Secrecy News

A Flutter Over Air Force One Schematics

When the San Francisco Chronicle reported April 8 that information about the design and layout of the Presidential aircraft Air Force One was available on the world wide web, it generated a spasm of anxiety in some quarters.

The anxiety was magnified by a follow-on story in the Chronicle April 19, reprinted in the Pentagon Early Bird today, which observed ominously that the information “still remain[s] publicly available.”

The reporter, Paul J. Caffera, spoke to several people in and out of government who were prepared to express alarm about the disclosure. He did not quote anyone who questioned its significance or downplayed the potential threat that it might pose.

On closer examination, it appears that the Chronicle exaggerated the entire matter, and not only by mistakenly referring to the information as “classified” (an error that it corrected today).

The notion of a Secret that may lead to fatal vulnerability if exposed has mythological force and deep psychological resonance. But fear untethered by objective scrutiny is a poor guide to government information policymaking.

To begin with, the document that the Chronicle found on the web has never been classified. To the contrary, it was specifically reviewed and cleared for public release years ago.

This was no accident. As Stephen I. Schwartz observed in a cogent critique of the Chronicle story last week, the Air Force document was deliberately made public:

“It’s part of a safety manual, written so firefighters and emergency responders can quickly rescue Air Force One’s pilots and passengers if there’s an accident or mishap,” noted Schwartz, the former publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

It follows that new efforts to suppress the document in response to the Chronicle story may tend to impede accident preparedness.

See Schwartz’s critique on the DefenseTech blog “Air Force One Scare: Real Security Sacrificed,” April 11.

John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org observed that he regularly finds “all kinds of stuff” that is genuinely sensitive, such as new details relating to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq, which his organization refrains from publishing.

But the information in the unclassified Air Force One safety manual that triggered the Chronicle story, he said, “is neither very interesting nor unique.”