The brouhaha over No Easy Day, the Osama bin Laden raid-and-tell book written by an ex-Navy SEAL, got me thinking about Fawn Hall. Remember her? In 1986, as the U.S. Justice Department's Iran-Contra investigation was gearing up, Hall and her boss, Lt. Col. Oliver North, started sneaking documents out of their classified filing cabinets. They were convinced that if only they destroyed the papers, nobody would ever know about the arms-for-hostages deal. There she was, with all that hair, at the National Security Council shredder, with all those documents. Papers. Shredders. Filing cabinets. It was all so 20th century.
Twenty-six years later, we are facing a 21st-century cyberworld with the same old secrecy regime. At the core of this antiquated system is the idea that secrets can be clearly distinguished and tightly controlled. This may have been viable in World War I, when the Espionage Act was passed. Or in 1951, when President Harry Truman established the modern "confidential/secret/top secret" classification system for people who wrote memos on manual typewriters and "made copies" using carbon paper. But distinguishing and controlling secrets has become much more problematic in the wired world of today. Now, information is easy to get out and hard to take back. A guy with a fake Lady Gaga CD can surreptitiously download hundreds of thousands of classified pages at lightning speed. And keeping the lid on anything -- from the Stuxnet virus in Iran to the Bo Xilai scandal in Beijing -- seems almost unimaginable.
"Mark Owen," the pen name of the ex-SEAL who wrote No Easy Day, faces potential prosecution, seizure of all his profits, and other punishment if Pentagon and CIA officials conclude that his book contains classified information. But what exactly constitutes "classified" information? The question is not some philosophical musing, but a growing policy problem. This summer, a federal judge ruled that several State Department cables posted on WikiLeaks were still technically classified, even though my 12-year-old son, along with millions of other people with Internet access, can click on them. For a while, a State Department official advised graduate students at Columbia University to avoid tweeting or posting on Facebook about WikiLeaks documents if they ever wanted a government job. The Air Force went further, telling personnel that if a family member accessed WikiLeaks from home, Little Johnny could be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. Thankfully, the Air Force soon realized that sending family members to the slammer for clicking on a New York Times link might not be the best idea, and the guidance was rescinded.
This classification messiness is pervasive. When President Barack Obama announced that CIA drone strikes had killed terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last fall, he could not utter the words "CIA" or "drone" because that information was classified. In February 2011, I had to cancel my testimony about the 2009 Fort Hood terrorist attack before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Why? Because the FBI decided at the eleventh hour to classify the name of the foreign terrorist who was communicating with Maj. Nidal Hasan before his alleged rampage -- and I had planned to speak, in a public hearing, in detail about the FBI's failure to pursue that connection. How did I know this foreign terrorist's deep, dark secret identity? From an earlier public hearing by the same Senate committee, which was posted on its web page, and from dozens of mainstream media news reports carried online. Former interrogator Matthew Alexander had to sue the Pentagon to get his book, How to Break a Terrorist, out of classification review. Defense Department officials later insisted on 93 redactions, "nearly all of them ridiculous," Alexander says. "In one case, they blacked out something that was on the Army website. They told me I couldn't say that soldiers were riding on the outside of a helicopter and in what configuration. But the Army flew guys into a NASCAR event on the outside of helicopters and made a YouTube video about it!" Scott Shane of the New York Times calls this new information universe "public but classified." It's Fawn Hall 2.0: Pretend nobody knows and hope nobody notices.