Telling Secrets

WikiLeaks isn't the problem. It's reams of unnecessarily classified documents that remain hidden from the public eye by overzealous intelligence officials. And the Obama administration's fixes don't go far enough.

Washington is bracing for another Wikileaks document dump later this week and the Pentagon is urging reporters not to publish the secret files from the Iraq war -- once again, the conversation has turned to whether or not there's a danger in releasing this information. But in a city full of fractious disagreements, there is one issue that nearly everyone in Washington agrees on: The overclassification of information in the name of national security has run amok. We need "effective measures to address the problem of overclassification," President Barack Obama stated last year. "We do overclassify," affirmed Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. at his confirmation hearing this summer. "We can be a lot more liberal, I think, about declassifying, and we should be," he added.

Excessive government secrecy is an evergreen concern -- as far back as 1956, a Defense Department study complained that overclassification had "reached serious proportions." This problem has serious ramifications throughout the vast national security bureaucracy. It impedes the flow of information across agency boundaries, obstructs the feedback mechanisms that keep policies and programs on track, conceals error and incompetence, undermines oversight and accountability, and fosters public ignorance on vital matters of national security and foreign policy.

Given the severity of this problem and the seemingly bipartisan will to devise a solution, it seems fitting that Congress passed -- and the president signed into law on Oct. 7 -- a set of remedial measures called the Reducing Over-Classification Act.

The new law mandates, among other things, that classifiers receive formal training in the proper use of classification, enlists agency inspectors general in overseeing the classification system, encourages the release of unclassified versions of certain intelligence, and creates a new position at the Department of Homeland Security to assist state and local officials in accessing information.

Facing a problem so deeply entrenched in the U.S. government, will the new act make any tangible difference? Forget eliminating the problem completely -- will it even "reduce" overclassification, as its title modestly proclaims?

It almost certainly will. There is a real need for training in the proper exercise of classification authority, as the law requires, because tens of thousands of people currently implement classification procedures with minimal supervision. And by tasking inspectors general to participate in oversight of the classification system, it will multiply the number of sharp eyes on what material is classified several times over. In fact, each provision in the act is useful, and none seems likely to do any harm. Its passage is a notable achievement in a policy field that is littered with failed proposals.

Nevertheless, the new law also has profound shortcomings that illustrate the depth and complexity of this problem.

The law's fundamental flaw lies in the fact that it does not define "overclassification." Because it does not provide any criteria for identifying the problem, it cannot meaningfully inform the training or oversight that is supposed to reduce it. Providing such a definition is intrinsically difficult because it involves practical judgments about the requirements of national security and also raises politically delicate questions about legislating the boundaries of executive authority. But without clear definitions, the ensuing policy is unavoidably vague, if not altogether toothless.

In practice, the term "overclassification" is used in two distinct ways. Of course, it refers to information that should be unclassified and publicly available, but is kept secret. But the term is also used more narrowly to refer to information that is classified at too high a level, thereby impeding sharing within the U.S. government. At a lower classification, it would still be classified -- and withheld from public disclosure -- but it would no longer be "overclassified."

The act blurs this distinction, but its provisions will do more to promote information sharing among authorized persons than force the public disclosure of wrongly classified information. This law isn't going to trigger a new wave of declassification.

To the contrary, the act actually tends to reinforce the status quo in significant ways. In particular, it embraces the president's executive order on classified national security information as the reigning standard of proper classification. In effect, the classification system is whatever the president says it is. So under the act, classifiers will be trained in the correct application of the president's policy, and oversight will consist of verifying that the executive order was implemented correctly.

What this means is that the law does not contemplate the possibility that the president's classification policy could be wrong! If the executive order is being faithfully implemented, then as far as the act is concerned, all must be well by definition.

But this leaves the roots of overclassification untouched. Agency officials often make absurd, erroneous, or self-serving classification judgments -- and not just because they lack training or supervision. For example, ever since 2007, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has publicly disclosed the total budget for the National Intelligence Program. But last year, when I asked for the size of the 2006 budget, ODNI's staff asserted that the 2006 figure is still classified and would damage national security if disclosed. This is self-evidently ridiculous and reflects the widespread inability of classifiers to re-evaluate past practices in the light of new circumstances.

The new act provides no mechanism for correcting overclassification of this kind. For that, a different approach will be needed.

As it happens, the Obama administration has recently initiated one such approach to correcting classification errors. The president's executive order, which took effect last June, established a procedure called the "fundamental classification guidance review," and it requires every agency to start reviewing all its current classification guidelines in order "to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified." Not only that, but a directive states that the review is supposed to involve "the broadest possible range of perspectives" to validate classification policies and eliminate obsolete classification requirements.

