Secrecy News

Leaks a “Serious Problem” for Defense Intelligence

Unauthorized disclosures of classified information are among “the major challenges” facing defense intelligence, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers told Congress last month.  Mr. Vickers is awaiting Senate confirmation to be the new USD(I), a post that was last held by James R. Clapper, who is now the Director of National Intelligence.  The Under Secretary is “dual-hatted” as Director of Defense Intelligence.

“One of the most serious problems currently confronting the USD(I) is the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The spate of unauthorized disclosures of very sensitive information places our forces, our military operations, and our foreign relations at risk.  It threatens to undermine senior leaders’ confidence in the confidentiality of their deliberations, and the confidence our foreign partners have that classified information they share with us will be protected,” Mr. Vickers wrote (pdf) in response to advance questions for his February 15, 2011 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

With respect to WikiLeaks in particular, Mr. Vickers told Senator McCain at his confirmation hearing that by publishing names of Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S. military, WikiLeaks had put their “lives in danger.”

“Fortunately,” he added, “we are able to attract the intelligence assets that we require to serve our policymakers and warriors.  But the damage should not be understated… and the Department has learned many lessons about how to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Among numerous other intelligence policy topics, Mr. Vickers addressed the possible breakout of the National Intelligence Program (NIP) budget from its current concealment in the larger defense budget, a step that is favored by public interest advocates who believe it would improve the integrity of the budgeting process.

“The proposal to separate the NIP portion of the Defense budget was… intended… to provide greater visibility and oversight of NIP resources, as well as improve NIP financial management practices,” he wrote.  “ODNI is leading a collaborative study effort to determine the feasibility of the conceptual proposal, with DoD stakeholders participating.  The study team is still assessing possible approaches and implications. No final decisions have been made on removing the NIP from the DoD budget.”

Mr. Vickers was asked “Under what circumstances, if any do you think intelligence officers and analysts should be able to testify to Congress on their professional conclusions regarding a substantive intelligence issue even if those views conflict with administration positions?”  He responded: “If Congress requires testimony on a substantive intelligence issue, it should be provided, whether or not it conflicts with an administration position.”

Another question posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee revealed that “the Department may have failed to report certain cyber activities in the Quarterly Report [to Congress] that should have been included, since they would legitimately fit the accepted definition of clandestine military activities [that are to be disclosed to Congress].”  (Previously noted by the Associated Press,EmptyWheel.)  Mr. Vickers said that if confirmed, he would commit to full reporting on DoD intelligence-related activities, “to include cyber activities.”

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) asked Mr. Vickers “What’s the strength of al Qaeda in Afghanistan?… 10,000?  100,000?”

“No, sir,” Mr. Vickers replied.  The number of al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan “would be under 50 or so, 50 to 75, and that on a part-time basis.”  However, he added, “The Taliban are still aligned with al Qaeda…. Even though Afghanistan is not principally where al Qaeda is, it could become a future safe haven if we were to repeat the errors we made after the Cold War.”

3 thoughts on “Leaks a “Serious Problem” for Defense Intelligence

  1. Leaks are a problem, but they’re also a result of wanton over-classification. Under too many common situations classification only serves to protect managerial turf, and does not serve the overall interests of the government or the populace. This is so much the case that it was one of the main factors that prevented the 9/11 attacks from being stopped.

    With far less, and far more rational classification, this simply would be less of a problem. While secrecy and confidentiality can be quite critical in many instances, frequently declassification is delayed absurdly long. So much so that the information rots into complete uselessness. It is for instance completely absurd that it took 30 years for the Pentagon Papers to be formally declassified. That in no way served the public good. It does however exhibit itself as an outstanding example of the problem.

    As much as many justly loath Wikileaks, it would be plainly stupid not to learn from the unwanted disclosures. Part of that means paying attention to lessons we do not want to learn, and one of them is that overclassification does deep harm to the interests of the US. It, along with the post 9/11 examinations of what went wrong have made this problem quite clear. When it becomes a barrier to accomplishing the goals of government, and it has become that, overwrought secrecy becomes an activity that gives benefit to the countries enemies. That is no one’s goal, and we should reform general practice.

    One obvious way that reducing overclassification would help is that it would reassign proper value to material that was in fact worth classifying. Doing so would restore badly lacking trust in the system, and restore respect for it amongst those that have to deal with classified material, much less those who entrust others to care for the nations secrets.

    Rather than presumptively classifying material, and overclassifying it, people dealing with classification issues should ask each other what more could be accomplished with the information by minimizing the weight of secrecy as much as possible. Vague fears of the unknown are never a good reason to classify material, and far too often it directly subverts the mission of organizations that do it.

    My recommendation would be to do it less, and have it end sooner whenever possible. Sadly to make this change, a lot of stupid entrenched culture needs to change to do that. Caution should never replace common sense, and refocusing intellect towards accomplishing more by doing this less would clearly serve US interests far better than accreted bad habits are doing now. In order to do this though, those stubborn, intransigent bad habits must be changed along with the management and policy practices that people so comfortably wallow in.

    Sadly I suspect quite a few dinosaurs will have to retire to the tar pits before any of this will get changed.

  2. I would also like to add that it is a fact that it’s entirely possible to speak up, and speak out about classification in general, and to do so appropriately about specific issues in a manner that does not involve leaking. It may take some extra effort, and it may take more rational and measured consideration to do it, but it’s certainly possible to do it. It’s a far better path to follow than leaking information is though. Leaks are a symptom of problems, not a solution to any problem.

  3. What happend to the theory of open government and what is the concept of Democracy as opposed to unnecessary and reckless secrecy. Within the minds of some government officials the public has little intelligence to understand how our government works or the policy decisions it makes for the future of it’s citizens. When government becomes compartmentalized into maintaining secrecy in all it’s endeavours whether foreign or domestic, the people should fear the consequence of these actions and seek remedy with all haste.

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