Secrecy and Security

Nice op-ed on the security problems with secrecy.

Some information that previously was open no doubt needs to be classified now. Terrorism alters perspectives. But the terrorist threat also has provided cover for bureaucrats who instinctively opt for secrecy and public officials who would prefer to keep the public in the dark to avoid accountability.

Posted on April 7, 2005 at 9:40 AM12 Comments


Anonymous April 7, 2005 9:48 AM

“Some information that previously was open no doubt needs to be classified now.” – Why? (On a side note, it’s always a bad sign when people use phrases like “no doubt” etc.)

Israel Torres April 7, 2005 10:00 AM

“Knowledge empowers. An informed public is one of national security’s greatest strengths.”

Perhaps in the future this will read:
“(Secret) Knowledge empowers (us). (dis-)informed public is one of national security’s greatest strengths.”

… BTW terrorism has been around since man has been around. With the WoT it appears that it had just recently been discovered (or heck – invented). For shame.

Israel Torres

Zwack April 7, 2005 10:49 AM

Yes, the general tenor of the article is good. But as has been pointed out phrases like “no doubt” are worrisome… More than that, this entire sentence bothers me though.

“Some information that previously was open needs to be classifed now”. I removed the worrisome “no doubt” but still…

What classified information was used in the 9/11 attacks? Would hiding any of the information that was used benefit people?

My feelings are that the answers are “none” and “no”. You can’t avoid teaching people to fly. The locations of most non-secret buildings can not easily be hidden. “Sorry, I can’t tell you where the Pentagon is, or how to get there” Secret buildings don’t make very good terrorist targets because they don’t have significant public visibility.

And as for the wonderful redacted quote “This, this, this, this and this” which was in public testimony and redacted from the transcript of an FAA official… I for one feel much safer knowing that that level of detail is being kept from terrorists.


G Von Klinkerhoffen April 7, 2005 11:29 AM

Smells like security through obscurity. How much information is released, and what can be infered from it, could easily neutralise the purpose of the hiding, or witholding of information. It doesn’t cost much to purchase aerial or satallite photographs of most areas on the planet. And if the information is already out, stored in some cache somewhere, its a bit late.

Terrorism, like other subjects is being used to delude you of the real threat to our liberties, the nightmares that are created for you only ensure the propergation of power from the people to the government. Of course, there needs to be some careful restraint of certain information, i.e. the location of the keys to the nukes, and the nukes themselves perhaps 🙂 :-/, oh and the Ebola in research labs, and and , but come on, count the number of terrorist attacks and total number of deaths, comparted to the total amount of people dead or dying, because of the car, and the industury supporting it. Count all the money spent on paper clips in the world governments (I know I’m simplfying, and gone off topic), and instead of paperclips, spend it on looking after the poor, those desperating needing health care around the world, an education, a career. Ah, a philosophical debate.

Davi Ottenheimer April 7, 2005 11:37 AM

Bruce, the radical Republicans who run the US do not care about information. They do not think it helps their security. In fact, they like to contradict themselves and argue for the right to life, while at the same time they zealously seek the right to torture and kill their “enemies” without due process.

Consider the new Bill in Florida, written by the National Rifle Association and approved by both houses of the Republican-led legislature:

A civilian has “no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm”

In other words FL residents will soon have the right to open fire against anyone they “perceive as a threat” in public, instead of having to try to avoid a conflict as under prevailing law.

The Governor of Florida, brother of the US President, describes this as “a good commonsense, anti-crime issue.”

What if someone perceives the Governor’s decisions to be a threat to their welfare? Does this signal the start of a great civilian arms race? The NRA certainly hopes so.

It is hard not to make the interesting point that while the author of the bill, Rep Dennis Baxley, says the judiciary “favors criminals over victims” he could not produce a single example to support his claim. Again, information is irrelevant to good governance, in the parlor of the Republican right.

Does it stand to reason that if Terry Shaivo had been the victim of a shooting then Republicans, including President Bush, would actually rally for the shooter under a “right to shoot first ask questions later” doctrine?

Do these men realize that John Wayne was an actor and Bonanza was a TV show?

Oh well, no matter that FL already has one of the highest murder rates in the nation (e.g. the information indicates that guns have created insecurity). Are we more or less secure with hot-headed gun-toting itchy trigger-fingers wandering the streets. It appears that it does not matter when the Republicans have demonstrated time and again that truth and justice are irrelevant to security. Just surround yourself with people who agree with your bias and start firing:

Bruce, you can say all you want about information disclosure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to legislators who think that America is more secure because of “a moral imperative to respond to threats with superior firepower”.

