In politics, complaints about security clearance and classified information can cut both ways.
Famously, attendees at the Republican National Convention chanted “lock her up” after Hillary Clinton was criticized for using her personal email address rather than a government account during her tenure as secretary of State.
But this week, attention turned to Donald Trump’s incoming administration. His pick to lead the National Security Agency, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had admitted that he shared Central intelligence Agency operations against Taliban networks with Pakistan, whose government has been accused of aiding the network.
As with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Flynn was investigated and cleared of wrongdoing, The Washington Post reported this week.
The allegations and counter allegations drive home one point: It all makes for powerful, if disquieting, political theater.
“One thing we’ve learned over and over is that classification can be used as a club to beat up on one’s political opponents: ‘How dare you release this information? How could you be so careless?’ Et cetera. Et cetera,” says Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
Yet as questions continue about whom in the Trump administration should get security clearance – from Mr. Trump’s children to Flynn’s son to Flynn himself – the deeper question is: How much does it matter?
On one hand, it matters enormously.
“For someone in the national security field, it’s analogous to bar admission for a lawyer or a medical license for a doctor – it allows you to practice in the field, and if you don’t have it you literally can’t show up for work,” says Dakota Rudesill, associate professor of law at Ohio State University.
But in the relish to throw around accusations about clearance, the fact that many of the lines are blurry gets glossed over.
Take classification itself. The official government explanation of secrecy levels is that if adversaries got their hands on a “confidential” document, it could be reasonably expected to cause “damage” to US interests. Secret documents in the wrong hands could cause “serious damage,” and top secret documents could cause “exceptionally grave damage.”
But “what’s exceptionally grave?” asks Professor Rudesill. It’s a process that’s part educated guess, part law, and part high art, with a lot of subjectivity and judgment calls in between.
Some cases are clear, like the name of an intelligence source. “Nobody’s going to say that doesn’t need to be classified,” Aftergood says. “On the other extreme, you have cases of people trying to classify the front page of a daily newspaper. There’s a wide middle ground where there are going to be differences of opinion.”
Similarly, the matter of judging when someone should be punished can vary. Flynn admitted “that he improperly shared classified information, but in service to the mission,” Rudesill says. Clinton, too, said she made a “good-faith error.”
“Most of these controversies may reveal something about the [people] involved – their personalities, their priorities, their attitudes – but a lot of the huffing and puffing about national security has been unwarranted,” Aftergood adds.
Too much secrecy?
In the end, most analysts agree that far too many documents are classified.
The Obama administration attempted to address this in the 2010 Over-classification Act and in an effort to cut the number of people whose job it is to designate new classified information – so-called “classification authorities.” Their ranks dropped to an all-time reported low of 2,199 in 2015.
Along the same lines, the number of people holding clearances for access to classified information has dropped from 5.1 million in 2013 to 4.25 million in 2015.
“It was a reaction to a feeling that the classification system had spun out of control, and that it needed to be reined in. And with fewer people with clearances, you’re going to spend fewer resources on background investigations and [security] clearance renewals,” Aftergood says.
It’s important to remember, he says, that “we’re not trying to run our government so as to protect classified information. The goal is to use all of our available resources to advance the national interest. Sometimes that means secrecy, and sometimes that means disclosure.”