Apparently the Pentagon tried to buy up some 10,000 unredacted advanced copies of “Operation Dark Heart” by DIA officer and Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer. As any member of the Intelligence Community knows, if you write a book, it best be vetted by the proper authorities. Otherwise, you risk losing your government pension (haha) and even your liberty if classified material is accidentally divulged and compromises something big enough. So this “pre-release” was an oopsie in the classified world.
Upon the news of a slip up in this system of vetting, the fine journalists at the NYT (and every self proclaimed intelligence watchdog) got their hands on both the redacted and the uncensored copies to compare and find out exactly what was so sensitive, the differences to which they drew attention and published for everyone to see. Their conclusion—the DoD classification system is dumb.
Specifically, bloggers and wonks have latched on to the apparent classification of the term “SIGINT” which was redacted in the vetted version of the book leading some to question the overbearing nature of the bureaucratized system of classification. Also, it appears some don’t understand the necessity for the classification of the author's cover name—this, I won’t even dignify with explanation.
Since we have all latched onto this bit of sensationalism, let’s run with the redaction of the term “SIGINT.” Clearly, the term by itself is not classified. If it were, Prof. Mason would be in a whole lot of trouble teaching us uncleared Pattersonites about it. It is all about context. That the US uses signals intelligence is not secret and the fact that the US is using signals intelligence in Afghanistan is certainly not a surprise. SIGINT is used in and even defined by any number of US national security documents open for public consumption. Just check out NSA’s official website.
What is classified, however, is the reference of intelligence gathered (which may not be classified on its own either) as having been obtain using SIGINT assets. Combining the source with the information gathered is where terms become classified. Referencing a set of information with the source through which it was obtained risks divulging specifics as to the location and capabilities of that asset. Reading this combination of information might not give YOU a better idea of CI capabilities in a particular area, but might be official confirmation of something an adversary suspected or give them enough information to subvert the SIGINT targeting. The paired information might not have even been on the same page, let alone the same sentence, but in the right hands can jeopardize the effectiveness of US intelligence assets. And in the WikiLeaks era, there is much "supplemental information" available to the interested.
Another issue is official confirmation. Ok, so everyone knows that Ft. Mead is the head quarters for NSA and where “the Farm” actually is located. Wikipedia tells us these things. Google Maps even lets us zoom in on them to show that Bank of America has a branch at NSA. It is all open source data. Most of which, however, is unconfirmed by the United States Government. “Semantics” you may say to which I would respond that I hope you never have access to classified information.
So, to you it may seem silly at best that some things are classified while others are not. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know what they know. What seems overzealous to an outsider may have a specific value to those with direct knowledge of the scenario.
Is the secrecy unmasked in this situation justified? Even a majority of those who hold clearances don’t know enough about what is going on outside of their “need to know” area to assess the sensitive nature of most intelligence. Us lay people could not possibly make that assessment. And that is the point. The system of classification was developed because it might not be so commonsensical as to what is or has the potential under the right circumstances to be sensitive information. Besides, when it comes to national security and the wellbeing of our troops abroad, wouldn’t you rather err on the side of caution?
One of those afore mentioned bloggers said “…the practice of national security classification as it exists in the United States today…does not exactly command respect.” To this I say (as I revert to the 3rd grade me): “no, YOU don’t command respect." *Humpf*