< Classification Conundrum

Transcript

Friday, September 02, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

And I'm Bob Garfield. Another week, another episode in compromised government secrets. The latest development, a new cache of WikiLeaks leaks, this one naming names.

We'll get to that in a minute, but first we'll address the general question of the government's classification conundrum. The widening river of leaks has left authorities with a puzzle. Once a secret has been revealed, should the government still try to keep it under wraps? Case in point, a memoir by a former FBI agent named Ali Soufan. As a government employee who held a security clearance, Soufan is required to have his book vetted by a variety of government agencies, anyone whose secrets could be spilled in the book.

And, in fact, Soufan’s employer, the FBI, has cleared the book. But the C.I.A. insisted that certain classified information in the book be redacted, even though those former secrets are now widely known.

The New York Times’ Scott Shane reported on this situation recently. Shane says Soufan has his own explanation for why the C.I.A. wants redact his book.

SCOTT SHANE:

Mr. Soufan believes that because his book is quite critical of the C.I.A. that they are trying to interfere with his right to tell the story of both the back and forth between the C.I.A. and FBI before 9/11 and the question of whether 9/11 perhaps could have been prevented, and secondly, the story of what the C.I.A. called “enhanced interrogation,” what others called torture, the program involving waterboarding and so on, which Soufan is highly critical of.

BOB GARFIELD:

So what does the C.I.A. want to suppress?

SCOTT SHANE:

For example, a sentence from Mr. Soufan’s public Senate testimony which is easily found on the web is being excised by the C.I.A..

It's well known that Mr. Soufan was one of the first interrogators of a guy named Abu Zubaydah. However, they've taken the pronouns “me, I, my” out of Mr. Soufan’s chapter on Abu Zubaydah, claiming that the fact that he interrogated Abu Zubaydah, which, again, has been publicly discussed, remains a secret.

According to Mr. Soufan’s publisher, virtually all of the dozens of redactions that the C.I.A. demanded, he and his co-author were able to find in public sources.

BOB GARFIELD:

Is there any evidence for the conclusion that the C.I.A. is trying to protect its image, as opposed to just kind of classic bureaucratic stupidity?

SCOTT SHANE:

You know, it's very hard. The C.I.A. has said that all they are trying to do is protect classified information. But I was able to review some of the redactions that the C.I.A. had imposed or requested. Some of them are a little bit hard to explain as anything other than an attempt to sort of spin the story.

For example, there were two hijackers, folks might remember, who were living in San Diego for months before 9/11. There has been a long running dispute between FBI and C.I.A. over, you know, whose fault it was that those guys were not detected.

One of the guys, his name was al-Mihdhar, his passport had been copied and sent to the C.I.A. months before the attacks. That fact was in the 9/11 Commission Report. That fact was even in the memoir by George Tenet, the former C.I.A. director. But that fact has been removed from Mr. Soufan’s book, he says, because it makes the C.I.A. look bad.

BOB GARFIELD:

It is kind of an interesting question. If a secret becomes public, is there any point in classifying it as a secret?

SCOTT SHANE:

One thing that's happened recently with the massive disclosures of confidential and classified documents by the WikiLeaks organization, there is now a fairly large category of information that you might describe as public but classified.

And this has led to all kinds of logical problems, where government employees, for example, have been instructed not to read classified diplomatic cables because, technically speaking, they remain classified.

People outside the government, of course, can go to the WikiLeaks site or The New York Times site or any other site and read these classified cables all they want.

Another case in which this came up was when WikiLeaks released a bunch of documents that were assessments of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And the lawyers representing those detainees were told by the Justice Department that they had to continue to treat those documents as classified. They were not allowed to read them on their home computers. They had to go to a special facility to read those documents, even though, again, the documents were on The New York Times site and all over the place.

BOB GARFIELD:

Soufan isn't the first author, nor will he be the last who’s undergone this redaction process. Give me some other examples. Tell me about Anthony Shaffer.

SCOTT SHANE:

Anthony Shaffer was a military officer who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan for about 18 months, and he came home and wrote a book about it. At the time he wrote the book and published the book, he was working for the Army. Under the rules, he submitted his book to the Army. The Army went through it. I think they, you know, removed some things, negotiated some things and said, you're good to go. So the publisher went ahead, sent out advance copies of the book.

Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency, who was Mr. Shaffer’s employer when he was in Afghanistan, they got a hold of the manuscript and basically flipped out, said, there's all kinds of secret stuff in here. This went up the chain of command in the Pentagon, since it was essentially a dispute between the DIA and the Army.

And by the time they decided, yes, these were secrets they could not allow to get out to the public, the publisher already printed the first printing of the book –

[BOB LAUGHS]

- and the Pentagon had to buy the whole printing for 50,000 of the taxpayers' dollars, which had the ironic effect of making the book a bestseller.

Meanwhile, the advance copies that go out to  reviewers and that kind of thing had already been sent out. Those did not have any redactions. Those unredacted copies of this memoir began showing up on eBay. I saw one for 2200 dollars. So people were cashing in, and the secrets were getting out anyway.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, I want to be fair to the intelligence community. Its employees are obliged to sign an agreement that says that should they ever write about their experiences in the employ of the government, the work is subject to review and redaction and, and so forth. So on the face of it, there's no reason for us to have the jitters about excessive government interference. I mean, everybody knew this all going in, right?

SCOTT SHANE:

Well, that's exactly right. That's what the agencies say, that's certainly what the C.I.A. says. But I think the difficulty comes in the fact that what is or is not classified turns out to be an extremely subjective thing.

BOB GARFIELD:

We were talking about the paradox of public classified information. Is the government making any attempt to square the circle between its bureaucratic regulations and the reality of the digital world?

SCOTT SHANE:

It poses a huge dilemma for the government because if the government were to change the rules and say anything that is made public anywhere is no longer classified, that's almost like an invitation for disgruntled employees of the intelligence agencies to download masses of secrets and giving them to WikiLeaks or giving them to someone else or just put him up on the web themselves, which would, you know, wave a magic wand and say, okay now it's all unclassified. So the government doesn't want to create that incentive.

So I think the only thing the government can do is, on the one hand, tighten up its own security. But everyone in the government admits that far too much information is classified, in the first place, and so they may have to begin to distinguish better between what really needs to be protected and what government activities can be described in public without doing anybody any harm.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right, Scott. Thank you.

SCOTT SHANE:

Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD:

Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times.