be an indictment coming soon.


  9. Pingback: Hillary Clinton And The Purity Test | The Erstwhile Conservative: A Blog of Repentance

  10. List of X says:

    I’m surprised this post hasn’t been classified yet.


  11. Pingback: Clinton Email Nonsense: If “No Charges Are Appropriate In This Case,” Why Did Comey Blast Clinton Anyway? | The Erstwhile Conservative: A Blog of Repentance

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