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WikiLeaks and the secret follies — Should picnic menus be classified?

Egypt’s leader has trouble hearing, while Italy’s prime minister enjoys “partying hard.” The Sultan of Oman is too busy to read books. A diplomat’s picnic menu in Eritrea included sheep innards with honey.

Such banal revelations, contained in U.S. diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks in recent weeks, were routinely classified as if national security depended on them. But some say the disclosures actually expose the government’s zeal for secrets, even trivial ones.

President Barack Obama in December 2009 issued an order designed to curtail the classification of documents, hoping to make government more open and transparent. The new order says that the government shields information “in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security, and our interactions with foreign nations.”

Judging from the WikiLeaks release, that apparently includes diplomatic cables on heavy drinking at a wedding, jokes exchanged by foreign leaders, and details of personal habits, from partying to womanizing — evidence to some that keeping secrets has become hazardously routine.

After all, in such a classified deluge how can even decision-makers with access to sensitive documents figure out what’s important?

“Many officials in the State Department and elsewhere use classified as a default setting,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the American Federation of Scientists. “In many cases even Congress is unable to obtain or meaningfully debate classified information.

“It diminishes the meaning of the classified stamp. It ceases to be an index of national security sensitivity and it becomes a mere bureaucratic artifact,” he said.

The Obama administration demurred on addressing specific revelations in the cables.

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“The State Department, like all other agencies, follows classification requirements” as determined by the president, said department spokesperson Harry Edwards in a statement.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said “we look forward to receiving recommendations” from an advisory group, the Public Interest Declassification Board. The group has scheduled a public meeting Jan. 20.

The government can protect sensitive government documents and communications from disclosure by giving them a national security classification ranging from “confidential” to “secret” to “top secret” at the more sensitive end. Only officials with approved security clearances can see documents in the various categories.

The higher the designation, the fewer people are permitted to see the document. For instance, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the suspected leaker of the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, is said to have downloaded them from a Defense and State department network known as SIPRNet, which contains cables marked as “secret” or less sensitive.

Some 60,000 people are cleared to use SIPRNet, according to Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit private research group affiliated with George Washington University.

The number of contactors, military personnel and civilians with access to classified documents has been rising, in part due to increased information sharing since Sept. 11, 2001.

The WikiLeaks cables with light-hearted and trivial observations reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity were classified as either “confidential” or “secret.”

Blanton worries about the classification system’s credibility.

He likens the current classification system to a low fence of security around a large prairie of information. Instead, he said, the United States needs “a tall fence around a graveyard” — safeguarding only the most sensitive secrets.

Keeping secrets can be expensive for the taxpayer.

In 2009, the Information Security Oversight Office, the agency charged with overseeing the government’s security classification system, spent $8.8 billion to safeguard classified information according to its June report to President Obama — and that only includes intelligence operations that aren’t themselves classified.

Tangible and intangible costs, including loss of confidence in the system, can add up if valuable messages are released, said William Bosanko, the oversight office’s director.

“Over-classification is not in the interest of the government,” said Bosanko. “Finite resources are best deployed when they are focused on the information that truly requires protection.”

The cables published by WikiLeaks span multiple presidential administrations. Typical is one sent in March 2008, reporting on a meeting the previous month between a top U.S. military official, William Fallon, and the Sultan of Oman at one of the Arabian leader’s castles.

The admiral, then head of U.S Central Command, found Qaboos bin Said al Said “in good health.” Qaboos was “cheerful,” reported a diligent diplomatic correspondent in an official State Department cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The sultan was too busy “to do all the things he wanted to do, such as reading more books” – though he always found some time to “watch the news.” The cable was marked “secret.”

Had such documents not been disclosed on WikiLeaks in November, the world would have had to wait decades. Under classification rules for the cable on Fallon’s meeting with the sultan, it would remain secret until 2018.

