avatar
THE CYNICISM OF SECRECY


Bagdikian

Last

year the Republicans tried to cast a wider and more punitive net over anyone who

violated what they said were "classified secrets."

It is

a move that is either naive to the point of uneducable ignorance or it is

cynical to the point of contempt for the public and for reality.

Anyone who knows Washington knows that ever since the Truman security program

was instituted during the Joseph McCarthy Era, the use of classification has

been employed less to truly keep secrets and more as a strategic weapon for

bureaucratic in fighting for money. Or as a cynical weapon against citizens whom

Attorneys General want to hurt.

I was

a Washington correspondent for 15 years. I have been present, alone or in small

"breakfast" groups of correspondents, when officials ranging from Presidents to

members of Congress, make a point for the correspondents by pulling a document

out of their briefcase, making sure you saw the big, uppercase stamp, "TOP

SECRET SENSITIVE." They would then proceed to turn pages until they reach a

well-marked page, and then read out a section that seemed to make their

point—whatever it was for that session–– valid by an incontestable source,

namely, a top secret classified document and therefore close to the word of God.

The

classifications, of course, vary. The lowest, merely, "Secret" means that it is

probably already in public libraries. The labels then rise grim-looking step by

grim-looking step, to "Top Secret." and up until you reach a realm that a

classification is so secret it has no name. Special agencies, like the one for

nuclear regulation, have their own system, some with letters like "Q." and some

not.

Just

two examples. In the midst of the Cold War, the Navy and Air Force were engaged

in a battle for appropriations. Each released "secret" information to selected

correspondents on the deadly perfection of each of the systems they were touting

in Congress. In this case, the Navy wanted an enormous increase in large

aircraft carriers, arguing they could operate when weather stopped airplanes in

their bombing (this was before some of the more fancy systems of today) and

would become, to repeat a popular phrase, "the nation’s first line of defense

anywhere in the world."

The

Air Force, of course, considered itself "the nation’s first line, etc. ). So in

order to show that perhaps the proposed giant new Navy carrier fleet was not the

invulnerable "the nation’s first line…."), the Air Force planted an observer

on a fleet exercise in the Caribbean and waited until there was a cloud cover

over the fleet activity. The bad weather, of course, was, by Navy opinion, a

dangerous flaw in the Air Force argument for its appropriation for more and

bigger bombers. When the Air Force planted observer on the carrier sent a

pre-arranged signal giving the carrier’s position, the Air Force sent a plane

with special radar and took a photograph of the carrier through a thick cloud

cover. The carrier was highly visible from the air in good weather and bad.

Shortly afterward, I, and a few other correspondents, were quietly given a copy

of the photograph, clearly marked on the back, "Top Secret Sensitive" but the

red letters crossed out with a pen. The source, a lobbyist for the Air Force,

said this made it clear that the country should not appropriate the vast funds

the Navy had requested for a big fleet of such vulnerable national shields. He

added that it also showed, of course, how superior the big proposed Air Force

planes would be. The photo appeared in newspapers, including in The New York

Times.

The

other example occurred during a crucial moment in the Pentagon Papers case. The

government had, of course, obtained a lower court order enjoining, first, The

New York Times which began publishing the secret history of the Vietnam War, a

history with very scary classification stamps on the whole thing. After the

Times was stopped its printing by court order, the Washington Post also received

the Pentagon Papers from a then-secret source (I was involved in that

retrieval). The case moved quickly to the higher courts.

One

session, attended only by top lawyers for the government and, in this case, the

Post, and a few selected editorial people. I was one of those because I was an

editor of the Post at the time and had obtained the Post’s copies of the 5400

documents.

The

session was in the office of Chief Judge of the Appellate court in Washington,

Judge David Bazelon. A lawyer for the Department of Justice dramatically took

out a sheaf of pages from the papers and told Judge Bazelon that these were at

the highest and most crucial level of government secrets which, if put in the

public domain, would make the United States dangerously vulnerable to Soviet

attack. The government’s argument was bolstered by an affidavit from the

National Security Agency (the most secret of all the intelligence agencies).

Luckily our small editorial group included our chief Pentagon correspondent,

George Wilson. He looked at the document and whispered to the Post lawyer, "I’ve

seen that someplace. Stall for time, stall for time." As Wilson fished into his

briefcase full of his own documents, the Post Lawyer asked the judge if he could

look at the critical document again. Wilson, who had covered all the most

important Pentagon appropriations, was quickly going through the pages of a

book-size, green-covered Senate publication.

Wilson stopped, read something in the green book, and then handed it to the Post

lawyer, opened to one section, and whispered to the lawyer. The lawyer looked at

the identifying cover page of the green book, and then showed it to Judge

Bazelon.

The

government lawyer had assured the Judge that this particular Pentagon Paper

document if became known to the Soviets and other known enemies of the United

States would endanger the very defense of the country. Luckily, George Wilson

had a sharp memory. The document was a copy of testimony before an executive

session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later had been cleared for

public consumption by the Government Printing Office. It was a document in

public libraries, in open congressional offices, in diligent Pentagon

correspondents, and, undoubtedly, in the files of dozens of countries around the

world, including in the Soviet Union, whose military attache may have bought his

copy from the bookstore of the Government Printing Office in Washington.

I

think there are, now and then, some pieces of government information that are

truly damaging to release immediately. But I think they are rare. No vast

bureaucracy and bureaucratic game-playing is needed for them. During World War

II we had no formal classification system for military secrets.

   

Leave a comment