Federal Confidential

Scooter Libby has revealed that the only difference between Top Secret and something it would be good for the public to know can be one man's whim.

All of the commentary, so far, has been, 'oh, isn't it shocking! The naughtiness of leaking goes right to the top!'

But this would be a good time to take a general look at this business of classified information.

The idea of secret intelligence, at the core, is a simple military paradigm.

Imagine that it's May 1942, five months after Pearl Harbor.

Somewhere in the vast darkness of the Pacific, two fleets are maneuvering. Admiral Yamamoto wants to force the Americans to battle so he can finish off what's left of them. If he can do that, he believes, the Americans will accept a negotiated peace.

Admiral Nimitz has many places to defend. He needs to know where the Japanese will attack next and with how much force.

Fortunately for the Americans, they've broken the Japanese code. But there is a code within the code. The Japanese aren't using real place names, they're using military designations and Yamamoto is heading for "AF," which could be Midway or Oahu or the west coast of the United States. The Americans send a radio signal "in the clear," that Midway is short of water. The Japanese intercept it, as the Americans hope they will, and when they pass the information up the line to the their own headquarters, they use the island's designation, which is indeed AF.

Now Nimitz can commit his fleet. When Yamamoto gets there the Americans are waiting in ambush for him.

The Battle of Midway is considered the decisive battle of the War in the Pacific. It is the end of the Japanese advance and the beginning of the American offensive.

Nimitz needed secret intelligence. He also needed it to be a secret that he had that secret intelligence.

Indeed, it had to be secret that he even had the capability of deciphering Japanese codes or else the Japanese would have changed their codes.

If the Japanese had even known how much money and manpower America was putting into cryptology, that might have alerted them, so that too had to be secret. Even knowledge of the entire intelligence budget might have been a clue, since by estimating how much went here and how much that must cost and so on, might lead them to guess that there was a certain amount left over and then they would meditate on where that might be going and one of their guesses would be into code work and they would have changed their codes in time to prevent Nimitz from learning Yamamoto's intentions.

That, in essence is how secrecy grows, layer by layer.

Since the 2nd World War we have accumulated intelligence services, the amount of classified information has expanded voraciously and the culture of national security has grown like yeast.

It seems on the face of it, to be an irrefutable necessity.

Now let's look at two recent scenarios and see how secrecy serves us today.

When George Bush justified warrantless wiretaps he made reference to two of the 9/11 bombers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi. They had made calls from the US to over seas. Had we been listening then we might have caught them. Thus we must be listening now, so we will catch the next two, the president said, making the case for more secrecy in the name of national security.

Here's their story. All from what is now the public record.

In January, 2000, the two men attended the now famous al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur. There they came under CIA surveillance and were photographed.

By March of 2000, the CIA knew that both al Mihdhar and al Hazmi were in the US with valid US visas.

That information was, of course, very secret and very closely held. So although the CIA was ostensibly looking for them, they failed to inform the FBI, the FAA, state and local police services and airport security of their identity and presence in this country.

They first went to San Diego. They lived with Abdussattar Shaikh, an FBI informant. Al Hazmi got homesick and flew to Yemen, passing in and out of US airports one more time. In April, 2001, al Hazmi got stopped for speeding in Oklahoma. His license was in his real name. The trooper ran it and nothing came back, so he sent al Hazmi on his way.

Both of them purchased their 9/11 airline ticket online, using credit cards and their real names.

Finally, on the day, on September 11th, Nawaf al Hazmi set off two security alarms trying to get on the flight he would help hijack.

Khalid al Mihdhar was picked out by CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening system). But he was sent through anyway. Then, like al Hazmi, he set off the metal detectors. A security officer passed a wand over him. Failing to find whatever it was that set off the alarm, they waved him through. That event is actually on videotape.

A bizarre, counter-intuitive, reversal had happened.

It had only been by insuring that America's secrets stayed secret, that Admiral Nimitz had been able to win the Battle of Midway. Now, it was only by America keeping its secrets secret from itself, that Al Qaeda was able to succeed on 9/11.

Here is another way that America's own national security culture insured the success of Al Qaeda.