Don April 7, 2005 12:28 PM

I love my UltraEdit text editor. Takes but a second to copy & paste something into it so I can determine that 23% of a post is a weak segue in and out of the irrelevant gun talk that comprises the other 77%.

Davi Ottenheimer April 7, 2005 12:36 PM

Great suggestion. You make a good point that we can use technology to redact information. But why stop at open discourse. You can block your own access to government records, and perhaps even legislation. Imagine the power of citizens who choose the software that suits their particular view, so they can blind themselves from information they consider objectionable or irrelevant…kind of like watching Fox News.

Paul Johnson April 7, 2005 1:54 PM

I live in the UK. Until very recently we had the Official Secrets Act and no FOIA (it came into effect earlier this year). The OSA was passed during WW1 in response to a general panic over German spies. It basically said that everything was classified unless the government chose to release it. Sound familiar?

It has truly been said that the Official Secrets Act exists to protect officials, not secrets.

Jack Krupansky April 7, 2005 2:33 PM

File this under the “nothing new under the sun” department. Secrecy is and has always been primarily about avoiding embarrassment and CYA.

The real problem with 9/11 is that few heads rolled. If people starting getting fired and sent to jail for presiding over vulnerabilities, they’d probably start being only too happy to have all you squeaky wheels publicize any and all potential problems so that they got fixed before disaster strikes.

The belief among bureaucrats now seems to be that if your vulnerabilities are secret, you won’t get blamed for any disasters.

— Jack Krupansky

Chung Leong April 7, 2005 9:53 PM

A quote from our Security of Defense might be relevant here:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Mr. Rumsfeld was referring to national security scenarios, but his reasoning apply just as well to the preservation of democracy. Unknown unknowns are what the public ends up with when information is classified and the rationale for doing so itself is kept from scrutiny. And if we don’t know what we don’t know about our government, that’s when the potential harm to civil liberty is the greatest.

There are times when officials have legitimate reasons to withhold information. And we can only expect them to err on the side of caution. At the least though the public should know what it doesn’t know and why. We need rules that mandate the disclosure of analyses justifying non-disclosure. The reasons for secrecy themselves cannot be kept secret.

clive Robinson April 8, 2005 12:36 PM

I have real trouble with the statment,

“Terrorism alters perspectives”

Why should it, logically, we know that for every action we take there is going to be an equal and opposit reaction. To expect otherwise shows either extreamly unbalanced reasoning or a blindness to the reality of the human race and nature. Both of these are caused by lack of information to make informed choices.

For instance a government wants to spend more money on welfare/education for the poor etc, the money to do this is obtained by taxes, those paying increased tax will to some extent object (they worked for the money).

The government considers the trade offs and will either procead or not with the extra taxation, knowing full well it may cost them the next election, unless they put over the reasons in a well balanced and understandable way (ie if you spend the money now it will reduce crime in ten to twenty years time, as well as making sure you have a work force paying taxes etc to ensure that you have an adiquate pension etc).

In the UK in the 1980’s Margret Thatcher tried to implement the poll tax which is on the face of it a fair tax (ie each person pays their contribution). She was warned that unless she put it across in the right way it would lead to significant problems as the poll tax has been universaly hated since written records have been kept. However she decided to procead without getting sufficient of the UK populace on board and suffered the consiquences.

The US and UK invaded a sovrign nation (Iraq) that had an (apparently) legaly elected head of government. This invasion was at best legaly questionable and a significant percentage of the population in Iraq objected to this (put it the other way around to understand why ie Iraq invades the US because George W Bush was not democraticly elected in his first term).

The US government (congress I belive) chose in the past not to train their armed forces in “police action” the result of this is that most US soldiers regard the streets of Iraq as the batlefield and Iraq civilians as probable combatants and therefor a significant threat (which is what their training has taught them to do).

The result as predicted (and ignored by the US and UK Governments) has been a large number of avoidable casualties on both sides, which has given rise to considerable hatred from the civilians in Iraq.

Also as predicted some Iraqies have taken up arms against what they see as an invading army in their own country no doubt if they can they will take the war from their streets to those of the US and UK (afterall the US and UK have set the precident for invasion).

As a UK politician (Robin Cook) pointed out “There where no terorists in Iraq untill we invaded”.

It is simply another example of cause and effect, which providing you have either the information or the forsight is very predictable and therefore can to a certain extent be mitigated against.

I can only conclude that,

“Terrorism alters perspectives”

only occurs in a society where the level of secracy is so ingraned that it blinds the populace to what the likley outcome of the actions taken by their government (in their name) is likley to be. So I would argue that there needs to be a lot lot less secrecy very very soon.

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