The success of this review process, to be completed by mid-2012, is not guaranteed. It might be implemented perfunctorily, halfheartedly, or perhaps not at all -- despite the presidential order. And if, for example, items such as the 2006 intelligence budget total remain classified at that point, we will know it was a failure. But the review represents a novel attempt to systematically challenge and adjust the inherited classification judgments that are the legacy of a now distant past.

Beyond mere adjustments and corrections to the status quo, Obama has also raised the possibility of designing "a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system." But this notion has not yet been given any substance.

To point out the limitations of the new act is not to devalue it. Others, such as the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, who proposed to legislate a statutory foundation for classification, have aimed higher and ended up achieving less. But the incremental progress represented by this law is a reminder that, when it comes to addressing the problem of overclassification, much remains to be done.

Secrecy in matters of national security is easily mistaken for security itself. But they are not the same thing, and sometimes they are opposites. This is particularly true when secrecy corrupts the policy process, diverts resources into bottomless black holes, and leads the country where it would never have voluntarily chosen to go. Reducing secrecy to a minimum is simply good democratic hygiene.

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It's the Occupation, Stupid

Extensive research into the causes of suicide terrorism proves Islam isn't to blame -- the root of the problem is foreign military occupations.

Although no one wants to talk about it, 9/11 is still hurting America. That terrible day inflicted a wound of public fear that easily reopens with the smallest provocation, and it continues to bleed the United States of money, lives, and goodwill around the world. Indeed, America's response to its fear has, in turn, made Americans less safe and has inspired more threats and attacks.

In the decade since 9/11, the United States has conquered and occupied two large Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), compelled a huge Muslim army to root out a terrorist sanctuary (Pakistan), deployed thousands of Special Forces troops to numerous Muslim countries (Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, etc.), imprisoned hundreds of Muslims without recourse, and waged a massive war of ideas involving Muslim clerics to denounce violence and new institutions to bring Western norms to Muslim countries. Yet Americans still seem strangely mystified as to why some Muslims might be angry about this situation.

In a narrow sense, America is safer today than on 9/11. There has not been another attack on the same scale. U.S. defenses regarding immigration controls, airport security, and the disruption of potentially devastating domestic plots have all improved.

But in a broader sense, America has become perilously unsafe. Each month, there are more suicide terrorists trying to kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Muslim countries than in all the years before 2001 combined. From 1980 to 2003, there were 343 suicide attacks around the world, and at most 10 percent were anti-American inspired. Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000, over 91 percent against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

Yes, these attacks are overseas and mostly focused on military and diplomatic targets. So too, however, were the anti-American suicide attacks before 2001. It is important to remember that the 1995 and 1996 bombings of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen were the crucial dots that showed the threat was rising prior to 9/11. Today, such dots are occurring by the dozens every month. So why is nobody connecting them?

U.S. military policies have not stopped the rising wave of extremism in the Muslim world. The reason has not been lack of effort, or lack of bipartisan support for aggressive military policies, or lack of funding, or lack of genuine patriotism.

No. Something else is creating the mismatch between America's effort and the results.

For nearly a decade, Americans have been waging a long war against terrorism without much serious public debate about what is truly motivating terrorists to kill them. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this was perfectly explicable -- the need to destroy al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan was too urgent to await sober analyses of root causes.

But, the absence of public debate did not stop the great need to know or, perhaps better to say, to "understand" the events of that terrible day. In the years before 9/11, few Americans gave much thought to what drives terrorism -- a subject long relegated to the fringes of the media, government, and universities. And few were willing to wait for new studies, the collection of facts, and the dispassionate assessment of alternative causes. Terrorism produces fear and anger, and these emotions are not patient.

A simple narrative was readily available, and a powerful conventional wisdom began to exert its grip. Because the 9/11 hijackers were all Muslims, it was easy to presume that Islamic fundamentalism was the central motivating force driving the 19 hijackers to kill themselves in order to kill Americans. Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, surveys of American attitudes show that this presumption was fast congealing into a hard reality in the public mind. Americans immediately wondered, "Why do they hate us?" and almost as immediately came to the conclusion that it was because of "who we are, not what we do." As President George W. Bush said in his first address to Congress after the 9/11 attacks: "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Thus was unleashed the "war on terror."

The narrative of Islamic fundamentalism did more than explain why America was attacked and encourage war against Iraq. It also pointed toward a simple, grand solution. If Islamic fundamentalism was driving the threat and if its roots grew from the culture of the Arab world, then America had a clear mission: To transform Arab societies -- with Western political institutions and social norms as the ultimate antidote to the virus of Islamic extremism.

