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Keeping Secrets

Keeping Secrets

America’s outdated system for classifying the nation’s secrets threatens to hinder our preparedness for the next generation of warfare.

Henry Sokolski

With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans have had a ringside seat at one of the most unusual of presidential shows: President Joe Biden publicly divulging some of our nation’s most protected, secret insights on what Vladimir Putin and his military might be planning. Some have criticized this; most think it has prevented Putin from controlling the war’s narrative.

If we are lucky, it could be part of a more important movement toward liberalizing the use and sharing of intelligence. America and its allies could finally be progressing from a vision of war first theorized a hundred years ago. That violent and indiscriminate vision was fully realized with the city-busting aerial attacks of World War II. Ever since, we have believed that being able to decimate a nation’s military, industrial, and demographic capital promises deterrence in peace and quick victories in war. Today, this vision is being slowly supplanted with weaponry and tactics that can target terror precisely, in order to disable nations without decimating them.

Developing this new generation of warfare promises to change what nations fear most—loss of political authority and control. This, in turn, should change what they regard as being secret—the information needing protection in order to keep the worst at bay. And furthermore, it should also change what intelligence and what information nations believe it is to their advantage to share.

For the sake of U.S. and allied security, this shift cannot come too soon. In fact, our government’s reflexive, persistent habit to over-classify information is killing our future. Specifically, it is undermining the Pentagon’s and the intelligence community’s ability to secure the best people for crucial roles. It’s slowing the rate of critical innovation needed for cutting edge, defense-related technologies, while also lengthening defense acquisition times and depriving our allies of the information they need to work closely with us and trust us. Most important, it is depriving our military and diplomatic corps of the tools they need to deter, negotiate, and win against America’s adversaries.

It took the United States decades to dig itself into this rut. It got under way in earnest with World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—two nuclear attacks that convinced Washington and the world that pulverizing an adversary’s military, political, and industrial centers was the key to killing a nation, winning wars quickly, and deterring future conflicts. Area bombing raids during World War II experimented with this concept; destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons validated it.

After America’s nuclear use against Japan, launching, defending, and deterring nuclear air attacks became our military’s top priority and a major governmental organizing principle. The United States amassed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, thousands of long-range missile delivery systems, fleets of bombers, national air and missile defense systems, and dozens of submarine ballistic missile boats. Beyond this, emergency powers were enlarged to authorize military nuclear strikes, to establish national civil defense programs and emergency communications systems, and to build protective bunkers that prioritized sheltering the nation’s leadership from the “Day After.”

To support these efforts, officials resorted to unprecedented levels of secrecy. Not just sensitive national security government documents, but the discussion of entire topics (such as anything to do with nuclear energy and weapons) were automatically restricted as being “born classified.” America’s justice system, meanwhile, adopted the policy of making a broad swath of information (“state secrets”) too sensitive to be admissible as evidence in legal proceedings.

The unspoken assumption behind all of this was that planning for the worst scenario was smart since all other national security threats—a war on terrorism, regional wars, or similar—were “lesser included threats” (headaches that could easily be taken care of and subsumed by proper preparation for a general all-out nuclear war). Certainly, with September 11, 2001, Washington doubled down on the idea that the common defense required high levels of secrecy.

Today, though, this doubling down rests on shaky ground. Why? Because the world is transitioning to new forms of warfare that can enable states to use high technology to “kill” other nations (or threaten to do so) by targeting their will to fight, rather than by massively pulverizing their military, industrial centers, and political capitals. This attempt to shift to disabling nations with high-tech systems without physically decimating them is not a “lesser included threat” but something new.

In lieu of threatening physically to blow up most of an adversary’s military or industrial capabilities, nations now are competing to unplug and scramble one another’s ground and space-based eyes, ears, voices, and nervous systems, all of which are essential to maintaining control over a nation’s military and its financial, logistical, and political centers. More important, countries are trying as much as they can to do this without resorting to explosives (using instead robot satellites, electronic warfare systems, lasers, disinformation, and cyber weapons). Nuclear weapons acquisition and modernization efforts (note Chinese, Russian, American, British, French, Israeli, North Korean, Indian, and Pakistani) of course continue, but it would be a mistake to focus only on these developments to understand the strategic trends ahead.

Meanwhile, kinetic warfare is itself transitioning from inflicting indiscriminate, wanton destruction to hitting targets with precision (including Russian missiles aimed precisely at particular hospitals). Further development of these new systems—intelligent, autonomous missiles, drones, submersibles, underwater sensing and processing systems, robotic naval craft, secure communications, and cyber weapons—promises to reduce the prospect of total, industrial-scale wars (nuclear or non-nuclear). These new systems can only do this, however, if they are fed a steady diet of timely, accurate intelligence and relevant data, and only if they are part of public policies and military doctrines that are convincing to both friends and foes.

In this brave new world, less secrecy, not more, will be needed to deter, dissuade, and effectively bargain with hostile states and non-state actors. Washington will need more clearly articulated declaratory military deterrence and retaliatory policies; more demonstrated, quick rates of military innovation and acquisition; and significantly more sensitive information and intelligence sharing with private firms, allies, and friendly states. This does not mean eliminating secrecy but, rather, establishing the right amount of secrecy at the right level—and no more.

Senior officials currently working on America’s military space requirements understand this. They are striving to eliminate the yoke that excessive secrecy has burdened them with. America no longer is uncontested in this realm. China, Russia, Europe, Japan, South Korea, India, and Israel all now have moon or Mars missions of their own. Commercial space firms now supply needed communications and multispectral imagery services to militaries, while commercial and civil lasers, rendezvous satellites, and space debris removal satellites can all be flipped quickly to perform anti-satellite missions. Those most eager to maintain America’s advantage in space understand that excessive levels of secrecy must be relaxed if America’s military, space industry, and allies are to work together effectively to stay ahead.

Excessive levels of secrecy must also be relaxed if America and its allies are to get ahead in advanced computational science, secure communications technologies, cyber and crypto techniques, and biological and health sciences—all key ingredients to winning next-generation conflicts and cracking open information fire walls (such as the Iron and Bamboo Curtains). In all this, the aim must be to increase the rate of innovation and to shorten acquisition times. This can best be achieved by expanding the number of qualified innovators and the ways they might safely collaborate, which, in turn, requires less not more secrecy while making the means to communicate protected information more readily available. To assure this, Congress must step up its game in overseeing America’s classification and clearance system.

Might relaxing current clearance and classification levels risk more “leaks?” Perhaps, but using excessive secrecy to “protect” existing technology, which is about to become obsolete, will do far less to confound our adversaries than increasing our rates of innovation and acquisition. Improving these latter rates increases the number of projects and research efforts our adversaries must track and assess. Given that the ratio of success to failure is as often as one is to ten, easing classification should greatly complicate our adversaries’ ability to “crack” what our next strategic technical advances might be, while prompting our enemies to spend valuable resources on time-consuming, expensive defensive measures.

Viewed in this context, America’s penchant for relying on excessive secrecy to maintain its national security should no longer be viewed as a fix but rather as a problem. Hence the current need to clarify the national security dangers of excessive secrecy and to identify ways to reform our classification and clearance systems.

This brings us back to Ukraine. If our impulse to expose, embarrass, and restrain Putin and his ilk helps us move more vigorously to reform our own system of secrecy, it may be a silver lining to what has otherwise been a ghastly reminder of wars of the past. Indeed, it may prove to be as important as the British discovery of radar and the cracking of codes in the late 1930s. Those too came in just the nick of time.

Henry Sokolski, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2d ed., 2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.

U.S. Foreign Policy