We have heard much over the last year about the proper handling of classified information—think Hillary Clinton—and the disclosure of government secrets—think President Trump’s complaining tweets. During this time, much has been said about government secrets, but much of importance does not get discussed. The recent arrest of Reality Lee Winner is a case in point.
Winner has been charged with leaking classified information to a news source. The leaked information indicates that last year Russian military intelligence cyberattacked an American voting software supplier. What has generally followed her arrest are the expected expressions of shock that government secrets have been released. But there also should be some other, fundamental questions. Should the fact that Russian intelligence attacked an American company be secret? We do not treat it as a secret if Russia attacks Crimea. We should not treat it as a secret if Russia dropped a bomb on Anchorage. We did not treat it as a secret when burglars tried to break in to Democratic offices in the Watergate in 1972. It should not be a secret when a foreign government attacks an American citizen. Why is this different?
I am guessing that the answer is that disclosing the cyberattack will inform the Russians of how our intelligence agencies learned about the attack, which the Russians presumably meant to be kept secret, and this disclosure will make it easier for Russia to evade our intelligence efforts in the future. I can see why “sources and methods” of the intelligence community might need to be confidential. On the other hand, a foreign attack on an American company, a foreign attack on our voting system are not facts that by themselves harm our national security. Instead, this is information we should know.
Democracy, the functioning of our economy, and the proper operation of our government depend upon open information. Government secrecy, while sometimes necessary, conflicts with that, and we should be having regular conversations about how our secrecy system works and how well it actually serves us. We should be asking: Who determines what is secret? How is secrecy determined? What are the procedures for determining when the need for secrecy is no longer necessary, and how well do those procedures work? How often does the unauthorized disclosure of what the government claims should be secret harm our national security? Certainly with Winner the question should be raised whether she disclosed what should remain secret or material that should be public. Instead, the assumption just seems to be that if it was classified it is a horror that it was disclosed. Perhaps we ought to question our government more than that.
The Reality Winner situation, as did Edward Snowden’s, however, raises other issues than just the ones when a government employee discloses classified information. Winner and Snowden were not government employees. They worked for private entities that had been contracted by government security agencies to do intelligence work.
Private companies have always worked for the government, but “privatization” seems to be increasing. Businesses with names like Blackhawk or Blackstone or Blackhole or Blackballs seem to have been everywhere in all our recent Mideast wars, incursion, actions, or whatever they are called, and in some places historic government functions like operating prisons, turnpikes, and parking meters have been ceded to private enterprises. There should be more analysis of privatization in general. What are the data that show when companies can do functions better than the government, or does privatization primarily result just from unexamined ideology and campaign contributions? (When private companies are involved with turnpikes or parking meters, for example, do they do it more efficiently causing tolls and fees to decrease?)
With the Winner situation, however, the privatization discussion should go well beyond the issues of whether a private company or the Army can better run a mess hall. Isn’t there a whole lot of difference between privatizing food service and privatizing national security information? After all, if you believe in our free enterprise system, these private intelligence companies should seek to do a good job for the government in order to earn their fees and to get new contracts when available, but their first loyalty is not to the United States. Instead, as it is for any private company in our system, the company’s primary goal is to make a profit; to maximize shareholder wealth; to serve the owners of the entity—however you want to phrase it. That first loyalty may not matter or matter much when the company builds a highway or operates a trash service, but does it matter when the product is national security intelligence? Am I the only one who thinks this ought to be discussed?