Top Secret?

Bill Neinast

Section 2381 of Title 18, the criminal code of the United States reads,  "whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

Although he has not been convicted, the evidence is strong that  Edward Snowden is a traitor who committed treason against his homeland.  Nonetheless, there are some Americans who call this 23 year old high school dropout a hero and a patriot.

Regardless of what you think about this young man and what he did, his case illuminates two problems with the nation’s security information system.

The first issue highlights or aggravates the second.  This is the problem of too much classification.

I know this from experience.  My introduction to classified material was in the Pentagon in 1957.  I was assigned and signed for a document classified SECRET.  It was the WWI Army record of Harry S Truman.

At the time, President Truman had been out of the White House and Washington for more than five years.  Even if he had still been sitting behind that desk sign that read, “The Buck Stops Here,” there was not, in the words of another President, a “smidgen” of evidence that would have embarrassed the President, become fodder for his political enemies, or been of interest to any enemy of the U.S.

Nonetheless, in keeping with my obligation not to divulge classified information to anyone without both a proper security clearance and a need to know, I have never discussed or divulged the contents of those records.

Subsequently, I obtained higher degrees of classification clearance which required the completion of extensive biographical records and background checks by federal officials.  In the course of my duties, I read or reviewed bundles of classified material.  In some cases, I wondered, “Why in the world is this classified?”  There was no apparent reason for the classification other than to make the classifier and his or her activity look more important.

I was also aware that when I saw someone else reviewing a classified document, I wondered, “What’s in that document?  Why is it so important?”

In other words, classifications draw curiosity and interest.  They alert those who do not have the best interests of the country in mind that here is something you should try to get your hands on.  

Along the way, I also learned that TOP SECRET is not top secret.  This surfaced in 1960 in the Headquarters of the United States Army, Europe, Heidelberg, Germany.  I had the need to know and had signed for a TOP SECRET report of investigation of a serious security breach.

Some fishermen had pulled a cache of classified U.S. material from the Seine River in the heart of Paris, France.  Luckily, they alerted proper authorities and released the material to them.

The investigation established that an Army enlisted man assigned to the vaults for classified material in the U.S. Embassy in Paris had become disgruntled over something and had thrown the material into the river.

In reviewing the report, I read some things that seemed to be security classifications, but I had never seen them before.  I called the custodian of the report and asked what the words meant.  He asked, “Where’d you hear that?”  I told him that I was reading them from the report on my desk.

He told me to “Shut up!, sit tight, and don’t let the report out of sight.”  In short order, a G2 (Intelligence) officer appeared at my desk, satisfied himself that I was doing what I had to do, stayed with me until I completed the review, and went with me to deliver the report to my supervisor, and then to the Commanding General for approval.

Trying the soldier who chunked the material would have required introducing the material in open court.  That could not be allowed, so he was administratively discharged with an Undesirable Discharge and sent back to the states.

Even the classification titles in that case were classified and a proper clearance was needed to access them.  About ten years later, I was selected to attend the Army War College and had to get another higher security clearance to clear me for access to material like that in the Paris security breach case.

A year later, because of that clearance I was the counsel for a high ranking Army officer before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Although that was almost 50 years ago, names and subject are probably still classified and  I cannot say more.

The point is that I have handled a lot of classified material and know there is too much classification.

The second flag coming out of the Snowden case is that there is a problem with the process of clearing individuals for access to classified material.  How can school drop outs like Snowden and transvestites like Bradley Manning (now going by the name of Chelsea Elizabeth), who is serving a 36 year prison sentence for releasing bundles of classified material to Wikileaks, gain access to the material?

So here’s the perspective.

There are probably already too many government investigations and reviews. There is, however, a pressing need for yet another one.

There should be a government-wide inquiry of the security classification system.  Maybe that would lead to severe restrictions on who can classify material, how the material can be classified, and, most definitely, who will have access to the material. 


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