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Just How Serious is "Top Secret"? By: Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 28, 2004

During my time in the Army and on exchange to the State Department I regularly dealt with classified material. At one point, I was assigned to the top-secret Studies and Observation Group in Vietnam and had to sign a paper that disclosure of any details of the organization itself - let alone of its operations - would automatically bring on prison time and a fine. We didn’t have to prick our fingers and sign in blood, but it was close.

To comprehend the import of what former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger may have done let’s understand classified material and how it’s handled. First and foremost, classified material – from the lowly classification of ‘for official use only’ and ‘confidential’ to the rarified atmosphere of ‘top secret’ – must be taken seriously. The person who generates a document is responsible for placing the proper classification on it. Document can mean anything from a simple printed page to photographs, marked maps and field reports to meeting memoranda and draft policy position papers.


There can be additional forms of classification added to the basic category. For example, ‘code word’ classifications result when the origin of the data is itself considered worth protecting. Overhead satellite photography, signal intelligence and human reports could fall into this category. Some information is labeled ‘special compartmented intelligence’ to restrict dissemination. ‘Limited distribution,’ ‘no foreign distribution,’ and ‘eyes only’ may also be stamped on documents indicating increasing restriction on there distribution.


While agencies have strict definitions for each category of classification, staffers are inclined to over-classify. They might do this out of caution or ego. Many will stamp a high classification on a document simply to indicate that they are important enough to be authorized to do it and to deal with this kind of material. Some employ the rule: when in doubt bump the classification. It’s part of the CYA mentality that permeates bureaucracies.


Regardless, the classification is what it is and must be respected. As are the rules for dealing with such material. Each agency has its own variation of the rules and regulations for safeguarding classified material. While these may vary slightly in detail they are uniform in intent: protection of classified material is of paramount importance to national security. As we have learned in the past, loose lips do indeed sink ships. Nations lose critical advantage when intelligence is compromised. People die because of carelessly handled classified information.


This is precisely the reason that Mr. Berger’s behavior must be seriously investigated. It matters not what his political affiliation is – though from my experience Democrat appointees seem more dismissive of rules of classification than Republicans. Perhaps it springs from an anti-establishment view. Nevertheless, safeguarding classified information is – or ought to be – drummed into the heads of all government officials, uniformed or civilian, career or political appointee, cabinet level or lounge lizard – from day one on the job.


In dealing with what must be assumed were highly classified documents at the National Archives – I would guess ‘top secret, limited distribution, eyes only’ stuff – Mr. Berger would be informed of the rules for handling it. Basically you can read it and then you replace it. Period. You can’t take it home for further study. All note taking based on a particular document must bear the classification of the original document. So if one takes notes from a top secret piece of paper the notes themselves become top secret. Can one make a list of documents, say by number and title for turnover to a commission or agency? In most cases that would be acceptable.


Some of what we’re hearing now is that ‘everybody has seen these documents’ and ‘there were copies all around.’ So what? They’re still classified. We have been flooded with testimonials to Mr. Berger’s sterling character. Again, so what? Actions have consequences. Good people make mistakes but must be held responsible and accountable for their behavior. Key questions must be raised: Did he remove classified documents from a storage facility and take them to an unguarded location? Were these documents compromised at any time? Were they copied, and if so, what happened to the copies? Were documents destroyed?


Mr. Berger says some documents may have been ‘discarded.’ That is unacceptable as an answer on a substantive and a process level. Who authorized him to destroy documents? Classified documents may not simply be tossed into the trash. There is a very complex official destruction process. Oliver North was grilled unmercifully and prosecuted in part for shredding the very kinds of documents that Sandy Berger is accused of removing. Chuck Colson was imprisoned because of improperly removing one classified document from a safe location. Equal standards must be enforced.


Casually dismissing mishandling of classified documents in order to get someone who may have erred off the hook is totally unacceptable. Excuses such as absent-mindedness, sloppiness, pre-occupation or volume of material dealt with are fatuous, irrelevant and do great harm. Ask anyone in government and they can cite cases of careers ruined or personnel dismissed for mishandling classified material. Leaving a safe open in the Pentagon or walking out of a desk full of top secret documents in the State Department can bring a reprimand or worse. Carelessness with or manipulation of classified material is not to be taken lightly. Like any staff officer Sandy Berger must be held accountable for his actions.

Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu has been an Army Green Beret lieutenant colonel, as well as a writer, popular speaker, business executive and farmer. His most recent book is Separated at Birth, about North and South Korea. He returned recently from an embed with soldiers in Iraq and has launched a web site called Support American Soldiers to assist traveling soldiers.

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