Nuclear Weapons

U.S. is “Incapable of Keeping a Secret,” Rumsfeld Concluded in 2005

07.15.11 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In one of his trademark “snowflake” memoranda from 2005 that was made public this week, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated flatly that the government secrecy system was a failure.

“The United States Government is incapable of keeping a secret,” he wrote (pdf) on November 2, 2005.  “If one accepts that, and I do, that means that the U.S. Government will have to craft policies that reflect that reality.”

Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on this terse statement.  The memorandum was not addressed to anyone in particular, and the profound questions it raises were left hanging.  There was no known written response to the memo and, needless to say, there is no evidence of any subsequent shift to a post-secrecy orientation in government policy.

“Not to sound too cynical,” said a former official who served in the Bush Administration, “but I would add to Rumsfeld’s observation that not only is the U.S. incapable of keeping a secret but it is also incapable of fundamentally reforming the way it keeps secrets.  I know from a practical point of view, even after that snowflake, I found DoD to be one of the most recalcitrant organizations with which to deal,” he added (on a not-for-attribution basis).

But a current official disputed the premise of the Rumsfeld memo.  “We are capable of keeping secrets– the issue is how many and how long,” he said.  “The more we seek to protect and the longer we seek to protect it the less likely we will meet with success.  The classification system can’t be effective if we over-burden the system.”

This official said that the new Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, could still transform the military secrecy system in a meaningful way if he were to treat it as a “mission critical” instrument to be used sparingly and with precision rather than as an inherited bureaucracy that does not have to meet any performance standards at all.

Another current official pondered “What would change if one presumed that the U.S. government cannot keep a secret?  I doubt that many USG officials would say that we should therefore stop trying.  The most likely and positive conclusion might be that we should severely limit the number and kinds of secrets we seek to protect.”

In fact, that seems to be the conclusion that was reached by Secretary Rumsfeld himself in another startling snowflake (pdf) dated August 9, 2005 and addressed to Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I)), Stephen Cambone:

“What do you think about initiating a program of finding ways to reduce the number of things that are classified, and to speed up the process of declassification?”, Secretary Rumsfeld wrote.

Again, this memorandum had no known practical consequences.  Dr. Cambone did not immediately reply to an email inquiry from Secrecy News concerning his response to the Rumsfeld memo.

But it so happens that a focused effort “to reduce the number of things that are classified” is (or is supposed to be) underway right now throughout the executive branch, in the form of a Fundamental Classification Guidance Review (FCGR) that was required by President Obama’s executive order 13526 (section 1.9), which was issued in December 2009.

To date, there is little sign that the Review has made any progress at all in reducing the scope of the national security classification system.  But William A. Cira, the acting director of the Information Security Oversight Office, said that Pentagon classification officials were responding constructively to the Review requirement.

“We know they are moving forward on the FCGR process and they have already mapped out a plan for doing so.  In the near future we will be discussing the DoD FCGR plan in depth with the staff at USD(I), and it is our understanding that they will have much to tell us,” Mr. Cira said.  The FCGR process must be completed by all agencies that classify information no later than June 2012.

The two Rumsfeld snowflakes on classification policy were among more than 500 previously undisclosed memos that were posted on Secretary Rumsfeld’s website on July 12.

It is not known exactly what might have prompted Rumsfeld to issue these statements.  Then as now, leaks were in the air.  “The issue of leaks has been front and center in the news, in case some of you hadn’t noticed,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Pete Hoekstra told the Heritage Foundation on July 25, 2005.

Aside from their specific content, the Rumsfeld snowflakes have a couple of other noteworthy features.  First, they were marked FOUO, or “for official use only.”  In other words, they were produced for internal consumption, not to inspire a public conversation on secrecy policy.

Second, each snowflake is stamped “certified as unclassified [in accordance with]” the executive order on classification.  But there is no requirement in the executive order to “certify” records as unclassified.  Whoever did so was wasting his time, while diverting scarce resources from declassification and other legitimate information security programs.

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