Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Excessive Secrecy in National Security

by Micah Zenko
June 16, 2011

An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq, in this file photograph taken on June 12, 2008. The MQ-1 Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft. In the rugged mountains of western Pakistan, missiles launched by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones have become so commonplace that some U.S counterterrorism officials liken them to "cannon fire." REUTERS/U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/Handout/Files

There is needless and excessive classification of government material in the U.S. national security policymaking process. That being said, nothing should ever be revealed in public that compromises the sources and methods used in intelligence collection and analysis. Moreover, the unauthorized disclosure of properly classified information—such as Wikileaks’ release of State Department diplomatic cables—undermines the trust and discretion that is essential for conducting normal diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, to quote the 9/11 Commission report: “Secrecy, while necessary, can also harm oversight,” since it hinders “democracy’s best oversight mechanism: public disclosure.”

Today, I have a piece in the New York Daily News titled: “The Blurring Lines between the CIA and Defense.” I write that: “The absence of clarity over the roles of the CIA and the Defense Department has made it more and more unclear which agency should be accountable for the results of politically sensitive, lethal and secret military operations.” This is a particularly important, though underreported issue, considering that the CIA is reportedly looking to significantly expand the use of armed drones over Yemen. As a U.S. official noted, with the absence of political authority in Sanaa, and a more active presence of Al Qaeda affiliated groups, “we’re trying to look at a lot of different ways to make something happen in Yemen.” As readers of this blog will know, “make something happen” equals the most impressive and responsive tool in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit: military force.

Almost every president enters the White House decrying the over-classification of government material. In one of his first executive orders, President Obama declared that “the government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” Yet, as the title of a recent post in Steve Aftergood’s excellent blog, Secrecy News, aptly put it: “Obama Classification Reform Efforts Fail to Take Hold.”

In August 2006, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post, “Share the Evidence on Iran,” which called on the George W. Bush administration to declassify the key judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) regarding Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.  My rationale was that since many aspects of Iran’s nuclear progress had been selectively leaked to the media, “declassifying the key judgments and dissents would publicly establish the intelligence community opinion.”

In addition, having examined hundreds of declassified NIEs from previous decades, it became apparent to me that very little of the material that appears in key judgments is more secret than what appears on the front page of the New York Times.  If you are curious to learn for yourself, visit the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room.  Type “national intelligence estimate” in the search bar at the top, and see the results. Or, type “UFO,” “nuclear weapons,” “Bay of Pigs,” “Aldrich Ames,” or any other noun that you might imagine that the CIA ever produced an analytical product regarding.

More recently, in April 2010, I wrote a piece on “Demystifying the Drone Strikes,” which dismissed the Obama administration’s notion that the unmanned drone strikes were secret. As I wrote: “by maintaining that the well-known program is secret, administration officials believe that they neither have to defend nor answer to criticism of their use…In lieu of answers, they have simply provided a parade of glowing off-the-record endorsements that emphasize their inevitability, near-infallibility and hearty support from the Pakistani government.”

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