Has Sept. 11 Changed How Agencies Share Secrets?

In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community was forced to answer questions about why key pieces of information were not shared. One reason: an obsession with secrecy. Nearly 10 years later, has the culture of secrecy changed?

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We are spending time this week reflecting on the events of September 11th, 2001. This morning we turn to some of the reforms that came after the attacks. The idea was to change the U.S. intelligence community, but in some cases all that's really changed is the way intelligence agencies have stayed the same. NPR's Rachel Martin reports on a culture of secrecy that existed before and after 9/11.

RACHEL MARTIN: Charles Faddis knows what a real secret is. He spent 20 years in the CIA keeping them.

Mr. CHARLES FADDIS: When 9/11 happened, I was sitting back in D.C. I was in headquarters, I had just come back from the field.

MARTIN: Within a couple weeks he was shipped off again - to Pakistan - where he'd work off and on for the next several years. Even from the field Faddis felt a major change in how the agency gathered and shared intelligence. Before 9/11, he says, the CIA would sit on information with no real pressure to share it with other agencies.

Mr. FADDIS: That's, you know, a complete contrast to today's world where you're talking to a source in Islamabad, and if you don't get his information on the wire right now, somebody else 10,000 miles away may be holding the other puzzle piece that fits with this, and if we don't put those puzzle pieces together right away, folks are going to die.

MARTIN: After 9/11, the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies were blamed for, quote, stove-piping information, which meant key intelligence never made it to other people inside the government who may have connected the dots -figured out what the hijackers were planning to do and when. Faddis says after the attacks there was a shift. All of a sudden there was all kinds of sharing - too much. The pendulum had swung too far in the opposite direction.

Mr. FADDIS: Human intelligence in particular is kind of an arcane little business and it involves sources and secrets and things that just have to be protected. You can't take that kind of stuff and spread it out around the community and let hundreds of thousands of people look at it and then seriously expect at the end of the day that it's not going to leak.

MARTIN: And that's the new problem - yes, it is easier to move critical information around the intelligence community, but that means more potential for leaks and that makes people inside the government very uncomfortable.

Mr. RICK NELSON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Sharing information inside the intelligence community is not the natural state of being. In fact, the culture in many ways protects and cherishes secrecy over mission accomplishment.

MARTIN: Rick Nelson used to be a Navy intelligence officer. Now he's a counterterrorism analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says 9/11 was the shock to the system that forced the intelligence community to stop playing turf wars with their information and start sharing it - to make sense of it. But Nelson says the farther away we get from 9/11, the easier it is for intelligence officials to fall back into old habits - not just to protect the information but to protect themselves.

Mr. NELSON: People were not necessarily rewarded for sharing information but they were punished if information got into the wrong hands even inside the U.S. government.

MARTIN So in the post 9/11 era, the easiest way for intelligence officials to keep hold of information is to just make it secret - or top secret - classify their way out of sharing - even with each other. Again, Rick Nelson.

Mr. NELSON: So if you feel uncomfortable about sharing a certain level of information with a different department or a different individual, you could, you know, raise the classification of that piece of material so that entity doesn't get it.

Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Counterterrorism Expert): People always misuse classification.

MARTIN: Richard Clarke was a counterterrorism advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Mr. CLARKE: They misuse classification to prevent public examination, congressional examination. They even misuse classification frankly to cover up their own mistakes.

MARTIN: Is that something you saw?

Mr. CLARKE: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Can you give me a couple examples?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, no, 'cause it's classified. See, that's the whole problem.

MARTIN: The data on classification is murky, so it's hard to measure how much it's changed since 9/11. But there is something called the Information Security Oversight Office - a government classification watchdog agency - and according to the office, there's been close to a 25 percent increase in the number of original classification decisions from 2009 to 2010. The agency's 2010 report to the president says, quote, "The large number of original classification actions is of concern, particularly at the Departments of State, Justice, and Army," end quote. Because it's hard to know how many of those bits of information met the standard for classification in the first place.

Mr. J. WILLIAM LEONARD (Former Director, Information Security Oversight Office): This is a system that's out of control.

MARTIN: J. William Leonard was the head of the classification oversight agency from 2002 to 2008.

Mr. LEONARD: You know, there's three million people with a security clearance of some sort in this country. And if they see day in, day out, you know, trivial, meaningless material with these sort of controls on it, then that's the definition of chaos.

MARTIN: Chaos because if virtually everything is classified, intelligence officials are stuck trying to sort the marginally important information from the truly important information. So that's one way government agencies misuse secrecy - to avoid sharing intelligence with other government agencies the problem identified after 9/11. But in a broader sense, information is classified to keep it from the public.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Federation of American Scientists): When officials talk about information sharing, they're not talking about sharing it with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's Steven Aftergood - an expert on secrecy policy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. He says after 9/11 all kinds of things that had been public were no longer - everything from certain government websites to the Pentagon's phone book. And as the CIA has taken over more of the fight against al-Qaida, the more secretive that effort has become.

Mr. AFTERGOOD: It's just a reflex response on their part that everything we at CIA do is classified. It's unnecessary. It undermines accountability. It undermines intelligent public participation in the deliberative process, in the policy process, and it just needs to be combated and pushed back.

MARTIN: Richard Clarke agrees that the public needs to know what its government is doing. He says after 9/11 money was no object and virtually everything was classified. After 10 years, he says there's still been no public reckoning of many of the decisions made in the months and years that followed.

Mr. CLARKE: We threw money at problems without really thinking about it and we hid a lot of what we did under the cloak of secrecy. And therefore it can't be examined and we can't really know to what extent things worked and what things didn't work and what things turned out to be wretched excess.

MARTIN: This year, the Obama administration made an unusual move and made public its intelligence budget request for 2012 - $55 billion dollars. According to a former senior intelligence official, that number increases to 80 billion when you add in the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the details, how that budget has changed since 9/11, where that money has been spent and to what end - all that is still classified.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The new boss of the CIA takes over today. David Petraeus will be wearing civilian clothes after ending an outsized military career. He was the general who commanded a surge of troops in Iraq under President Bush. And when the commander in Afghanistan lost his job, President Obama called on Petraeus to replace him. People sometimes detected friction between Petraeus and the White House, but he moves on to another significant job. At the CIA he replaces Leon Panetta, who's now the United States secretary of Defense.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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