Information Sharing as a Form of Secrecy

08.17.09 | 5 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Obama Administration is giving increased attention to the continuing post-9/11 challenge of information sharing, with a newly appointed White House Senior Director of Information Sharing Policy tasked to lead the effort. But this new activity does not imply any reduction in the volume of security and safety-related information that is withheld from the public.

“Achieving effective information sharing and access throughout the government is a top priority of the Obama Administration,” wrote White House Homeland Security Adviser John O. Brennan in a July 2, 2009 memorandum (pdf) to agency heads.  “To advance the priority to make trusted and resilient information sharing and access a reality, we have established in the Executive Office of the President the position of a Senior Director for Information Sharing Policy and have selected Mike Resnick to serve in this role,” Mr. Brennan wrote (first reported by Jason Miller, Federal News Radio, July 31).

Although information sharing might seem like the antithesis of secrecy, the term has come to be used to refer exclusively to sharing within the government, including state and local officials and certain selected private partners. Unlike “transparency,” which is a different policy portfolio, information sharing does not extend to members of the general public even in principle.  To the contrary, it implies their exclusion– there is no need to “share” information that is generally available to all.  And so “information sharing” is emerging as a modified form of official secrecy.

Up to a point, this is understandable.  Members of the general public do not engage in military and intelligence operations or conduct diplomacy or enforce the law.  It is not hard to imagine circumstances in which disclosure of certain government information would undermine these authorized functions.

On the other hand, members of the public are quite literally on the front lines of potential terrorist attacks, not to mention flu pandemics or economic disasters.  A national security or homeland security information sharing policy that leaves the public out is therefore incomplete.

The 9/11 Commission seemed to understand this quite clearly.  Its recommendations on information policy encompassed not only improved communications among government agencies and partners but also involved increased disclosure to the public. What did declassification and public disclosure of the intelligence budget — one of the Commission’s 41 recommendations — have to do with preventing terrorism?  Part of the answer is that it was a down payment on a much more comprehensive information disclosure policy that envisioned an engaged, empowered citizenry who are the country’s first line of defense.  Such a policy has still not been realized, and the vision itself seems to have been abandoned or neglected even by some leading advocates of information sharing.

In its latest report on the subject (pdf), the influential Markle Foundation Task Force on Information Sharing is silent on the question of improved public access to safety and security-related information.  “The President and Congress must ensure that all government information relevant to national security is discoverable and accessible to authorized users while audited to ensure accountability.”  In this conception, government officials are authorized users, ordinary citizens are not.  Such an approach is likely to make both information sharing and secrecy reform even harder to achieve.

The severe limitations of the current information sharing model will become even more important given the determination by Mr. Brennan that it will now extend “beyond terrorism-related issues, to the sharing of information more broadly to enhance the national security of the United States and the safety of the American people.”

In today’s degraded political climate, one need not be especially cynical to doubt the existence of a widespread public desire for access to safety and security information.  One may further question the capacity of the public to utilize some such information in a meaningful way.  The problem, though, is that treating members of the public as passive, possibly dimwitted spectators of government policy tends to reinforce just that sort of passivity.

One of the ongoing challenges and priorities facing information sharing, said Amb. Thomas E. McNamara (pdf) at a July 30 congressional hearing, is to “reduce improper classification to enhance information sharing.”  We must “eliminate ‘need to know’ requirements and protocols, and eliminate overuse of originator controls that can impede the ability to discover and share information.”

Reducing classification and eliminating “need to know” restrictions sound like a rather bold agenda, until one realizes once again that they apply only within the circle of authorized users, not elsewhere.  What makes this approach particularly vexatious is that it threatens to derail the current momentum for classification reform into a purely internal governmental affair. Classification barriers within the government are to be lowered, it seems, on the condition that such barriers to public disclosure remain intact.

Even within the government, however, information sharing still remains quite imperfect.  The landmark Intelligence Community Directive 501 (pdf) directed in January 2009 that “all intelligence and intelligence-related information… [shall be] discoverable by automated means by ‘authorized IC personnel’….” Despite this categorical instruction regarding “all” intelligence information, newly disclosed guidance (ICPG 501.1) from May 2009 permitted “exemptions from discovery” for certain information. Further guidance (ICPG 501.2) established a rather cumbersome “resolution process” for handling information sharing disputes, which evidently persist.

It must be admitted that there are numerous particular exceptions to this generally grim picture.  To cite one new example, the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has just published an updated and expanded edition of “Law Enforcement Intelligence: A Guide for State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies” (pdf), which provides a helpful introduction to the field.

In February, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 553) that would seek to discourage overclassification of homeland security information by requiring preparation of unclassified versions of certain DHS intelligence products that would in principle be available to the public pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.  The bill awaits action in the Senate.

Nothing less than a 90% reduction in the volume of classification activity government-wide would be needed to restore national security classification to its proper proportions, argued Bill Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, in his blog.