An April 2009 classified cable sent from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office to the American Embassy in Argentina amounts to little more than a thank you for the embassy’s help in forwarding information on key state figures, including “a nice example of when [then-Foreign Minister Jorge] Taiana has cracked a joke in meetings to lighten the mood.”

That cable, with some sections marked as secret, would not have been declassified until 2034.

In another instance, a February 2009 cable describes how the U.S. ambassador to Eritrea and his wife had been invited to a picnic on the family farm of the ruling party’s economic director, where they ate “grilled sheep innards served with honey and chili sauce (but no silverware)” and drank “a sour, semi-fermented traditional drink called, aptly, ‘sewa.’”

That same cable reveals that Eritrea’s defense minister chose to spend the Eritrean president’s birthday at the American ambassador’s Groundhog Day celebration.

A classified October 2009 cable from the American embassy in Rome relates the consequences from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard.” Noted the cable: “He does not get sufficient rest.”

As if writing home about a visit with a relative, another diplomatic correspondent reported in 2008 that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, “now 80, is in solid health, notwithstanding a hearing deficit in his left ear.”

An American diplomat who attended a 2006 Caucasus wedding, meanwhile, reported a “lavish display and heavy drinking” — hardly the stuff of a James Bond novel, let alone sensitive details involving treaty negotiations, tank movements or nuclear weapons shipments.

President Obama has said that he is “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” Early on, his administration made public classified documents on torture policies from the Bush presidency, and the White House has posted its visitor logs online.

But the administration’s record has turned out to be more mixed. When classified information is leaked to the press, for instance, the Obama administration has been particularly quick to respond. After two years in office, Obama has “outdone every previous president in pursuing leak prosecutions,” according to a report in The New York Times.

At the same time, Obama has said he is in favor of changing some of the rules on which such enforcement is based. In October, he signed the Reducing Over-Classification Act, a measure designed to streamline classification across the government and crack down on misclassification.

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Few of its features have been implemented, though, and the Public Interest Declassification Board has yet to issue recommendations for what Obama described last December as a coming “fundamental transformation of the security classification system.”

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) called the classification process “arcane,” and said that “it puts the American democracy at risk.” Several of his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee during a Dec. 16 hearing joined him in calling for reducing over-classification.

“There are legitimate secrets, and they do deserve protection,” said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of non-governmental groups dedicated to federal transparency.

But the State Department cables? They contain “many examples of silly over-classification,” she added.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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White House sets 'CUI' designation for sensitive docs

President Barack Obama’s new executive order creating a uniform category for federal documents that are sensitive but not classified is an attempt to bring order to an unwieldy hodge-podge of 107 agency-specific terms now used across government for touchy information.

Confusion now reigns as different federal agencies use varying terms to categorize documents. Worse, agencies also sometimes use the same term but to invoke different levels of discretion. Perhaps most famously was an innovation of former Vice President Dick Cheney who, according to Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, would stamp papers “Treat As” classified when the official designation could not be obtained.

The new category will be a government-wide standard, “controlled unclassified information” or CUI.

William J. Bosanko, director of the Information Security Oversight Office within the National Archives, is heading up the government effort to standardize how sensitive documents are treated and will be soliciting public input over the next year. “It’s truly a chaotic system,” he told the Center, referring to the current state of affairs.

Advocates for open government hail the new designation as a victory.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, says she was initially skeptical about the planned change. But planning and development of the executive order grew “from a government-wide information withholding policy to a government-wide information sharing policy,” she says. “It really is like night and day.”

The president’s order says that just because a document falls under the new category, that does not exempt it from Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests. McDermott says she’ll be closely watching administration decisions on whether to disclose CUI-stamped documents, and whether that designation will make FOIA officers hesitate or err on the side of keeping documents secret.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, takes a different tack. “It may have a net positive effect on FOIA if it succeeds in reducing official controls on information,” he says. “The CUI process should be much more disciplined than what preceded it.”

— Amy Biegelsen, Center for Public Integrity