A Different View of Homeland Security Information

05.28.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Instead of new forms of secrecy, new mechanisms for actively informing the public about threats to homeland security are needed, said Stephen E. Flynn (pdf) of the Council on Foreign Relations at a May 15 hearing of a House Homeland Security subcommittee.

“The targets of choice for current and future terrorists will be civilians and infrastructure,” he said. “Safeguarding those targets can only be accomplished with an informed, inspired and mobilized public. The first preventers and the first responders are far more likely to be civilians and local officials, not soldiers or federal law enforcement officers.”

On September 11, 2001, Mr. Flynn recalled, the only hijacked aircraft that was prevented from reaching its target was stopped not by security professionals with Top Secret clearances but “by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.”

Yet “overwhelmingly, the national defense and federal law enforcement community have chosen secrecy over openness when it comes to providing the general public with details about the nature of the terrorist threat and the actions required to mitigate and respond to that risk.”

“The discounting of the public can be traced to a culture of secrecy and paternalism” that is rooted in the Cold War, when the Soviet threat dictated adoption of a highly compartmented security regime. “Despite the passage of nearly two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this secretive system remains almost entirely intact.”

“What is required is a truly collaborative approach which engages civil society and taps extensive private-sector capabilities and ingenuity for managing risk and coping with disasters. A critical barrier to advancing collaboration,” Mr. Flynn said, “is excessive secrecy throughout the federal government reinforced by a reflexive tendency to classify material or to designate it as ‘For Official Use Only’ or ‘Treat as Classified’.”

A copy of his May 15 hearing testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on National Security is available here.

Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer, addressed related issues in the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs and at greater length in a 2007 book “The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation.”

While such views are congenial to proponents of open government, they stop short of answering all of the questions that a responsible policy maker (let alone a classification officer) would feel obliged to ask. Under exactly what conditions does public disclosure of infrastructure vulnerabilities promote security rather than diminish it? As a practical matter, how does one distinguish between those types of information, such as personal privacy or confidential source data, that everyone agrees should be protected and threat information that an engaged public needs to know?

There may not be simple answers to such questions. But by framing the issue in a way that takes public information needs into account, Mr. Flynn and others are helping to redefine the terms of the debate.