Central View: Spilling secrets — Heroes or traitors?
July 11, 2013
Is Edward Snowden, the person who spilled the secrets of the National Security Agency (NSA), a traitor or a hero? Of course, that is for the reader to decide; however, after reading some inside information about the hazards of handling highly-classified documents, it might be possible to make a more informed decision about Edward Snowden.
But first, some thoughts about secrecy. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Even though secrets are hard to keep, as far back as 500 B.C., the Chinese general Sun Tsu was teaching that secrecy was an essential element in virtually all of his Nine Principles of War which, to this day, can be found quoted in the U.S. Army field manual on military operations: FM 3-0. Take, for example, “Surprise,” which is the 4th Principle: “Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared.” (That certainly requires secrecy.)
The U.S. has strict rules for the handling of classified materials. So strict that even the inadvertent and innocent mishandling of classified materials has ended many a military or government career. Here are some things the general reader might not know: A classified document gets its overall classification from the paragraph or paragraphs that contain the most sensitive information.
For example, each paragraph in a Top Secret document begins with a letter that designates the classification of each paragraph. If a particular paragraph is Top Secret, it will begin with (TS). Quite often, a Top Secret document will have only a couple of paragraphs that warrant Top Secret protection, making it relatively quick and easy to read a Top Secret document.
Let’s assume you are a staff officer who needs to read a certain Top Secret document, but you want to avoid the hassle and possible negative consequences of taking physical possession of the document itself. Simply go to the heavily-secured “cage” where highly classified documents are kept and ask the Top Secret Control Officer (TSCO) to show you the document. While you must sign a register showing that you have had access to the Top Secret information, there is no real need to sign out the document and take it back to your office. Simply read the important paragraphs and hand the document back to the TSCO.
Putting a classified document in a desk drawer is a hazard to be avoided as well. Sometimes, desk drawers get slammed shut which can cause a classified document on top of the other documents in the desk drawer to shoot out the back side of the drawer and then fall down inside the desk. Sometimes, never found. No compromise of information. But likely, another career shot to heck.
The paperclip is another hazard. A paperclip applied to an unclassified document might hook itself to a highly-classified document that is lying under the unclassified document. When the unclassified document is shredded or burned, the highly-classified document is destroyed as well and, sometimes along with it, another career.
Hundreds of thousands of totally patriotic and dedicated military and government bread winners put their careers at risk every day as they handle highly-classified documents. What do you suppose they think about someone who reveals national security information on purpose?
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.