Last week, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said out loud what everyone inside the U.S. intelligence community already knows, but rarely will admit in public: the U.S. secrecy system is horribly broken.
"It is my view that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner, be that sharing with our intelligence partners, our oversight bodies, or, when appropriate, with the general public,” Haines wrote in response to an inquiry from Sens. Ron Wyden and Jerry Moran.
Normally, we have to wait for those involved in deploying the classified stamp to leave the government before they admit the obvious. As such, no administration has ever made a meaningful attempt to fix it.
Or perhaps the lack of reform stems from the fact that many of the same government officials who will privately admit the system is broken are also the ones who wield it as both a shield from accountability and a weapon of impunity. Haines is certainly right that overclassification hinders democracy. But the problem is worse than that. Secrecy is killing innocent people — or at least letting those doing the killing get away with it.
Two incidents last week at the White House and State Department are stark reminders on how the secrecy system can be manipulated in ways that can stifle accountability and even lead to war.
On Thursday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki drew well-deserved criticism for implying that an NPR reporter — who was asking skeptical questions about civilian casualties during a Pentagon operation on ISIS — may be more trusting of the terrorist organization than the U.S. government.
That sentiment would be appalling under any circumstances, however it’s particularly galling now, given that just a few months ago — the last time the Biden administration was touting that it killed a terrorist — the victims turned out to be an innocent aid worker and his family. The details of the “righteous” strike were initially classified, and only through dogged investigative reporting by The New York Times was the Pentagon forced to release more information and fess up what really happened.
As we wrote at the time, if such truthful information came from a government official, instead of interviews from Afghani witnesses, that official would be subject to prosecution. Since the Pentagon “investigated” itself, no one was punished for the strike, which killed almost a dozen innocent people, including many children.
The Times followed up its investigation into the tragic Afghanistan drone strike by looking into another battlefield, this one almost wholly hidden from public view: Syria. There, the newspaper focused on a notoriously aggressive U.S. military unit that allegedly had a habit of breaking rules and piling up collateral damage. In one particularly horrific instance, the unit reportedly killed dozens of women and children, and then used the classification system to cover it up.
The same day as the White House incident, veteran Associated Press reporter Matt Lee was grilling State Department spokesman Ned Price after Price alleged Russia was planning a false flag operation on the border with Ukraine, citing classified information of nebulous origins. Lee repeatedly asked for actual evidence of such an extreme claim. After Price responded by insinuating Lee believed the Russian government more than his own, they had this exchange.
Price: "You have been doing this for quite a while —"
Lee: "I have. That's right. And I remember WMDs in Iraq, and I remember that Kabul was not going to fall. I remember a lot of things."
Lee’s retort was a humorous but powerful reminder that many of this country’s major wars, not only Iraq, but Vietnam and others, have started based on lies that were protected via the classification system.
Haines, in her letter, claims that the issue of government secrecy is of “great importance” to President Biden. It’s clear the system needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from top to bottom. But maybe they can start with de-classifying the declassification reforms put into last year’s intelligence spending bill. Yes, you read that right – even modest secrecy reform passed by Congress is still secret. Baby steps.