Secrecy and Classification — Two Diverging Domains

01.03.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

One aspect of the current crisis in classification policy is the growing discrepancy between what is secret and what is classified.  All too often, official classification controls are imposed (or retained) on information that is public, thereby generating confusion and loss of confidence in the integrity of the classification system.  The problem was underscored recently by the government’s response to the publication of classified State Department cables by Wikileaks, which was to insist that they remain classified despite their broad availability.  “So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me,” one official complained to us last month.

The increasing divergence between secrecy and classification is exacerbated by new media for disclosure and publication, and it is not at all limited to U.S. government secrecy policy.  A current controversy in Russia over the alleged publication of classified information provides a vivid illustration of the problem.

The Russian news magazine Kommersant-Vlast has twice been rebuked recently by the Russian Federal Service for Communications (Roskomnadzor) for publishing state secrets, placing the future of that publication in legal jeopardy.  But the purported secrets were all derived from open sources, the magazine explained (pdf), including sources such as Russian government websites.

One of the offending news stories, entitled “All About Missile Forces” and published in December 2009, described the deployment, composition and combat strength of Russian strategic missile forces.  The government said this story included Secret and Top Secret information, and therefore violated the Russian Federation Law on Mass Media.

But in its defense, Vlast-Kommersant argued that this Secret information was not, in fact, secret:  “One of the sources of ‘state secrets’ for Vlast was the official website of the RF President and Commander in Chief.”

In a discussion of “Where to Find ‘State Secrets’,” Vlast writer Mikhail Lukin provided a detailed account of how his publication assembled the story on Russian missile forces by using public databases, search engines, previous news stories and scholarly works, and the public statements of government officials.  “It turns out that the President of Russia, the Minister of Defense, the RVSN Commander-in-Chief, the commanders of missile armies [and others] number among the divulgers of [ostensibly secret] information about [missile] deployment….”

Vlast presented all of this information to the Moscow City Court in a legal challenge to the warnings that it had received from the Russian government.  But in October 2010, the Court ruled against the news magazine, and in favor of the government.

In paradoxical terms that would be familiar to U.S. classification officials, the Moscow Court held that “the fact of the information being published in open sources does not in any way impact on its level of secrecy.”

An appeal to the Russian Supreme Court is pending. See “The Obvious Becomes Secret” by Mikhail Lukin, Kommersant-Vlast, October 26, 2010, translated by the National Virtual Translation Center and obtained by Secrecy News. The Russian original is here.