I have a secret. In fact, I have a lot of secrets. The good news for those who have entrusted them to me is that I carry very few of them in my head so there is little risk that I will accidentally let them loose in conversation. In the old days, they were all kept in large metal safes with spin-dial combination locks. These days, most are kept in a classified computer system, although we have never quite been able to replace the old two and four-drawer safes. I’m glad we still have those although we have to open them less often.
It was tactilely satisfying to spin the dial, align the numbers, and hear the satisfying click of getting it right the first (or even second) attempt, followed by the clunk of the handle opening the heavy drawer. It was also a Zen exercise to take a deep breath, steady the nerves, and try to align the numbers on the spin-dial first thing in the morning after arriving at the office. If you’d been up too late the night before, suffered a traffic jam on the way to work, or had a cross word with a co-worker in the hallway, it was noticeably more difficult to get the safe open until you had calmed down. That probably made diplomats slightly better natured in earlier times.
It is human nature to feel puffed up by knowing something others don’t know, and to be irritated when others know something you don’t. “I have a secret and I’m not telling,” is a taunt that develops early in life. Adults continue the habit but learn more subtle ways of exercising it. “I’m sorry, but that is on a need-to-know basis,” usually isn’t said with a particularly sad expression.
Given that instinct — combined with being exposed to spy thrillers both in print and on film — it is undeniable that those who choose to work for the government feel a slight thrill when being handed their first classified document to read. Keeping secrets under penalty of law gives a moral underpinning to otherwise ignoble feelings of superiority. But the thrill wears off. With experience comes understanding that it is safer and easier to deal with unclassified rather than classified information. Storage is less cumbersome, it’s easier to use in work without having to figure out with whom it can be shared, and the bureaucratic risk of mishandling it is lessened.
One of the benefits of the increased use of email rather than cables in diplomacy is that it is creating a bias for not classifying information. When everything came by cable, staff assistants tended to put classified cables on top of the reading stack they prepared for their bosses. Not every message got read; those marked “urgent” and “classified” were more likely to receive attention than those marked “routine” and “unclassified.” Diplomats responded appropriately. The resulting over-classification has been enough of a problem that there are penalties on the State Department books for over-classifying information just as there are for failing to classify something that should be classified – although I’ve never actually seen that rule applied.
Because diplomats now consult their email first and often — sometimes to the point where they become so enmeshed in reading and replying that they don’t get around to checking their classified messages until later in the day – the bias has now shifted towards sending an unclassified email if you want to be read.
Determining classification levels has always been a clearer matter than determining urgency. Deciding whether a cable should be sent “immediate,” “priority,” or “routine” (or in rare cases “flash” or “niact,” i.e. “night action”) was more discretionary. Is it really the case that everything that is urgent is important, or conversely that everything that is not urgent is unimportant? Clearly not, but that is a question we did not ask. If you marked a cable “routine,” that meant that you didn’t care much whether it was read or not. Measuring urgency required less brutal honesty than measuring importance. Emails largely have escaped that taxonomy – so far. We seem adept at being able to sort out the importance of emails no matter how long the queue without having to resort to the red exclamation point.
Why governments representing democratic countries should keep any diplomatic secrets is a perfectly reasonable question. If governments serve the public, why should the public not have access to everything they do? Well, the public can see virtually every secret, just not right away. Nearly everything is declassified after ten or thirty years. For current secrecy, let’s set counter-espionage and counter-terrorism aside because it is clear to most people that countering enemies requires the advantage of knowing more about their intentions, activities, and plans than they know that we know. Otherwise, it would be immeasurably more difficult to stop or catch them. But why should diplomats have secrets?
There are three basic reasons that diplomats classify information to keep it out of public view:
First, out of good manners. It is important for diplomats to make assessments of foreign leaders and negotiating counterparts. Personal characteristics matter. If a foreign leader has proven to be ineffective or unreliable, it makes a difference in how we should deal with him or her. If a negotiating counterpart has a strong personal prejudice that is skewing his negotiating positions, that is worth knowing. One of the ways diplomats serve their countries is by being able to share their frank assessments of people with their governments. Making negative assessments public would be ill-mannered. Gossip columnists can do that, governments should not.
Second, because we need to be able to think. The State Department, fortunately, has a vigorous internal debate over policy direction. Trying out ideas among colleagues allows good ideas to be discovered and bad ideas to be discarded. We often classify proposals for new policies because, taken out of context, the public would assume that because we were considering them we might actually do them. The public would find it encouraging if they had followed an entire thought process including the discarding of provocative or plainly lousy suggestions along the way, but if every document was unclassified, they might well take one piece of devil’s advocacy as being “policy.” They could,reasonably but unfairly, call for the head of the person who proposed it. No one speaks every thought out loud. Classifying documents allows us to think before we speak.
The third reason takes a little more explaining. A lot of what we do involves negotiation and the process of negotiating requires secrecy. Everyone who has negotiated the price of a house or a car knows that you do not start by announcing exactly what you can afford to buyor the minimum at which you are prepared to sell. The point of the exercise is to find a deal somewhere in the middle with which both parties are satisfied. If both parties in a government-to-government negotiation had to reveal their actual bottom lines, it would make it far more difficult to find a point in the middle at which to agree. In agreeing to a “fair price,” both sides win; in splitting a difference, both sides lose. This isn’t pure theory. I’ve seen it happen.
In one trade negotiation, we attempted to save time and travel costs by leveling with our counterparts at the start on exactly the maximum we could offer. The negotiations then took twice as long and were three times as awkward because our counterparts, naturally, doubted the truthfulness of our announced maximum offer and tried for months to push us past it. We classify our negotiating positions to make negotiations possible.Diplomatic negotiations are often as tedious and stilted as people imagine them to be and they require some secrecy, but they’re better than the alternative.