Friday, February 9, 2018

Classification Nation

     “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” – Author unknown

     Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about classified information, levels thereof, exposures of sources and methods, and so forth, mostly as the recent “dueling memos” skirmishes relate to those subjects. As I have some acquaintance with the subject, it seemed an appropriate time to drop a few thoughts into the mill.

     First and foremost: the aim of classification is simple: to restrict access to a qualified item of information to a group of trustworthy persons with a need to know it. The qualifications are fairly simple: if a datum pertains to some strategic or tactical capability, intention, or knowledge of a potential enemy’s capabilities or intentions, it’s a candidate for classification. We don’t classify data that lacks those qualifications; there’s no point.

     When I was introduced to classified material, I was often surprised at the sort of data that fell into that bag. For example: at one point I learned that the size of a particular field in a communications stream – i.e., the number of bits required to convey it from the sender to the receiver – was classified Secret. I asked why. My tutor in these matters told me that knowing the required number of bits facilitates the deduction of the range and fineness of the relevant capability. It struck me as obscure, until I realized that knowledge of the associated enemy capability, when combined with knowledge of the field size, would provide exactly that – and the enemy surely knew his own capability.

     Persons who originate classifications must be able to think in that fashion.

     Second, classification levels are based on how severe the damage would be if an enemy were to obtain the classified datum. The three bottom levels are:

  1. Confidential: Some damage, probably recoverable.
  2. Secret: More severe damage, unknown probability of recovery.
  3. Top Secret: Extremely severe damage, recovery highly unlikely.

     There are levels above those three, but they’re reserved for matters we who labor in the defense industry have no need to know.

     Third, a datum’s classification level is not a permanent characteristic. The classification level of some datum will often decrease over time, for example due to technological advances or the disclosure of related data in the course of a war. Rarely will a datum’s classification level increase as time passes, though it has happened now and then.

     At every classification level, the criteria for access are personal trustworthiness and need to know.

     There are some problems with the classification system. I’ve droned on about them in the past, but a reprise seems appropriate.

     First, classification itself points a big red arrow at the datum. If the enemy knows that Datum X is Top Secret, he knows what to look for. As the storage requirements for TS data are explicit and very strict, he also knows where to find it. If the datum is that sensitive, there’s no help for this except extreme care and vigilance in handling it.

     Second, need to know is a somewhat nebulous thing. For one thing, need to know will usually expire at some point – but there’s no way to remove the knowledge from those who’ve had access to it. Indeed, over time one who knows a given classified datum can forget that it’s classified. For another, there are many classified items that are routinely shared with “foreign nationals:” usually the citizens of nations that are partners in an alliance with the United States. It’s more difficult for our Defense Investigative Service (DIS) to determine the need to know of such a person than to make the equivalent determination for a “U.S. person.” Yet certain collaborative projects, including some that go on for years or decades, make it unavoidable.

     Third and last for now, classification can be used to conceal information that ought not to be hidden. A classification authority with something to hide is a terrible thing, a potentially fatal wound in the nation. I have no idea what sort of qualification procedure applies to persons with classification authority. We can only hope that it’s stringent about character and personal vulnerabilities.

     However, at this time these are enduring problems without known solutions.

     Probably the most interesting aspect of classification is the need to protect “sources and methods:” i.e., how we learned what we know about the capabilities and intentions of potential enemies. Time was, this pertained solely to intelligence gathered by human beings. Today it encompasses a great many non-human devices and techniques.

     You can easily see how this ties into the classified aspects of our own technology. One reason to keep some technical capability secret is what it allows us to learn about others. For example, the National Security Agency has a considerable range of capabilities to intercept electronic communications. Some of them are kept classified so that potential enemies against which they’re being employed won’t change their methods of communication to something the NSA hasn’t yet cracked.

     There are sometimes wheels within the wheels. Some parts of our own communications are easily monitored; others are more closely encrypted. One way to feed a potential enemy false information is to deploy – secretly, of course – a new communications technique that uses a previously unknown encryption method, while continuing to “use” a technique we know the enemy has cracked. This can be used to misdirect the enemy nation about our intentions, provided he doesn’t discover the new communications method. Of course, the enemy can use the same method to mislead us, which makes it a subject to which a fair amount of brainpower is dedicated.

     Nag? Are you there?
     Always, Christine.
     Oh, good. You’ve been so quiet most of the day that I was getting worried.
     Is something the matter other than that, Christine?
     You can see this hill full of oaks through my eyes, right? Am I right to be worried about it, or am I being paranoid?
     How would you expect me to know?
     You know far more about violence and combat than I. Trust your own judgment. I can’t improve on it.
     I’m just worried that I’m being...well...
     That’s the best of all mindsets for a security operative, wouldn’t you say?
     Hm. Good point.

     [From Shadow Of A Sword]

     A good security officer – i.e., one who is tasked with the protection of some collection of classified information and is serious about it – will never completely relax. He’s subliminally aware that efforts to penetrate that which he has been charged with protecting are never-ending. It tends to make him guarded about everything he says or does, even among family and friends.

     It’s a thankless job. It’s a wonder that anyone ever accepts it. It’s a greater wonder that anyone in such a position ever admits to it. And that, too, is a pressure point against the classification system. People like to talk about their work. To be inhibited against doing so is a source of considerable internal tension.

     Sometimes external tension, too. Time was, I would have laughed at the following brief exchange. I would have assumed it was fictional:

     Wife: How was work today, sweetie?
     Husband: You have no need to know.

     Unfortunately, it isn’t.

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

I'm glad to hear that the reasoning behind classifications was not always clear to you. I've been feeling like a dunderhead for not grasping that aspect.

I do think we really have to get - on record - an admission of guilt, and SOME penalty for HRC's violations. I'd settle for permanent from ALL political/lobbying activity, as well as turning over the assets of the Clinton Foundation to the Federal government, to retire the debt. As long as she was not OPENLY punished, she might go for it, particularly if the alternative was prosecution, fines, and jail time.

We need to work in "persuading" others who have been complicit in the acts to leave government - without benefits, and with a permanent, non-pardonable exclusion from ANY government or lobbying activity. All part of Draining the Swamp.

Couple that with a general reduction in size of government, and - Please, God - elimination of many departments/commissions/regulatory agencies, and I could die happy.