Town of Secrets

How classified information became Washington’s currency of choice.

Hey, Sean Penn, where is your righteous indignation now? Where is your star-studded Hollywood blockbuster about how cynical Washington insiders are playing fast and loose with America's national security laws to advance their political interests?

You nailed George W. Bush and company with Fair Game, and there is little doubt the Bush team deserved it for exposing CIA officer Valerie Plame and by extension the undercover contacts she had made worldwide. But somehow I doubt you are working on the sequel about how Barack Obama's administration has presided over a period of potentially far more damaging leaks that just happen to promote the president's image as being a tough guy with his hand on the trigger.

Oh sure, the investigation into (at least some) of the leaks has just begun and in all likelihood will be hijacked by Republicans for political gain in the months leading up to the presidential election this November. And we can't be sure that the leaks were orchestrated or approved high up, or even who did what -- though there is a bit of a guessing game going on in Washington on the latter. But this we know: From the moment we first heard too many details of the Osama bin Laden mission to the damaging over-reporting of the Stuxnet cyberattacks to the reports of the president poring over kill lists and supervising closed meetings of top advisors at which secret missions were approved, and, on to recent leaks about the CIA covert work supporting the Syrian opposition, we have been fed a steady stream of information we should never have had.

It is possible that this all slipped out due to the inattentiveness of our secret keepers or an administration-wide outbreak of some new strain of Tourette's Syndrome that forces senior officials to uncontrollably blurt out closely guarded secrets. Perhaps no senior official was involved. But wait -- who are we kidding? Of course senior officials were involved. Some of the meetings being reported on and some of the plans were really only known to a handful of top people.

Which brings me back to Sean Penn and friends. If a Republican were manning the Oval Office right now, is there any doubt that they would be harkening back to the orchestrated outing of Plame and calling it part of an insidious pattern? But as it is -- despite expressions of concern about recent leaks from both Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and mainstream Republicans like Sen. John McCain and absolutely unconvincing expressions of "shock, shock" from President Obama, most of those who were outraged the last time around have kept quiet about the current debate. Or, alternatively, as in Bill Keller's New York Times op-ed "The Leak Police," they have focused on how vital such leaks and their reporting are to the national interest.

The truth is, I agree completely with the thrust of most of those op-eds including Keller's. As Americans, we benefit from knowing much of what has been reported. And the reporters who have reported these facts are not only just doing their jobs -- they're doing it well. (As Feinstein said regarding David Sanger's excellent recent book covering many of the Obama team's secret operations, Confront and Conceal, "You learn more from the book than I did as chairman of the intelligence committee.")

But these leaks are in fact, part of a cynical pattern of abuse of U.S. national security laws that has taken place in this administration and the ones that immediately preceded it -- abuse that is endemic to the conduct of regular national security business in Washington and has been for decades. (Keller quotes former Times editor Max Frankel way back in 1971 as saying "Presidents make ‘secret' decisions only to reveal them for the purposes of frightening an adversary nation, wooing a friendly electorate, protecting their reputations." Frankel, who was defending the Times's publication of the Pentagon Papers, then goes on to enumerate how playing the leak game is part of doing business in D.C. for the military and officials of every rank.)

Just as poppet beads are the currency used to conduct business at Club Med, leaks are the currency long favored by senior officials and reporters here in our nation's capital. Bits and pieces of unreported news are fed to journalists in exchange for good relations. Perversely in Washington, secrets become used as hush money -- give a secret, keep a secret, or gain a leg up on someone. That's not so bad when the whispered exchanges are about who's in line for some top job or who had a spat with whom. The problem comes when the leaks create threats to the U.S. national interest or they violate national security laws.

I draw a distinction between real threats and the law because one problem we face is that our culture of secrecy in Washington has led to the over-classification of information. Too many documents get stamped "Confidential" or "Secret" or "Top Secret" that shouldn't be. Why? In part, it's because when you stamp a document that way it, you (and your readers) become more "important" -- or at least feel that way. It also happens, in part, because officials are cautious and worry about what might cause embarrassment, so they over-compensate by over-classifying.

But all this over-classification of documents carries many direct and indirect costs. It forces us to give too many people security clearances. It forces us to create costly and vast secure systems. And most importantly, it limits the transparency that is essential to a functioning democracy. (On top of leaks and excess secrecy, a related trend in this administration has been a focus on conducting foreign policy via secret missions that carry much less political risk because few can see them -- unless the highlight reel happens to, selectively, make its way into the press.)

For all the mystery and intrigue associated with Washington's secret world, the solutions for this problem are straightforward. First, we need to have fewer secrets. Set higher and clearer standards for classification. Enable fewer people to classify documents. Unclassify as many documents as possible.

Next, we need to have many fewer people with clearances. According to a 2011 report mandated by Congress, an astonishing 4.2 million people have security clearances a number which, per the Washington Post, "nearly rivals the population of metropolitan Washington." If the standard were actually protecting secrets that were essential to U.S. national security, the number could be a tiny percentage of that. That's especially true in this age of vast resources of open-source information.

Gen. Tony Zinni, former Centcom commander, once told me that he had looked at the classified information he received and concluded that 80 percent of it was available from open sources, and 80 percent of what remained could be found from open sources if you knew what you were looking for. In other words, only about 4 percent was unique information.

