There is that old saying “secrets don’t make friends,” we’ve all heard it at one point or another, and it’s usually initiated by someone who is not privy to the ‘secret’ that is shared between two people. I present to them the other side of that coin- “Loose lips sink ships.” For as far back as history can take us, there has always been a need for secrecy. In military, the inappropriate sharing of secrets can lead to lives lost. In business the same sharing of secrets can lead to revenue lost or even a business going under. In private lives it can lead to that dreaded identity theft. The need for secrecy is paramount, especially in our high-tech society today.
In 2006 I joined the United States Army as an intelligence and security professional. I was interviewed, investigated, and sworn to secrecy to gain my Top Secret clearance that included the SCI moniker at the end. What is SCI? It stands for Secret Compartmentalized Information, the key word being compartmentalized. Simply put, it means that information that is shared only with the few that have a need to know, or a relevant need to access the information, is held more tightly than say troop movement or equipment acquisitions (which are confidential bits of information). I learned first hand that classified information can be dangerous if divulged to the wrong people, and the underlying reason why classified material is vital to national security.
There are several levels of classifying information and material: Unclassified is just that, it does not receive a classification and in the intelligence world is labeled as such so there is no confusion. There is also an additional type of Unclassified known as FOUO, or For Official Use Only.
Confidential- this is another type that doesn’t require a security clearance to access, but is to be kept safer than Unclassified information.
Secret- requires a minimum secret clearance to access and is information/materials that could potentially cause serious damage to national security if made publicly available.
Top Secret- requires a minimum of a top secret security clearance and could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if made publicly available.
In modern times secrecy is a very important aspect of our national security system. There are two sides to the argument that claim one way or another. One side says that things that are made secret must remain that way until the secret is no longer potentially dangerous to national security. The other side says that secrets are bad and that it’s a power grab by those who classify the information and keep it secret. The side that wants disclosure of secrets believes that it is un-American to keep secrets as it resists the restriction of power (their base argument is secrets=power).
What the opposition to secrecy doesn’t understand is that the dissemination of classified material to the wrong people can cause great harm to our nation and interests. One of the first things I learned when dealing with sensitive information and sources was the once that information became public, the source almost always disappeared. For instance, in 2001 the NSA was monitoring communications between terrorist operatives in the Middle East. CNN was able to learn of these operations and reported on it, divulging the NSA’s capability to listen in on phone calls between terrorists. Suddenly, that ability became harder and the terrorists began utilizing more primitive means of communication to avoid being monitored. These were real enemies to the United States, our allies, and interests, and the NSA was no longer able to effectively track what they were planning. The only good to come out of this information? Nothing.
Another big argument against the opening up of information channels is sources. For instance, John Smith is considered a US intelligence asset, he gives the CIA sensitive information about the operations, recruiting, funding, and training of insurgent forces in Afghanistan fighting against NATO forces. This information gets handed off and classified as Secret. But, the walls are taken down and the information (including the source’s identity- which with a lot of secret information the source is what really is classified secret) is shared publicly with the news media. Suddenly John Smith’s name is plastered on TV and in newspapers as being the person giving enemy information to the CIA. The insurgent forces read this and one or both of two things happen- 1: they stop allowing John Smith access to the information he was giving the CIA, and/or 2: they kill John Smith. Either way the CIA stop receiving vital information about the enemy and it further hurts our efforts.