Classified Ignorance

“Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites, disclosed to the media, or otherwise in the public domain remains classified and must be treated as such until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. government authority.”  This is the opening line in June 2013 memorandum from the office of Timothy Davis, Director of Security for the Department of Defense, written the day after the first of the Snowden documents began to appear on the Guardian and the Washington Post.  At the same time, a new set of web filters were put in place to prevent DoD employees from visiting some of the news sites covering the leaks. Davis’ memo is also a nearly word-perfect copy of a directive distributed by the Department of Defense at the behest of the White House Office of Management and Budget in the midst of the excitement over the Wikileaks release of classified information in 2010.
Wired News inquired about the 2010 directive and elicited the following clarification-by-analogy from Sumit Agarwal, then Defense Department Deputy Assistant Director for Outreach and Social Media: “I think of it as being analogous to MP3s or a copyrighted novel online — widespread publication doesn’t strip away laws governing use of those. … It would still be illegal for people to make Avatar available even if it were posted on a torrent site or the equivalent.”  Which sounds like a reasonable argument – if the distribution of popular movies was restricted for the same reasons that classified documents are restricted.
According to Executive Order 13526, “national defense has required that certain information be maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security, and our interactions with foreign nations.”  This order, signed by President Obama in December 2009, is the latest in a long line of regulations describing the scope and procedures of the U.S. system of classifying documents. In brief, some knowledge can be dangerous if it becomes public knowledge, because our enemies could use it against us. Names of agents, details of defense systems, methods of producing weapons – all of these need to be classified.  It’s not about keeping loyal citizens from knowing these things, it’s about how loyalty is not always easy to discern, and most loyal citizens have no use for the manufacturing process of tank armor or a list of undercover CIA agents.
Knowledge is power after all, and knowing more than ones’ enemies is half way to winning.  To translate from the prefacing legalese of numerous executive orders, classification is fundamentally about making sure that our government is better informed than the enemy.
At this point, the fallacy of Security Director Davis’ memorandum and Sumit Agarwal’s analogy should be clear.  The Wikileaks documents and the NSA powerpoints are known by any and all enemies, competitors, and even the perennially and professionally curious intelligence agencies of U.S. allies. Independent of the debate over the harm caused by the leaks, it should be clear that Director Davis’ memo and its 2010 precedent demand that people in the U.S. government should be worse informed than our enemies and allies – worse informed even than interested private citizens.
Enforcement of classification of already leaked information inside the U.S. government is clearly contrary to both the purpose of classification and the best interests of both the government and citizens.

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