Finally, if the goal is real secrecy, then we need a permanent special prosecutor empowered to go after any hint of a leak at its own discretion. This needs to be permanent so that no administration can protect itself -- nor any Congress. (It has long been known in the executive branch that the best way to leak something is to send it in classified form up to the Hill, which is leakier than the Titanic.) If we stop classifying everything from the blandest State Department cable traffic to reports about Kim Jong Il's video collection (see WikiLeaks for proof that much of what's classified would be protected simply because it's too boring to read and remember) and if there were a sense that real prosecutions would follow leaks and that they could not be manipulated politically, then not only would we have fewer damaging and dangerous leaks, we'd save money, have greater transparency and, with some luck, enable Sean Penn to go back to making better movies about more interesting subjects.

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David Rothkopf

Too Much Baggage

Mitt Romney needs to fire his foreign-policy team. Yesterday.

For more photos of Romney's travels abroad, click here.

Welcome home, Mitt. It's time to unpack the baggage from your trip. Unfortunately for you, you came home with more than you left with. And the memories you made are not ones you'll be sharing with your friends at the club anytime soon.

While the goof you made in England was low-grade -- a classic kerfuffle over a candidate accidentally being honest in public -- it raised questions about your judgment, or the advice you were getting, or both. Had your trip to Israel gone well, it would quickly have settled into the soufflé of stories that pass for news during the summer silly season.

But the Israel trip was marked by an even bigger error. This one was not a classic "gaffe," the Washington word for a gotcha moment that political hacks try to spin to their advantage almost as hard as regular humans try to ignore it. Rather, it was something deeper, a true foreign-policy blunder that revealed both a deep misunderstanding of a critical issue and a willingness to sacrifice U.S. interests in exchange for political cash.

The statement, a suggestion that Israel had thrived while Palestinians struggled because of the innate superiority of the Israelis, was also something more. It was racist. There are two possibilities here. One is that Romney was given bad advice about what to say by his staff. The other is that he either ignored the advice he got or misunderstood it and was personally responsible for saying the stupid thing he said. (The likelihood of this latter possibility goes up, by the way, when it is noted that the language he used is similar to elements of his memoir in which he muses about the reason nations decline. In other words, he may actually believe the awful, damaging statement he made.)

Not only was the statement manifestly untrue; it showed a really deep misunderstanding of the plight of the Palestinians and, worse, a failure to grasp that the key to peace in that part of the world will be helping the Palestinians tap their extraordinary human resources and flourish economically on their own. The statement immediately produced a backlash from Palestinians, with whom the United States and Israel must work to achieve a lasting settlement. And that it was all done at a fundraiser to pander to big donors -- including Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who once called the Palestinians an "invented people" and likened AIPAC's support for peace talks to "committing suicide" -- somehow managed to cheapen what was pretty dumb to begin with.

If Romney was following the advice of his staff when he made either his London gaffe or his Israel blunder, he should fire them. If they didn't advise him to say these things, but failed to give him useful advice about what not to say, he should fire them. And even if they did give him smart things to say and useful guidance about what not to say, he should fire them -- because he can't quit and he'd better find a team he actually trusts enough to avoid falling victim to his own bad judgment again.

Of course, the trip did not end in Israel, and to add injury to his prior insults, his spokesperson threw a few choice expletives in the direction of Romney's press corps in Poland. Although this too might have been warranted, and while Rick Gorka is certainly not the first press aide to feel campaign journalists ought to kiss his ass or "shove it," he ought to have kept it to himself. He too should be fired.

Firing the foreign-policy team that advised Romney on this trip is not an extreme recommendation. That team is famously riven by divides -- between neocons and moderates, between Boston and Washington, between political advisors and policy wonks. They're the ones who had him frame U.S.-Russia relations in terms suitable for the height of the Cold War. In fact, on a regular basis, they have been promoting the kind of Tarzan America policies that are a throwback to an era for which no one except defense contractors has any nostalgia.

What's more, the repeated foreign-policy misstatements and the missteps on this trip undermine one of Romney's main selling points. Supposedly, his experience as a chief executive and manager has helped prepare him to run a government better than the "community organizer" commander in chief he regularly attacks. But to date -- between these problems and the mind-boggling mismanagement of his financial disclosure -- there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is a well-run campaign. Quite the contrary: It's a mess, regularly producing bad headlines and failing to take advantage of the abysmal state of the economy -- a campaign gift that should, on its own, give him a solid lead in the polls right now.

If Romney recognizes the need to quickly get rid of the baggage he picked up on this trip -- and the people who are responsible for the unpleasant memories of his summer vacation -- then he may someday look back on this whole experience as having had some positive consequences. If he does not, he is likely to face further problems in the future.

Campaigns, like presidents, face 3 a.m. phone calls, too. In the weeks ahead, a major overseas development or more than one could demand a quick, thoughtful reaction that will be seen as a measure of Romney's ability to lead. Remember: It was John McCain's stumble after the Lehman crisis, as much as any of his other errors, that irreversibly eroded any edge he may have had. Whether the call comes on Europe's economy, the collapse of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria (or some new atrocity it may commit), a terrorist attack, a problem in the South China Sea, a North Korean provocation, or an incident along the U.S. border with Mexico, the world is volatile enough today that an unprepared campaign is vulnerable to making a fatal error.

This not-so-excellent adventure proved it: Romney's foreign-policy team is not ready for prime time. They're floundering, and with less than 100 days to go in the campaign, the Republican candidate has only a few short weeks to make the changes needed to avoid another series of screw-ups that could cost him the presidency or, worse, set him, us, and the world up for a sequence of much more serious problems were he actually to be elected.

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