Burn Before Reading

If you happen to ask a military veteran what he or she did during their time in the service, don’t be surprised if they respond this way: “Well, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.”  This implies, of course, that what they did was so secret and “black ops” in nature that they are forever prohibited from talking about it.

Having spent my 1960’s-era enlistment assigned to Air Force Intelligence, I would be more inclined to answer this way: “Well, I could tell you what I did, but then I would have to bore you to death.”  In other words, collecting and analyzing data for a living was a tedious enterprise and, for the record, the term “Air Force Intelligence” is NOT an oxymoron.

Yes, the work was often monotonous, but my colleagues and I were never confused about the confidential nature of what we did and our absolute obligation to safeguard secret information and processes.  This point was emphasized constantly, and I had little doubt that a slip of the tongue or a misplaced document would result in my immediate incarceration at Leavenworth.

As you might suspect, this trip down memory lane was stimulated by the current kerfuffle over secret government documents being found, daily, in a variety of odd and insecure places, and in the custody of … well … nobody seems to know.  How, on earth, could this happen?  Weren’t the individuals in possession of these items given the same security warnings as those of us in the trenches? 

Incidentally, anyone interested in buying a shredder in or around Washington these days should not be surprised to find office supply stores sold out.  The reason is simple: politicians and government employees, both past and present and regardless of party affiliation, are likely combing through old files and collected documents in search of the odd misplaced classified material that could put them in the crosshairs of one or another ongoing investigation.

This is not to suggest that security breaches, whether intentional or accidental in nature, did not occur in the past.  They did.  But the cavalier manner in which government officials are treating this current debacle is both disconcerting and worrisome and, in my view, reflective of a  diminution of caution about things that, in the past, were deemed sensitive.  

This became abundantly clear to me several years ago while driving along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland.  As I approached the exit for Fort Meade and the National Security Agency I noticed, much to my surprise, an additional sign providing directions to the National Cryptologic Museum!  A museum!  At NSA!  

To fully appreciate my astonishment, it is important to know that during my tenure at this super-secret agency,  we always maintained that the letters “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency.”  But that was then and this is now … today, the public has access to exhibits and information which, in the past, would never have been displayed or even discussed outside a secure environment. 

When I think about the importance of security and the way that idea was inculcated in us some sixty years ago, I can only shake my head in wonder at what seems, today, to be a thoroughly lackadaisical approach to an issue with serious implications for our national security.  Further, It is disheartening to watch the machinations of various government functionaries performing damage control while, at the same time, casting blame upon others for embarrassing and dangerous security breaches.  

One very well-known individual in the realm of national security said this:

Two things about the NSA stunned me right off the bat: how technologically sophisticated it was compared with the CIA, and how much less vigilant it was about security.

That person just quoted is Edward Snowden, an American and naturalized Russian former computer consultant who, in 2013, stole and revealed highly classified information from the NSA.  By some accounts he leaked more than one million documents, the vast majority of which related to military capabilities, operations, tactics, techniques, and procedures of the United States.