Secrecy Isn’t What It Used To Be

Results of CIA investigations continue to be leaked. Concern was expressed at this norm-breaking. The norms exist for a reason, though. The CIA’s reason for existence is national security.

The President of the United States is acting in conflict with the recommendations of his national security agencies and in conflict with national security. Sending troops to the border for political effect. Sharing another nation’s highly classified intelligence with an adversary. Bragging about a plane that he believes is invisible. Failing to visit the troops in war zones. And more.

This is a conundrum for the national security agencies. The internet and the availability of information are changing their roles too.

Information once of limited availability is now on the internet. Some are free, some for sale. Overhead satellite photos, court documents, historical archives, social media that inadvertently shows significant features.

Non-governmental organizations can check up on government claims. Here is a report analyzing overhead photos of a North Korean missile base. An interactive website tours the Russian nuclear test site on the Novaya Zemlya island chain, far above the Arctic Circle. A Twitter thread outlines the project.

The Bellingcat group has investigated the two GRU agents who probably carried out the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal by nerve agents and the incident between Russian and Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait. Emptywheel has mined court and other documents to understand the Mueller investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 elections.

The nongovernmental organizations share their work, sometimes in progress, on the internet. Twitter is a particularly effective platform because others can easily critique the work. (Disclosure: I have worked with both the Middlebury Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Bellingcat in this way. I’ve offered occasional comments to others.)

These investigations are of as high a quality as can be achieved by national intelligence organizations. But typically the national intelligence organizations would keep their investigations secret.

There are two major reasons for that secrecy: to keep others from knowing the information, and protection of sources and methods. The others from whom the information is kept may be other nations, but they may also be the citizens of the agency’s own nation. Both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush lied about bringing the United States into wars. That becomes more difficult with open-source intelligence to check the claims.

For example, Trump has claimed that North Korea has ended its nuclear weapons programs, but satellite photos show that missile emplacements are still operating and even expanding.

The intelligence agencies may well collect similar information and come to similar conclusions. They watch the open-source version make its way across the internet, independent of their actions. Inadvertent acquisition of this information on computers may require that the computers be scrubbed.

And then there’s the possibility that the open-source investigators will beat the agencies to a conclusion. The agencies have been reluctant to use open sources. I’m not sure how they feel about that these days.

Conversely, excessive requirements of secrecy can make governing harder. The nature of the Russian violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty has just been made public, after several years of American claims denied by the Russians. There is no obvious reason why the information on which the claims are based could not have been made public, and the impasse might have been solved.

Governments have always used declassification or leaks to make selected information public. Turkey is currently releasing information, a bit at a time, about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to confound both the United States and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has managed to keep the story in the headlines in this way and can be expected to continue until President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feels he has accomplished his goals or is dissuaded from them.

“Information conflict” might be a better descriptor of what is commonly called “cyberwar.” An analogy with dropping bombs and shooting is misleading. Cyberweapons have a liability that physical weapons do not: once they are used, the opponent can develop defenses against them.

On the one hand, that makes secrecy about capabilities and intentions in information conflict more important than in conventional warfare, and on the other, it makes those weapons much more transient. New ones must constantly be developed.

Breaking secrecy can become a counter. US Cyber Command is sending messages directly to known Russian operatives and is making their code public. This is as destructive as, say bombing a factory. It is also a tool that can be used more than once, so it is much more powerful than operations carried out purely with code.

Casting governance as an information system may give insight into better ways to defend from the social-media sabotage aimed at the 2016 US election.

The internet is changing intelligence gathering and information warfare. We need entirely new ways of thinking that are only beginning to develop.


Cross-posted to Balloon Juice.

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