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Classification of information: National Security or Paranoia ?

Wanna hear a secret? The United States and Canada are probabaly going to remain friends. And the conservative and liberal party leaders in England? They do not like each other.

world Updated: Dec 09, 2010 11:16 IST

Want to hear a secret? The United States and Canada are probabaly going to remain friends. And the conservative and liberal party leaders in England? They do not like each other. But keep that under wraps. The U.S. government doesn't want that sort of sensitive information getting out for a decade or so. While the recent leak of government documents onto the website WikiLeaks has revealed government secrets on such topics as Iran, North Korea and Yemen, the disclosure also unmasked another closely guarded fact: much of what the government says is classified is not much of a secret at all.

Sometimes, classified documents contained little more than summaries of press reports. Political banter was treated as confidential government intelligence. Information that is available to anyone with an internet connection was ordered held under wraps for years.
Days after President Barack Obama's inauguration, the White House received a classified message from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. It was a primer for the president's trip to Canada and it included this sensitive bit of information, marked confidential: "No matter which political party forms the Canadian government during your administration, Canada will remain one of our staunchest and most like-minded allies, our largest trading and energy partner and our most reliable neighbor and friend." The document could not be made public until 2019, for national security reasons.

Such non-secrets have a cost. The more stuff the government classifies, the more money it takes to keep it all concealed. The U.S. government spent at least $9 billion keeping classified information under wraps last year; and that does not include the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and others that keep their spending on classified information, classified.

Most Americans can do little but take it on faith that those secrets actually are worth keeping. Advocates for open governance say that when too much is classified, it makes it harder for the government to cry foul when legitimate secrets are leaked. "The problem is, we've got a system that keeps way too much that is secret, and as a result we can't protect the real secrets nearly as well," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archives, a private research institute at George Washington University. "And the stuff we really need to know is buried under a mass of trivia."

State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley would not discuss specific cables such as the one discussing Canada's friendship. But generally, he said, "I haven't seen any strong evidence there's an abuse of the classification system in the cables I've seen." The U.S. classifies documents if they "could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security."

In March, 2009, U.S. officials in England attended the spring political conference of the Liberal Democrats. The event was widely covered in the British media, but the U.S. embassy's summary, a combination of speech excerpts and hallway chatter, was labeled classified. Among the revelations: Liberal Democratic leader, Nick Clegg and Conservative, David Cameron "don't get along." Besides being politically obvious, this tidbit was available at any newsstand in England.The British press has reported that Clegg dubbed Cameron, "the con man of British politics." For his part, Cameron dismissed Clegg as a "joke" and privately called him "Calamity Clegg."

Information sometimes is classified to protect a source, even when that source has said all the same things publicly. In September, 2009, British Treasury Chief, Alistair Darling warned the U.S. Embassy in London of political backlash if banks handed out huge bonuses. On the economy, Darling "remained cautious, but expected a return to growth by the end of the year," a diplomatic message said. Weeks earlier, Darling had told the Guardian newspaper the same thing. He was cautiously optimistic about the economy, he said, and expected growth "round the turn of the year." And as one of the government's leading critics of bank bonuses, Darling's opposition to them was hardly a state secret.

By comparison, this would be like the British embassy in Washington sending a classified note to London this week saying Republican Rep. John Boehner wanted tax cuts or Obama wanted to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Sometimes, U.S. diplomats conducted no interviews and the classified messages appeared to be simply rehashed media reports. In October, 2009, the U.S. embassy in Moscow sent Washington a message titled, "Is Stalin's Ghost a Threat to Academic Freedom?" It described government efforts to recast Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's place in history. The details in the cable had been widely covered in the media, including an Agence France-Presse story that ran just days earlier under the headline "Russian historians fear crackdown on sensitive research." Even the term "Stalin's ghost" was used in news stories leading up to diplomatic cable, which was marked classified until 2019.

In a few instances, diplomats classified information lifted directly from the news. After the failed assassination of Saudi Arabia's Assistant Interior Minister, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh sent a message to Washington that included these classified sentences:
"According to today's edition of `Okaz,' the suspect managed to make his way from Yemen into Saudi Arabia some weeks ago, and finally rented a furnished apartment in Jeddah," the cable said. "We anticipate that such reports will inevitably spur some introspection into how well the security services are patrolling the Asir region."

A summary of a political speech in the U.K.? Classified. The consensus from leading sociologists that Russia missed an opportunity to invest in the middle class? Classified. A diplomatic report saying Brazil is a strong democracy and a U.S. ally on foreign policy? Classified. Sometimes, a document is classified even if it has no classified information in it. In January,2010 the State Department asked the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey for information on a reported plot to assassinate Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Every paragraph was marked unclassified. The document was classified.

First Published: Dec 09, 2010 11:12 IST