Blurred lines between secrets and discretion trouble NSA

“Well the protester I think is a very powerful thing. It’s basically a mechanism of democracy that, along with capitalism, scientific innovation, those things have built the modern world. And it’s wonderful that the new tools have empowered that protestor so that state secrets, bad developments, are not hidden anymore.”
Microsoft founder, Bill Gates

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Spy agency bean spiller Edward Snowden has once again embarrassed the US National Security Agency, and sent shockwaves through the capitals of our allies, with revelations that we have been monitoring the phone calls of their citizens and leaders. Whether you think Snowden’s actions have been heroic or criminal or both, they point to a breakdown in our intelligence community, one that happens when we start compromising the integrity of our civil rights laws, and sacrifice the art of discretion for the expediency of widening the boundaries of classified secrecy.

In other words, we’ve decided to say more things are secret because it’s easier than trying to teach people about the value of being discrete. Secrecy is a one or a zero, on or off, depending on who in whichever agency has a right to know. Discretion is more nuanced, taking a kernel of information from what one knows to be a secret and using it, without revealing it, either to find out more information or, otherwise, to turn the circumstances to one’s advantage.

Let’s take the classic analogy that the media has been bandying about, recently, from the film, “Casablanca.” In that movie, Claude Rains’ character, Caption of the Police, Louis Renault, feigns surprise when the Nazis force him to shut down Rick’s Cafe, telling Humphrey Bogart, “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in here,” as he pockets his winnings. The media uses this to say that the leaders of Europe and Latin America who are professing outrage already knew things like this have been going on, and are just feigning surprise for the benefit of their people.

But it goes deeper. The secret, as Renault fully well knows, is there is something much more serious than gambling going on. There is sedition. The discretion is that, in order to protect his friend, Rick, Renault uses gambling as an excuse rather than revealing that secret to the Nazis.

So is our intelligence community less smart than the operatives of the past, despite its “new tools,” or perhaps even because of them? Possibly, but it could have more to do with the fact that there are thousands more classified secrets, now. In December, 2012, the New York Times reported on a study presented to the White House that said, in part, “Present practices for classification and declassification of national security information are outmoded, unsustainable and keep too much information from the public.”

That came more than six years after the NY Times reported on President George W. Bush’s “accelerated” reclassification of documents that were unclassified in the Clinton administration:

“The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000 previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies objected to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill Clinton. It accelerated after the Bush administration took office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to archives records.”

And with contractors handling the important task of data gathering, these days, maybe it was just easier to tell them to gather it all, distill it all, from everywhere they can, and call it all “classified.” Everyone understands “classified.” Not everyone understands “discrete.”

To which this statement from Thomas Jefferson (in an 1820 letter to William C. Jarvis) might apply:

“…if we think [the people are] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

And maybe that’s what Snowden and Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning have been trying to do – inform our discretion.

“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society,” President John F. Kennedy told a group of newspaper publishers, in 1961, adding, “We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.”

Think of Snowden what you will, but blame the government for its lack of discretion, here. It’s not about secrets, but about how and why they kept them, even from the commander-in-chief. President Obama’s admission that he was not informed about the surveillance of our allies until this summer is part of the problem, for a key component of discretion is oversight, and that was obviously absent in this case.

White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, told the press, Monday, in his daily briefing, “…the president clearly feels strongly about making sure that we are not just collecting information because we can, but because we should.” That, finally, is discretion, but is it enough?


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