Navy: Excessive Security Can Degrade Effectiveness

08.12.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

There can be such a thing as too much security, the Navy said in a new Instruction on “Operations Security” (pdf) or OPSEC.

OPSEC refers to the control of unclassified indicators that an adversary could use to derive “critical information” (CI) concerning military or intelligence programs.

“Properly applied, OPSEC contributes directly to operational effectiveness by withholding CI from an adversary, thereby forcing an adversary’s decisions to be based on information friendly forces choose to release,” the new Navy Instruction said. “Inadequate OPSEC planning or poor execution degrades operational effectiveness by hindering the achievement of surprise.”

But even if adequately planned and executed, not all OPSEC is necessary or useful;  sometimes it is actually counterproductive.

“Excessive OPSEC countermeasures… can degrade operational effectiveness by interfering with the required activities such as coordination, training and logistical support,” the Instruction said.  See “Operations Security,” OPNAV Instruction 3432.1A, 4 August 2011.

Unfortunately, the Instruction does not and perhaps cannot provide criteria for distinguishing between proper OPSEC and excessive OPSEC.  Instead, it directs commanders and program managers to “evaluate” each operation and draw the appropriate conclusions.  What if the program manager is shortsighted or simply makes a mistake?  What if OPSEC is justified from a security perspective, but also undermines government accountability or public confidence in government integrity?  The Instruction has nothing to say about that.

Because of the subjective element in such decisions, the use of OPSEC (like the application of national security classification controls) is often arbitrary and disputed.

After 30 U.S. servicemen, including 17 Navy SEALs, were killed in Afghanistan on August 6 when their helicopter was shot down, U.S. Special Operations Command asked that the names of the SEALs not be disclosed for security reasons.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rejected that view and the names were released by the Pentagon yesterday.

But in a questionable nod to OPSEC, the name of the unit to which the SEALs were attached — the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) — was not cited by the Pentagon, Bloomberg News reported.  Instead, the DoD press release referred only to “an East Coast-based Naval Special Warfare unit.”  Yet the Navy itself has previously acknowledged and referred by name to the same SEAL unit.  See “Pentagon Releases Identities of SEALs Killed, Not Unit Name” by Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg News, August 11.