The Biden administration is trying to play down the damage caused by the latest leak of classified information. And to a certain extent, they are right. Most of the facts contained in it were previously available in the open press or social media. Paradoxically, part of this leak may even benefit Ukraine and America.
The disclosure of information about Ukraine’s problems with air defense could spur the U.S. and other NATO countries to quickly give Ukraine new air defense systems, starting with Patriot rocket launchers, which are much better than the Soviet S-300 and Buk. The disclosure that Egypt is going to supply weapons to Russia is also not in its favor. Egypt is now in a difficult position and will likely be forced to back out of this deal.
But even if the information contained in the leak did not cause much harm, the fact that a large amount of classified information was leaked certainly did. It damaged America’s intelligence system, the sharing of classified information with allies, and diminished America’s credibility and international prestige. The main thing is, who knows what might be in the next leak if the necessary measures are not taken to prevent it. And these measures must be taken urgently.
First, it is necessary to strongly punish all the perpetrators of this crime to warn others from further attempts to divulge secrets. The two previous leakers got off lightly, which may have given Airman Jack Teixeira, the suspected leaker, a sense of impunity.
But you can’t expect this to be enough. Leaks will continue until the fundamental problems in the state system of secrecy are fixed. These problems are the overclassification of information and its over-dissemination.
Omni secrecy is one of the pillars of any totalitarian regime, without which it cannot exercise full control over society. In the Soviet Union, almost everything was secret: natural disasters, infant mortality, and any information about political or other prisoners. There were many secret institutions, secret cities, and even a secret court system, which in 1979 I was able to uncover and make public. The Soviets explained total secrecy by their country being encircled by enemies and the need to keep secrets from them, but in reality it was mainly directed against their own citizens in order to hide from them their own failures and crimes.
Government agencies in America are accountable to citizens, and their actions must be transparent to them. The only exception should be extremely limited information, which should remain a secret for external enemies. Unlike in totalitarian countries, in free and open societies, the volume of secret documents should be very small. But this is not the case. Many materials that should be open and accessible to everyone are stamped “secret” and “top secret.” We see this in many declassified documents and even in the materials of the latest leak.
Such excessive secrecy contributes to the leakage of classified information. In a giant pile of pseudo-secret information, it is difficult to keep track of what is really secret.
The second problem is over-dissemination. Hundreds of thousands of people in America have access to top secret information, and many of them receive information that they don’t need. For some reason, a 21-year-old Massachusetts National Guardsman receives information about the Mossad conflict with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, relations with South Korea, intercepts of conversations in the Russian Ministry of Defense. It’s hard to find anything in this leak that he needed to know. In the last three cases, information was leaked by the people to whom it should not have been sent in the first place.
The only reliable way to protect against constant leaks is the need-to-know basis — that is, sending information to only a small circle of people who really need it and who can be trusted with it.
This principle is so natural that, without even knowing about its existence, Soviet dissidents immediately adopted it. We were a small opposition group of people, and unlike government structures, we had no system of secrecy, no clearances, no vaults. We acted openly, but at the same time there was information that no one would hide in a free society, but which, falling into the hands of the KGB, could harm us.
So, each of us, possessing it, communicated it only to those few people whom, as he believed, it was important to know it and whom he trusted. That is, each of us made such a decision and bore full responsibility for it. And this system worked practically without failure, even though against us was the most powerful secret police in the world, the KGB, which had all the methods of surveillance and eavesdropping.
So, to get rid of leaks or at least greatly reduce the risk of such, it is necessary to drastically reduce the amount of classified information and narrow the circle of its distribution. But such reform, no matter how obvious and useful, may cause resistance from part of the government bureaucracy. Reducing secrecy will make their actions more transparent and the subject of media and public scrutiny. And the need-to-know basis principle cannot be implemented only with the help of formal protocols but requires each recipient of information to decide to whom to send it, and responsibility for this decision — two things that bureaucracy dislikes most of all.
So, it’s unlikely that the administration will show enthusiasm for the necessary reform, assuring us that nothing terrible has happened. But whatever information was contained in the latest leak, it is unacceptable to risk subsequent ones. Radical reform is needed to drastically reduce the volume of classified material, narrow its distribution, and impose personal responsibility on all those who distribute it. If the administration is not ready for such reform, Congress should take the lead.
• Yuri Yarim-Agaev was a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, as well as a scientist and human rights activist.