On August 6, 2001, there was a presidential briefing with the title: Bin Laden determined to strike in US.

Here are some of the things it said:

"Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and 'bring the fighting to America.'

"After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington ....

"...bin Laden was planning to exploit [an] operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike.

"...Al Qaeda members -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.

"...FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York [the World Trade Center held federal offices]."

That memo was shown secretly, very secretly, ultra-high national security secretly, to the president, who ignored it.

Imagine if, instead, that briefing had been given to the New York Times, CNN and Fox News. Not leaked to them, but given to them publicly. Would al Hazmi been stopped going to or coming from Yemen, or driving through Oklahoma? Would airport security have let the bombers on the planes? Would the FBI have refused to ask for a warrant to open Moussaui's computer? Would the FBI have ignored it's own agents when they wanted to investigate middle eastern men at flying schools?

After 9/11, the president declared a War on Terror. The main event of that war has been the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

That war was mostly sold through speeches on television, but insofar as there was a document to support the allegations that Saddam Hussein had terrible weapons and programs that could produce terrible weapons almost instantly, it was the National Intelligence Estimate report on "Iraq's Continuing Programs of Weapons of Mass Destruction." An NIE is a document produced at the top level by the top people amalgamating all information from all sources, especially all the secret sources.

There were two versions of this NIE. One was Top Secret for the president and key leaders. Then there was a public version.

We might reasonably expect that the Top Secret version had the names of spies inside enemy territory, espionage technology and cryptology, and that those things were removed, for reasons of national security, in the public version.

What was removed from the top secret version was doubt. It was full of caveats and alternate interpretations and warnings of uncertainty. Those were the things that were removed.

The top secret version said, "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [Chemical Biological Weapons] against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington with a stronger case for making war." That was removed. The top secret version expressed doubts that a nuclear weapons program was actually running. It suggested that unmanned drone aircraft were being developed for surveillance only, not to deliver weapons.

Things were also added. Like the assertion that Iraq's biological weapons could somehow be delivered against the US homeland.

In this case secrecy did not merely hinder effective action. In this case, the truth was classified so that the falsehoods and exaggerations could not be challenged.

The world has changed since 1942.

We don't have too little information, we have more information than we know what to do with. There is no lack of surveillance technology, we retrieve more information than we can ever look at.

Secrecy is the enemy of information processing, as we saw in the cases of al Mihdhar and al Hazmi. The 9/11 Report cites many more examples. And they came to the same conclusion.

Furthermore, the nature of problem has changed.

Back in 1942 there was one huge fleet looking for another huge fleet. Now, in 2006, at least at home in America, we're looking for single individuals, who could be anywhere and we are better off having as many people as possible, cops, customs officers, immigration, school crossing guards, and regular civilians, looking out for possible danger.

The intelligence budget is about forty billion dollars.

That number is a guesstimate. It could be a few billion more or less. Nobody knows the actual number. It's a secret.

That bought us the failure to stop 9/11, a war for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the failure to prepare for Iraq's descent into chaos, and no plan for what to do now that Iran is restarting its nuclear programs. It is fair to say, that never before have so many spent so much to get so much wrong.

The culture of 'national security' in which as much as possible is classified has proved itself to be dysfunctional. It does not protect us from our enemies. It protects bureaucrats and politicians. It is the perfect place to hide incompetence and even malfeasance. It is a tool for turf wars and in-fighting and false prestige. Clearly the Senators and Congressman who are supposed to perform intelligence oversight are so thrilled at being part of the top security clearance club that they don't notice how much has gone wrong or understand why.

There are, no doubt, certain tactical things that should remain secret.

Oddly enough, Valerie Plame is a perfect case in point. She was an N.O.C., a person with non-official cover. If an enemy of the United States knows what her cover job was, they know never to trust that company again and they can then find out who she associated with and who she met. Then they can go kill those people.

Aside from those specific tactical cases, it's time to sweep away this business of classifying things. Look at the record of the past five years. If not a single thing had been secret, it's hard to imagine how we could have done much worse.

Samuel Johnson famously said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

"That's classified, it's a matter of National Security," is the first and permanent refuge of incompetence.