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Classified Information Required

In: Other Topics

Submitted By DFallon
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This article expounds upon the reasons and requirements for classification of information in modern governments. It cites the reasons societies, governments, and leaders keep state secrets, along with historical examples of such activity. Spying – the attempt to steal such information – is discussed in context along with more recent cultural demands for more transparency from governments as to what sort of information they are keeping from their citizens. The article weighs the pros and cons of keeping classified information, and explains the requirement for keeping state secrets.

Governments have existed since mankind began forming societies thousands of years ago. Humans have always, in one form or another, gathered in groups and chosen leadership – or have been dominated by the strongest among them. Not long after people formed governments, they reasoned that information was power, and the nascent concept of classification became relevant. In our modern age, with concepts of “freedom of information”, there are those who believe that no government should keep any secrets. However, history refutes this argument strongly. Governments have an inherent need to safeguard certain types of information. Classification is, and always has been, a requirement of governments.

Some of the earliest records of government and state secrets come from Roman times. The Roman emperor Caesar was well known during his campaigns against the Celtic peoples of Europe, called Gallia by the Romans, for protecting information regarding troop size and movements from the Celts as he conquered their lands (Helm, 1976). At the same time, the Celtic tribes concealed information from the Romans regarding the locations and richness of their lead, gold, and salt mines. These are two different examples of early classified information: one of tactical importance, and one of strategic importance.

From the times of these early examples onward, people have always endeavored to protect information important to their safety and well-being, and to steal that same sort of information from their neighbors. Information, people learned very quickly, was power. In the article “Espionage”, the author stated, "political espionage is the most valuable and most difficult form…” (Gale, 2002). Political information is often classified or kept confidential. It may be for the purpose of gaining a small advantage at a negotiation, or it may be a major embarrassment to a government. Most modern countries keep detailed dossiers on other countries’ political leaders and heads of state, in hopes of gaining advantage in negotiations and treaties. In this modern age of electronic information available literally in the blink of an eye, new methods, and new entities, such as the National Security Agency, carry on the tradition of obtaining and classifying information. How those agencies are used and what is done with the information is often a matter of some controversy, and opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union frequently lash out at them, demanding more transparency and accountability (Schoenfeld, 2006).

Along with classified information comes the art of espionage, or spying. Essentially, stealing information from one group for the benefit of another. Perhaps the most infamous American case is Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied on the United States for the former Soviet Union in the 1980’s. His treachery cost several American lives, and spanned 22 of his 25 years as an FBI agent (Ragavan, 2004). His tale is a cautionary one, demonstrating the importance of protecting a nation’s sensitive information. There are of course many stories of spying, from the fictional James Bond to the factual Enigma Code of World War II. Spies and spying are often romanticized in popular culture and film, but the fact of the matter is that they serve only one true purpose in the lens of history: to retrieve secret information for their employer.

The newest threat to classified information is a very recent phenomenon stemming from a relatively new concept of “freedom of information”. Societies with an unprecedented level of individual freedoms have produced individuals or groups who have interpreted freedom of information to mean “access to any and all information, whenever, wherever, regardless of whether it is useful to me or may hurt my country”. After abuses by US soldiers at the Iraqi prison in Abu Ghraib came to light, various groups began demanding the classified information obtained by interrogation of prisoners (Davidson, 2004). However, no laws in any modern industrialized country have ever been interpreted to give such unfettered access, and access was denied. To the contrary, there are many precedents wherein courts uphold the government’s need for classification of information. In the federal case “Snepp v United States”, the ruling states, “the [Supreme] Court held the government could use employment agreements to bind its employees to vows of secrecy” (Gale, 1980). There are no countries today which do not keep some sort of information classified for their own protection or purposes.

Governments and individuals have, of course, abused classified information in the past. Possibly the single most infamous incident in the United States ended up with the resignation of a sitting President, Richard Nixon. In June of 1972, the Watergate Scandal brought abuses of power and secrets out into the public eye and forever changed America’s perspective on government secretiveness, as information obtained by illegal FBI break-ins, and then classified by the Nixon administration, was brought to light (Williams, 2005). Such abuses of classified information and the methods used to obtain, conceal, and safeguard it are, some would argue, inevitable due to human nature. However, abuses of a system do not inherently make that system “bad” or “expendable”. As of the writing of this paper, no one system of government has ever been deemed flawless.

Societies, governments, and leaders have a vested interest in protecting their way of life. Classifying information – making it secret – is an essential way to preserve a nation. Many countries, like the United States, have elaborate legal systems in place to control what is classified and how it may be obtained. The United States’ governing document for this is Executive Order 12333. Since its creation in 1981, all presidential administrations have made modifications to it, including most recently the Obama administration, which created a clearinghouse for the declassification of information called the National Declassification Center (“Obama Takes on…”, 2010). Classifying certain information protects specific activities and helps to ensure the continued success of a government or country. Human nature has not changed since people began recording history and is not likely to change now nor in the future. As long as there are groups, societies, cultures, et cetera, there will be competition and therefore a need to protect information.

Williams, Armstrong (2005) There are no heroes here. New York Amsterdam News, 2005-06-0996:24, 13(0)

Davidson, Osha Gray (2004) THE SECRET FILE OF ABU GHRAIB. Rolling Stone, 2004-08-19955, |48(4)

Gale (1980). Snepp v. United States, Great American Court Cases,; Snepp v. United States Legal Citation: 444 U.S. 507

Schoenfeld, Gabriel (2006). Has the "New York Times" Violated the Espionage Act? Commentary; Mar2006, Vol. 121 Issue 3, p23-31, 9p, Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database on 3 September 2006

Gale (2002). "Espionage." World of Criminal Justice, Credo Reference. 11 May 2004. Web. 3 Sept. 2010. (2010). “Obama takes on overclassification”. Information Management, 44(2), 20.

Ragavan, C. (2004). KINGS OF COLD WAR TREACHERY. Spy Stories, 60. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database

Helm, Gerhard (1976). The Celts, New York: St Martin’s Press…...

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