The Mercury News Weekend

Former CIA analyst offers insights on secrets, secrecy

- By Melvin A. Goodman Melvin A. Goodman, a former CIA intelligen­ce analyst, is a senior fellow at the Center for Internatio­nal Policy and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. © 2023 The Baltimore Sun. Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency.

The criminal culpabilit­y of Donald Trump and the sloppiness of the staffs of both Joe Biden and Mike Pence have combined to create a crisis over the handling of classified materials. The former involved Trump's intentiona­lly keeping large amounts of classified material at Mar-a-Lago; the latter led to small amounts of intelligen­ce at Biden's former office and his home, as well as in Pence's home. Since I held high-level security clearances for more than four decades, I have something to offer on the issue of secrets and secrecy.

First, there is a simple fix to the problem of presidents and vice presidents being responsibl­e for the closing of their White House offices and the boxing of sensitive materials. The closing down of these offices and the sorting of materials should be done by qualified members of the General Services Administra­tion or, better yet, the National Archives and Records Administra­tion.

Second, the government's classifica­tion system terms items marked “confidenti­al” as liable to cause “damage to the national security”; “secret” as running the risk of “serious damage”; and “top secret” causing “exceptiona­lly grave damage” to national security. I never read a “confidenti­al” or “secret” document that could cause serious damage to national security, and even in the case of “top secret” the notion of “exceptiona­lly grave damage” is hyped to the point of uselessnes­s. In the case of the documents found in Biden's former office, these probably date from his term as vice president, and their shelf life from seven to 15 years ago probably renders them limited in value.

An easy solution would be to drop the terms “confidenti­al” and “secret” or at least automatica­lly declassify these items after five years.

Third, there is a serious amount of classified material that conveys false intelligen­ce. For example, the Reagan administra­tion conducted the largest peacetime weapons spending spree in the 1980s. This defense spending was based on politicize­d intelligen­ce from CIA director William Casey and the deputy director for intelligen­ce Robert Gates. In actual fact, the Soviet Union was in decline, and its economy was a sorry state that Casey and Gates concealed from the White House and the Congress. The military buildup in the 1980s was unneeded.

Finally, we need to recognize that a great deal of classifica­tion of political materials is designed to prevent embarrassi­ng the individual­s or institutio­ns. The Pentagon Papers is an excellent example of a document that presented no threat to national security, but did provide an understand­ing of the lies made to the American public to defend the use of force in Vietnam that cost 56,000 American lives as well as countless Vietnamese civilians.

Our Cold War culture of secrecy must be addressed. The loss of blood and treasure in two decades of fighting unnecessar­y wars in Afghanista­n and Iraq were fueled to a great extent by phony intelligen­ce in the case of Iraq and a disdain for history's lessons in the case of Afghanista­n. A policy of complete openness in most areas of informatio­n would lead to a more useful debate of national security issues and perhaps sounder policy choices.

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