The Future of Secrecy in a World of Mass Exposure

From Susan Hasler
The CIA has a portrait wall along one of the wide, windowed corridors that line its interior courtyard. Look out the windows and you see magnolia trees that are magnificent when pink in bloom. Look to the paintings and you see a line of former directors, dark-suited men posed in front of globes, flags, Agency seals, and other symbols of power. Even those that are smiling have that dour “I’ve got a secret” look in their eyes. The secrets, of course, were the key to their power. In my two decades at the Agency, I saw a half dozen pictures added to that wall, until the latest reached the end of the corridor. Then one day my husband and I came in to find that the portraits had been moved closer together, leaving room for many more future directors. The same phrase popped into our minds at once: “That’s optimistic.”
We were already beginning to doubt that the old and cranky bureaucracy of secrecy could change fast enough to survive. What is the future of CIA in a world of Wikileaks, Russian hackers, and Snowdens? Does it double down and install more firewalls, limit distribution of intelligence, and crack down on the contacts employees can make with the outside, or do they figure out a new path that will require serious rethinking of how we handle secrecy?
There are conflicting views of secrecy within the Agency, generally corresponding to where an individual works.  Those on the operational side of the house tend to take a “slippery slope” view. Protect everything. Admit nothing. It is understandable for those out in the field who have human assets at stake, but it gets silly at times. For example, as an employee, I could’t acknowledge the existence of a training facility that has been depicted in popular movies. As an analyst, I once had to get a senior manager to weigh in before the operators would allow me to use a piece of sensitive intelligence in an article I was writing for the then vice president. What is the use of collecting intelligence if you can’t use it for the VP? 
Which brings us to the view on secrecy that tends to prevail among analysts. Yes, certain things have to remain secret, but our job is to analyze and distribute our findings for use by policymakers. We need to be able to talk about things and collaborate with counterparts in other parts of government. We also need to talk to academics and other outside experts to produce the best possible analysis. 
Analysts know that the real “secrets” only comprise a part of the judgments we make. Open source material and collaboration with colleagues is often the larger part. Perhaps the most important ingredient of the analysis is our training in overcoming bias and an office ethic that does its best to shut politics out (yes, I’m political now, but that came after I left the Agency). Unbiased analysis is at a premium these days, but its utility is limited by the fact that most Agency analytical judgments are secrets, even when they could be easily declassified.
The utility of the analysis is also limited by the fact that most CIA products are overclassified. Analysts make a classification decision at the end of every paragraph. The default move is to slap on an S NF (Secret Noforn) for B&A or background and analysis. Meaning, it’s secret because I’m an analyst and what I write is informed by secret material even if nothing in this paragraph can be specifically connected to a secret report. Typing that S NF becomes so automatic that occasionally I found myself adding it to paragraphs of short stories I wrote at home that had nothing to do with the CIA. You type S NF because there are no penalties for overclassification, only for underclassification. 
The problem is that overclassifying intelligence makes it less likely that it will be seen and used by the people who need it. People who worked at State Department used to tell me that they had to go to a special room to read highly classified reports. They admitted that they often didn’t bother. 
So what does the CIA do in the wake of the latest Wikileaks release, double down on secrecy or take a different tack? I would argue that we cannot and should not continue trying to protect everything. The key judgments from Nation Intelligence Estimates should be routinely declassified after removing all reference to sources and methods. I think this would serve the American people better than making the bulk of intelligence available to only a limited audience. 
CIA should focus on protecting those things truly worthy of protection: human and technical sources. It should give its analysts better training on making classification decisions.
Perhaps the Agency should consider occasionally sacrificing secrets in the interest of shining a light on an evil. I must admit that I would love to see CIA respond to the latest Wikileaks release by publishing every last bit of dirt it has on Julian Assange and his connections. Of course, that will never happen because of where some of those connections might lead, but it makes for delicious fantasy.  

2 Replies to “The Future of Secrecy in a World of Mass Exposure”

  1. Time for a new novel where these secrets can be put forth as “harmless fiction”? I know tons of people who wouldn’t trouble themselves to read non-fiction, but they gorge themselves on spy novels.

    Think about it, Susan. I loved your last one. Frustrating and depressing at times, yes, but fascinating and informative.

    1. Thanks, Sharon. After three novels, I’ve hit a wall. I have half of a fourth that has been sitting for over a year. I’m hoping to get back to it soon.

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