No 'need to know'

Posted: Jan 15, 2002 12:00 AM
A "need to know" is one of the most time-tested principles of information security. According to this principle, if you don't have such a need, you should not be given access to classified or other sensitive data. Even if you think you have a "need to know," moreover, unless appropriate background checks have been performed -- establishing that you can be trusted to treat such information confidentially -- and the requisite security clearances (known in the government as "tickets") issued, you do not qualify. In sum, the basic rule has been: No tickets, no access. That, at least, was the general practice until the Clinton administration came to office, empowering a number of individuals who were critical of governmental secrecy in general and the so-called "abuse" of classification procedures in particular. Madeleine Albright, Tobi Goti, Hazel O'Leary, Anthony Lake, Morton Halperin and John Podesta were among the senior officials who, during the Clinton years in one way or another, pursued a different approach. For example, former Secretary of State Albright, and her Department's intelligence chief, Mrs. Goti, believed that "sharing" sensitive U.S. intelligence with other nations would demonstrate the validity of American charges about their involvement in proliferation. The predictable result was confirmed in a front-page article in Sunday's Washington Post about Russian-Iranian missile cooperation over the past decade: The recipients of such information were generally more interested in ascertaining -- and terminating -- the ways in which it was obtained than in ending their proliferation activities. All too often, putting them "in the know" meant that, thereafter, we would be kept in the dark, having lost irreplaceable intelligence collection "sources and methods." Then there was the security-wrecking operation engaged in by former Secretary of Energy O'Leary and the anti-nuclear activists she chose to staff key jobs in her department. For instance, she blithely ended the nuclear weapons laboratories' traditional practice of giving different colored badges to lab personnel based on their "need to know" and levels of security clearance. Her rationale? It would be discriminatory to those (notably, Chinese, Russian, Iranian and other foreign nationals) who had neither. We may never fully know how much damage was done as a direct or indirect result of the climate of insecurity and dysfunctionality created in the nuclear weapons complex by O'Leary and Company. An even more ominous legacy, however, may be that resulting from the compulsory declassification requirements promulgated by President Clinton at the urging of his then-National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Mort Halperin (at the time one of his chief lieutenants on the NSC staff) and John Podesta, who ultimately served as White House Chief of Staff. According to the champions of this approach, everybody had a "need to know" about most government secrets; Clinton directed that -- in the interest of good government -- after a certain number of years, basically all of them were to be put into the public domain. In some cases (prominent among them the Department of Energy), the arbitrary deadline and the quantity of secrets to be revealed meant that those responsible for declassifying old, but potentially still highly sensitive, information were obliged to give documents containing such data only the most cursory of security reviews. As a result, whole boxes full of classified information were sometimes summarily deemed declassified and made accessible to anyone who wanted to review their contents. Presumably, among that number were scientists from nuclear wannabe states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Findings in the caves of Afghanistan suggest that they may have included operatives of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, as well. Fortunately, to build even primitive atomic weapons, let alone thermonuclear arms, one must have not only know-how but access to fairly complex and expensive manufacturing capabilities. The bad news is that that is not the case with biological weapons (BW). Knowledgeable people can use commercially available fertilizer and pharmaceutical equipment to create batches of viruses that can be employed with devastating effect. Now, the New York Times reports that the Clinton declassification requirements have caused U.S. government agencies to make publicly available what amount to BW "cook books" -- "hundreds of formerly secret documents that tell how to turn dangerous germs into deadly weapons." According to Sunday's Times, "For $15, anyone can buy 'Selection of Process for Freeze-Drying, Particle Size Reduction and Filling of Selected BW Agents,' or germs for biological warfare. The 57-page report, dated 1952, includes plans for a pilot factory that could produce dried germs in powder form, designed to lodge in human lungs." In the wrong hands, this recipe could enable a future terrorist attack that would make the recent anthrax letters, and even the destruction of the World Trade Center, pale by comparison. In a number of areas, the Bush Administration has, since coming to office a year ago, taken steps to undo lunatic policies inherited from its predecessor. These include, notably: the unworkably expensive and inequitable Kyoto Protocol; business-crippling ergonomics rules; open-ended adherence to the vulnerability-dictating Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; inaction on the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste and other impediments to national energy self-sufficiency; and an invitation to industrial and governmental espionage masquerading as a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention. A no less worrisome legacy is the Clinton declassification agenda. Particularly in the midst of the war on terrorism, it is imperative that President Bush reestablish proven and prudential information security practices. Given the very serious stakes, should Mr. Bush fail to take corrective action on this score, the American people will certainly have a legitimate need to know the reason why.