This narrative had a powerful effect on support for the invasion of Iraq. Opinion polls show that for years before the invasion, more than 90 percent of the U.S. public believed that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But this belief alone was not enough to push significant numbers to support war.

What really changed after 9/11 was the fear that anti-American Muslims desperately wanted to kill Americans and so any risk that such extremists would get weapons of mass destruction suddenly seemed too great. Although few Americans feared Islam before 9/11, by the spring of 2003, a near majority -- 49 percent -- strongly perceived that half or more of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims were deeply anti-American, and a similar fraction also believed that Islam itself promoted violence. No wonder there was little demand by congressional committees or the public at large for a detailed review of intelligence on Iraq's WMD prior to the invasion.

The goal of transforming Arab societies into true Western democracies had powerful effects on U.S. commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Constitutions had to be written; elections held; national armies built; entire economies restructured. Traditional barriers against women had to be torn down. Most important, all these changes also required domestic security, which meant maintaining approximately 150,000 U.S. and coalition ground troops in Iraq for many years and increasing the number of U.S. and Western troops in Afghanistan each year from 2003 on.

Put differently, adopting the goal of transforming Muslim countries is what created the long-term military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, the United States would almost surely have sought to create a stable order after toppling the regimes in these countries in any case. However, in both, America's plans quickly went far beyond merely changing leaders or ruling parties; only by creating Western-style democracies in the Muslim world could Americans defeat terrorism once and for all.

There's just one problem: We now know that this narrative is not true.

New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance. Although this pattern began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, a wealth of new data presents a powerful picture.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago's Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day. As the United States has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, which have a combined population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically -- from about 300 from 1980 to 2003, to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009. Further, over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops, which is why 90 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan are Afghans.

Israelis have their own narrative about terrorism, which holds that Arab fanatics seek to destroy the Jewish state because of what it is, not what it does. But since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack. Similarly, since Israel withdrew from Gaza and large parts of the West Bank, Palestinian suicide attacks are down over 90 percent.

Some have disputed the causal link between foreign occupation and suicide terrorism, pointing out that some occupations by foreign powers have not resulted in suicide bombings -- for example, critics often cite post-World War II Japan and Germany. Our research provides sufficient evidence to address these criticisms by outlining the two factors that determine the likelihood of suicide terrorism being employed against an occupying force.

The first factor is social distance between the occupier and occupied. The wider the social distance, the more the occupied community may fear losing its way of life. Although other differences may matter, research shows that resistance to occupations is especially likely to escalate to suicide terrorism when there is a difference between the predominant religion of the occupier and the predominant religion of the occupied.

Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attacks. Indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).

Rather, religious difference matters because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community -- this is why Osama bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as "crusaders" motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims, steal their resources, and change the local population's way of life.

The second factor is prior rebellion. Suicide terrorism is typically a strategy of last resort, often used by weak actors when other, non-suicidal methods of resistance to occupation fail. This is why we see suicide attack campaigns so often evolve from ordinary terrorist or guerrilla campaigns, as in the cases of Israel and Palestine, the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey, or the LTTE in Sri Lanka.

One of the most important findings from our research is that empowering local groups can reduce suicide terrorism. In Iraq, the surge's success was not the result of increased U.S. military control of Anbar province, but the empowerment of Sunni tribes, commonly called the Anbar Awakening, which enabled Iraqis to provide for their own security. On the other hand, taking power away from local groups can escalate suicide terrorism. In Afghanistan, U.S. and Western forces began to exert more control over the country's Pashtun regions starting in early 2006, and suicide attacks dramatically escalated from this point on.

The research suggests that U.S. interests would be better served through a policy of offshore balancing. Some scholars have taken issue with this approach, arguing that keeping boots on the ground in South Asia is essential for U.S. national security. Proponents of this strategy fail to realize how U.S. ground forces often inadvertently produce more anti-American terrorists than they kill. In 2000, before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world, and only one (against the USS Cole) was directed against Americans. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred, and over 270 were anti-American. We simply must face the reality that, no matter how well-intentioned, the current war on terror is not serving U.S. interests.

The United States has been great in large part because it respects understanding and discussion of important ideas and concepts, and because it is free to change course. Intelligent decisions require putting all the facts before us and considering new approaches. The first step is recognizing that occupations in the Muslim world don't make Americans any safer -- in fact, they are at the heart of the problem.

Eric J. Tilford/U.S. Navy/Getty Images