Friday, July 12

Need to share

In war, what you don't know can hurt you. 

Yet "The US military has blocked access to the Guardian’s website for troops in the Middle East and south Asia, after disclosures about widespread US surveillance," reports the Guardian. The message that comes up instead of the newspaper suggests that the newspaper's recent reports on US National Security Agency surveillance activities include classified information, some of which may be inaccurate, and the block could assist troops from inadvertently releasing classified information.

But the troops on the front lines should probably not be censored. Richard A. Best, Jr.,  analyzed "Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share" for the Congressional Research Service in June 2011:

"It is possible to limit dissemination of especially sensitive information, whether it is sensitive because of the nature of its contents or because it was acquired from an especially sensitive It is also possible to prevent the downloading and reproduction of large masses of information. It is possible to trace the identities of those who had access to particular pieces of information. Ultimately, however, security depends on the loyalty of cleared officials at all levels."

Readers around the globe are poring over the Guardian reports about the US surveillance, especially since the president suggested that privacy protections may not apply to non-citizens. The latest NSA statement reframes that sentiment more elegantly: "Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy." Of course, the blocks on the Guardian are not thorough, with other news outlets repeating the reports. NSA secrets have been exposed, and US troops have as much right as anyone else to debate the merits of these programs.

Best went on to conclude: "For the U.S. Intelligence Community, the policy decision of whether the emphasis should be on“need-to-know” or the “need-to-share” can be viewed as a false choice. Information must always be shared with those with a genuine need to know even if this potential universe is a large one....Intelligence efforts are never risk-free.... Government officials must also accept the enduring reality of a media culture that is prepared to publish official secrets and considers such disclosure a patriotic contribution to democratic discourse. That individual civil servants or service members can be very harshly punished for their role in releasing information while editors and reporters are honored and celebrated seems to some as paradoxical."

Censorship puts a spotlight on the withheld information. "Even though people may want to withhold information, they will give us more information than what they realize," explains Mark McClish, retired deputy US marshal.

Philosophers have long debated if withholding information is lying, and Thomas L. Carson has suggested "withholding information can constitute deception if there is a clear expectation, promise, and/or professional obligation that such information will be provided."So, no, there is no clear expectation that the US would provide its troops with access to surveillance secrets or articles in the Guardian. Most members of the US service would not have heard of the Guardian, based in Great Britain, if not for news about the block.

Troops overseas must prepare for encounters with would-be terrorists and that entails understanding what an enemy combatant might know and how he or she might use the new reports to their advantage, possibly a sudden avoidance of Skype. Of course, federal employees, and probably members of the US armed service, too, in the course of their duties can request special authorization to visit blocked sites.

The Army Ranger Handbook ends with Standing Orders for Roger's Rangers, guidelines created in 1757 by Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War. Number four notes: "tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is a[n] Army depending on us for correct information."

So much trust, loyalty, democracy and more rely on correct information.

Note: A main character in Fear of Beauty relies for guidance on a 1992 copy of the Ranger Handbook as much as an Afghan counterpart relies on the Koran.

Illustration of Robert Rogers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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