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Smarter Secrecy?

Chalk one up for my friend Steve Aftergood. Back in 2002, his organization, the Federation of American Scientists, sued the CIA in a fruitless effort to get it to declassify the sum total it was spending annually on intelligence. That number had long been classified. But the 9/11 Commission recommended that it be made public and Congress agreed. The WaPo reports that Adm. Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, will announce today that the fiscal 2007 intelligence budget is near $50 billion. Aftergood’s efforts have borne fruit after all.

But will this revelation damage national security?

Back in August, in a post entitled Secrecy for the Sake of Secrecy, I argued that declassification of the budget total was a bad idea, not because the information itself was sensitive but because it would send the wrong signal.

“Good and completely rational arguments exist for disclosing the intelligence budget,” I wrote. “But the larger fact is that an unfortunate and damaging climate of openness has come to surround things that should be wrapped in darkness. For that reason alone, if for no other, disclosing the total intelligence budget would be a step in the wrong direction.”

Aftergood commented sardonically on my post at the time, saying:   

Gabe, I find this argument hard to follow. Can it be that because “highly sensitive secrets . . . are leaked to the press with regularity” we should classify things that are not highly sensitive? Is this some kind of hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you remedy? I think the new consensus in favor of budget disclosure makes much more sense: Smarter secrecy, not more secrecy.

Aftergood and I often sharply disagree about what constitutes “smarter secrecy.” But let’s give him one point in this round. My argument was somewhat perverse. I will take a zero.