It was either Mark Twain or Benjamin Franklin who said something like, “Three people can keep a secret, but only if two of them are dead.”
Who made that statement doesn’t really matter here, nor does the exact quotation. What’s important is to think about who knows a secret, and when is a secret not a secret.
Back in 1983 there was a major war scare between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Apparently, the Soviet Union thought a fairly benign NATO exercise was preparation for a real attack. They responded by putting their nuclear forces on real alert and moving nuclear weapons into launch positions.
So you can imagine the analyses that resulted as the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense and White House all tried to figure out what actually happened.
And many of these reports were, and still are, classified.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the National Security Archive, using the Freedom of information Act, has asked the CIA for a copy of a specific after-action report the agency allowed the State Department to publish in an open source.
As you might expect, the CIA turned down the request, saying the report is still classified and contains information still relevant today.
The National security Archive filed a lawsuit, of course, and last week the judge in the case denied their request and supported the CIA.
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But here’s how bizarre this is: the document was printed, with CIA approval, by the State Department in their after-action report. You can look it up and read it.
But that document is not the official version; it is an almost verbatim copy, but it’s not official.
So is the information, not the document, but the information the document contains, a secret or isn’t it? Well, the document is still secret, but everyone, apparently knows the not-so-secret information in the document.
When is a secret not a secret? I guess it depends, but of course, but if I told you I’d have to shoot you.
I’m Larry Burriss.