Aug 29, 2010

Too many secrets

Did you see Sneakers? In this 1992 movie, Robert Redford plays the head of a private security company. He and his team are brainstorming to figure out whether the name of a firm they are investigating, Seatec Astronomy, has some hidden significance.

They spread out some Scrabble tiles and start anagramming the company's name, stopping when they are able to rearrange the letters to spell "too many secrets." I'll leave the significance of the decrypted name to your viewing of the movie, along with a warning that the IMDB site and several others blithely give away way too much of the plot.

I will reveal, however, that the movie centers on whether a device that can automatically decrypt classified government secrets should be allowed to exist. This seems more relevant than ever all these years after the film's release, with the WikiLeaks controversy in the news. Leaving aside the movie's focus on cryptography, the question remains as to what legitmate function secrecy plays in government, and how much should be considered secret.

Some weeks before I became aware of WikiLeaks, I came across a book called Code Names, by William M. Arkin of The Washington Post. I was surprised to learn that a book with such content could be published, but on looking further I found that this was not even Arkin's debut foray into uncovering supposedly classified information. His previous books gave locations of US nuclear weapons installations, which I would have thought was so highly sensitive that it could not possibly have appeared.

What I learned was that everything in both Arkin books was in the public record. I also read his assertion that even though it was all publicly available, he considered what to include and what to omit with painstaking care.

My shot at Code Names was too brief for me to read more than the introduction and the first couple of chapters. This is oddly parallel to a more recent experience with a book by Ray Kurzweil, described in the post just ahead of this one. What I read turned out to be plenty, as most of the rest of the book was simply a reference list of code names as they have been used.

The first part summed it up nicely, however, and my own summary of the summary would be that since 9/11, our government and its intelligence agencies have used that terrible tragedy as pretext to classify everything and anything. This has gone to extremes that would be ridiculous except that since real life and real issues are involved, outrageous is the better word.

I hadn't paid enough attention to Arkin's bio on the flyleaf but with a little online research quickly discovered that books are only part of his real work as investigative reporter for the Post. My take is that he is more a bulldog and journeyman than an ideologue, which I find a good thing. I naturally suspect people who take on causes with excessive zeal, much preferring a dogged determination to report what is there to the fervor that produces slanted coverage. Fair and balanced, forsooth!

To get to the point, where Arkin started plowing in 2005 with Code Names, a dozen The Washington Post journalists headed by Dana Priest harvested the crop in July 2010 with a series entitled Top Secret America. This investigative journalism project was two years in the making. The main link leads to many, many other links, including a list of articles and a summary of methodology.

Too many secrets? Even though the information is in the public record, mostly online, it is so insanely complicated that Arkin says he couldn't do what he does without help from the inside. We can safely conclude that these are people outraged by what has happened in their workplace since 9/11.

A letter to the editor from a retired intelligence professional says the current state of affairs bears little resemblance to the intelligence community he remembers. He seems outraged that these excesses have been allowed to flourish, but not upset at all that The Post is bringing them to light.

There is a real concern underlying all this outrage and zeal, and that is the enormous expense incurred when too much is made too secret. The money wasted in this process is breathtaking even by government standards. Even if you think you don't especially care whether government is using secrecy excessively, once you get a glimpse of how much money is being flushed down this particular gold-plated toilet you may be reminded of the historic advice from Deep Throat to Post reporters of an earlier time, "follow the money."


  1. Enjoyed your comments, Ted. Have you heard about the new AMC series Rubicon? You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you...

  2. Ted of Delray Beach, FL, blog: "Seatec Astronomy" Great! Rumours in the military are always to be ignored, but they can make nice stories and sometimes might even be true. The importance of intelligence as it relates to security and nuclear weapons storage vis-a-vis today's world can be illustrated as follows.

    Gen Curtis LeMay was rumoured to have coveted the USAF Security Service HQs when it was first built in San Antonio. Maybe it was a competition for money too. Running a ComSec (Communications Security) operations against a SAC base produced the locations of all his nuclear weapons which was so classified he probably ate the piece of paper.

    He relented and saw the importance of intelligence and security because this information was gleaned from the normal communications among his people on the base. In other words they seemed to think the bits and pieces were publicly OK. LeMay settled SAC in Omaha, I believe, which seemed a lot better than Kelly AFB (East Kelly at that in those days) even if it supposedly had the largest hanger in the world for B-52 maintenance.

    SAC aircraft were a significant part of the intelligence collection activity. See Seymour Hersh's "The Target Is Destroyed: what really happened to Flight 007 & what America knew about it" with its description of the Cobra Ball operations spread throughout the book.

    For an extraordinary account of paranoia in government trying to extend secrecy impacting publishing COMINT information read his preface to the Vintage Edition dated May 1987. He discusses phones calls from CIA director Casey and an strange NSA person against the background of a "Washington Post" prior legal engagement in this territory and Bob Woodward's then current book-in-progress about the CIA about which he was also "contacted" by Casey.

    "My confidence in the administration's handling of intelligence, and the integrity of those at the top, including Casey, was so low . . ." he writes. Books are the best. Here's another jewel to read.

    USAF Security Service has turned into the USAF ISR Agency, but it's HQ is still in the same place near the Lackland AFB firing range of which it is now a part. The bloat is there, I suspect, but I also think that the complicated job today needs incredible resources to combat those who would seek to destroy with WMDs.

    "Seatec Astronomy" is sort of like "Wolley Segap." I think we've lost the "intelligence" in Intelligence and agree it's in an abysmal state especially when I daily experience its abuse, but then they have given me all these little bits of information to put together. USIC it is today.

  3. Having grown up in the Air Force-- dad was a SAC pilot and later a logistics officer-- I have a somewhat different take on the military. I trust our military far more than I trust the civilian government surrounding them. The civvies tend to be politicians, and thus fickle and self-interested.

    Regarding secrets, I'm not sure it is possible to truly prevent others from having decryption technology, and more than we can keep others from encrypting messages in a high level. The technology is just out there, for all to see and use. You can obtain public key encryption software that uses a large key and is, in theory, nearly impossible to crack.

    Yet, nothing is impossible. What you are really doing, at best, is making some message inconvenient to crack, then overwhelming the "enemy" with volume so the hack effort is too great.

    Anyway, I personally feel access to such technology must not be constrained any more than our access to personal firearms. We just cannot let a central government have complete control over our lives-- freedom is too important.

    But, that's just me.