Monday, August 27, 2007

The C.I.A.’s Open Secrets


WHEN a federal judge dismissed Valerie Plame’s lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency earlier this month, she ruled that the agency was entitled to stop Ms. Plame from publishing the dates of her agency service, even though these dates had been supplied to Congress in an unclassified letter from the C.I.A. and had been published in The Congressional Record. Ms. Plame is just one in a long line of ex-C.I.A. employees to lose similar suits, in which the agency successfully defended the position that information in the public domain was classified.

How can information that’s a five-minute Google search away be classified? It’s simple. Classified information is not the same thing as secret information.

When I worked in the C.I.A.’s directorate of operations (now called the national clandestine service) in the early ’90s, we were told that information was classified when it involved sources or methods. It seemed logical that sources were classified. These were actual agents who would be put in jeopardy if their identities were revealed.

But practically everything the C.I.A. does could be considered a “method,” so the C.I.A. can decide that almost anything relating to its work is classified. You’d probably want this latitude if you were running an intelligence agency. But one of its unfortunate byproducts is that no one, inside or outside the intelligence community, really knows what classified information is.

Because so many things at the C.I.A. are classified, only a small percentage of them are actually secrets. Take agency cover arrangements. I cannot write about them in this article in any detail. If I point out that agency officers are often under cover as XXXXXXXXXX, the C.I.A. will make me take it out before publishing this article. (Before I submitted this article to the C.I.A.’s publications review board, I blacked it out myself to save the reviewers the trouble.)

But are cover arrangements secret? Most of the time, no. Anyone with even a passing interest in espionage knows about the C.I.A.’s use of the specific cover that I redacted above. If you think you know what’s under that black bar, you’re probably right. Certainly every foreign intelligence agency in the world knows about it. It can’t possibly be considered secret. But it is definitely classified.

What about the C.I.A.’s covert action in Afghanistan in the 1980s? Everyone knew about this at the time — in no way, shape or form was it a secret — but it was a covert action, and it was classified. I’m assuming it has since been declassified because I’ve read all about it in books by ex-agency officers that were vetted by the agency. If I’m wrong, there will be some more redactions in this paragraph.

There are actually legitimate reasons to classify so much information that isn’t secret. Even if every foreign government in the world knows about our cover arrangements, countless diplomatic and legal problems would be created if we officially admitted that we use them.

Official acknowledgment of covert actions would be even riskier. It was problematic enough to be arming rebels in Afghanistan who were killing Soviet soldiers. How would the Soviets have responded if we had openly admitted it? How would we respond today if Iran openly admitted training and arming insurgents in Iraq? We may know their denials are false, but they help Iran avoid international sanction, and they help us avoid being forced to respond militarily.

If the government openly admitted various C.I.A. activities, even those that are already well-known, it could also precipitate a great deal of negative news coverage in the foreign press. (It would create yet another public perception problem to admit we classify information because of public perception, which is one of the reasons the fiction is maintained that information is classified because it is secret.)

In the end, then, the classification system serves a perfectly valid purpose. It draws a distinction between the information that the government does, and does not, want to discuss publicly. What ends up classified may seem a bit perverse at times, such as when information in the public domain is ruled off limits for publication. But that’s troubling only if you make the mistake of thinking that classified information is supposed to be secret.

For former C.I.A. employees turned writers, like Ms. Plame, the vagaries of the system have tremendous advantages. Ms. Plame just wrote a book that the C.I.A. could reasonably maintain was entirely classified. After all, you’re not supposed to quit an intelligence agency and then tell everybody about what you did when you were there (certainly a lot of methods would be involved).

But since nobody is really sure what is and isn’t classified, the agency permits publication of a lot of material that could go either way. It seems petulant to sue over a few dates the C.I.A. wanted to take out of a book that it was otherwise allowing to go forward. Ms. Plame was right that the dates weren’t secret. But the agency didn’t want to officially admit them, so they were, in fact, classified.

Joseph Weisberg is the author of the forthcoming novel “An Ordinary Spy.”

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