Reviews | Don’t Blame the Government for Our Leaders’ Mishandling of Records

Sometimes, however, I have looked at a document marked “TS/SCI” and did not intuitively understand why its contents were classified that way. The information might seem benign at first glance and the implications for US national security were far from clear, at least to me. Does this mean that the information contained in the document was over-classified? Not necessarily.

Imagine we learn that a leader of a hostile nation – and I’m making this example up entirely – likes turnip ice cream. Could this information be classified at the TS/SCI level? Hypothetically, yes, and rightly so. Let me explain.

Perhaps the only person on the planet who knows the preference for turnip ice cream is a member of his team. Perhaps this employee is providing information to our intelligence community about the foreign leader – his ice cream preferences, for example – but also about other things, including things he overhears the leader talking about during the daytime. This high-ranking source is incredibly valuable to US intelligence because of his proximity to the foreign leader. However, not all of his reporting will be crucial, and some of it – including the turnip preference – will seem trivial.

Should we still classify the report of the turnip at the TS/SCI level and strive to protect it? Absolutely. In the event of a leak, it could be easy for the foreign leader to determine the source of the leak and something very serious could happen to that staff member (and to US intelligence interests).

We might also learn the leader’s turnip fixation in other ways because we gather intelligence through many “sources and methods” that are not always obvious from the contents of a document. Indeed, sources and methods were often opaque to me – and rightly so – because even though I needed the underlying information to do my job, I didn’t “need to know” how we got that. information.

Even if we saw the documents found at the homes of Trump, Biden and Pence, we might not understand how the information was compiled or why the sources and methods are unique, sensitive and worthy of protection. We also couldn’t say that their mismanagement was the result of overclassification, because we can’t know.

This is why extraordinarily reckless and irresponsible people like Edward Snowden can do so much harm to the national security interests of the United States. They cannot know – and do not understand – the nature of the information they are disclosing, how it was obtained, who they are endangering with their disclosures, and what the costs to the United States could be, in terms of loss of life. access and loss of information. But I digress.

Do we have an upgrade problem in this country? I suppose so. Information may be classified when it should not be at all; it could be classified at a level higher than that at which it should be classified; or it might be classified too long when declassification might serve other important public interests like transparency and accountability.

But accepting all of this, it’s impossible to know that these kinds of overclassification issues apply to the documents that ended up in the homes of Trump, Biden and Pence. So what? None of this is an excuse for sloppy handling.

Further, if a document is classified, then we must – as users of classified information – accept that classification as is and treat it as the rules require us to treat it. If he’s outclassed, so be it. It would certainly not be prudent for someone to decide for themselves that a document is overclassified and then treat it as if it were not classified at all.

The classified information system is bulky and imperfect. And there is inevitably a problem of overclassification, much of which is probably not harmful. A classification officer gets in less trouble and is less likely to overclassify a document rather than underclassify it. But, at the end of the day, the system is built on trust, diligence, prudence and rules. When people do not act in this way, even unintentionally, we must not make excuses for them.


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