The recent revelations in the press about disclosure of classified material made me review once again the justification for the government hiding information from the public. I hear repeatedly the argument that the government of a free people has no business withholding information from citizens. And that people have a right to know what the government is up to.
The problem is not that citizens might know sensitive information; it’s that enemies of the country might discover what we know and what we do. As I have mentioned before in this blog, during my years of working for the federal government when I was cleared for top secret codeword plus data, I learned of many events never disclosed to the public in which major disasters were averted by U.S. government intervention that prevented action by a foreign enemy. And our continued intelligence success often required that the target of our efforts remain unaware that we were surveilling him. The success of the discipline I worked in, signals intelligence (the intercept and exploitation of another nation’s radio communications), for example, required that the target remain ignorant of our efforts. If the object of our intercept learned that we were successful in exploiting his communications, it was easy for him to change them and foil us.
So the need for classification is both real and urgent. Granted, the American public will never know of the spectacular victories our government has achieved through the exploitation of intelligence data. But our safety and well-being will be protected.
In the same way, we will never know what damage the recent security violati0ns have brought about. Rest assured that the harm was major. And it will take many years to recover.