Top Secret

Top Secret Cover Image

K.A. Bachus

May 29, 2024

I dimly understood the danger, but it could not dampen the thrill that went through me when I held that standard form message peppered with all the usual, mundane TSECRET/WNINTEL/NOCONTRACT/SPECAT caveats and stamped at the top with the rare and almost magical word: WEDGE.

—Steve Donovan in Cetus Wedge

Once upon a time, I typed aircrew briefings in a special ops intel shop. We took document security seriously. Lives were, and still are, at stake.

This blog post is based on what I remember during the Cold war, shortly after Vietnam. There have been changes over the decades since, but many features of the classification system remain the same.

One reason for keeping secrets is to protect the lives of sources. Another is to keep or gain a tactical or strategic information advantage. We need to know what potentially hostile forces are up to in this dangerous world. And, of course, we don't want them to know what we know or how we learned it.

Any classification system's primary principles all rest on the assumption that anyone given access must have a NEED TO KNOW. I believe three others can be summed up as don't over classify, don't under classify, and don't leave it lying around.

During my service, the default classification period for a document was eight years. I dealt mostly with information that was exempt from the default, but even so, the declassification schedule was never supposed to exceed thirty years. Each paragraph began with its classification in all caps, followed by applicable caveats, and ended with either a date within eight years or the notation xgds and a number. This stood for 'exempt from general declassification schedule.' The number indicated the reason. The most compelling of those reasons was number 4—sensitive sources and methods involved.

There are still only three levels of classification, TOP SECRET, SECRET, AND CONFIDENTIAL.

In ascending order, from CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET, the words to remember are damage, serious damage, and exceptionally grave damage to national security.

Remember the words that follow damage: to National Security. Not a politician's reputation, nor a bureaucracy's, nor a corporation's profits.

How so? you may ask. How can a piece of paper endanger the United States? This is almost a philosophical question and requires examination of why some things are secret. Since Biblical times, effective leaders have understood the need to know their enemies, their intentions and capabilities.

Being cognizant of what and who are arrayed against you requires intelligence—of the 'go scout out the opposition' kind. Information learned this way is guarded for two reasons. The potential adversary is also assessing you. If they know how much intelligence you have gathered, they can plan more effectively. But the most compelling reason for not sharing our intelligence on the evening news, is that it is often gathered and given to us by living human beings at great personal cost.

"Oh, you fly that spy plane!" new friends would say to my ex-husband, who flew the U-2. He always corrected them, "Reconnaissance, please. Reconnaissance. Spies are shot."

I take a dim view of people with cavalier attitudes to classified information. Yes, the lives of all Americans are at stake in the big picture, but there are countless little stories in the shadows that are affected, sometimes with death, when there is a breach.

Some people break the rules for reasons of conscience, but there is no way of knowing who or what else may be affected, so while I can understand the impulse, I do not recommend it as a career move, either practically or ethically. Then there are those who divulge classified information because they are knowingly working for a foreign government. These people are traitors, Plain and Simple, because betrayal during war is a crime, and the theater of espionage is a permanent place of battle--with human casualties.