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Top Secret vs. Open Source

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Which one is a better source to examine to cull classified information? The answer may surprise you.

Those who swear that secrets are the only true intelligence, in contrast to mere “information� found through open means, would do well to consider the indistinct character of the categories of overt and covert in intelligence. Information hidden behind walls of classification and special access programs may prove no more than equal in value to material available to the public.

Overt and covert streams of intelligence are by no means completely parallel and distinct; they often mingle and meander over one another’s territory. Covert reports at times are amalgams of press clippings. And newspaper editors, for their part, frequently publish stories based on accurate leaks of classified material. Examples abound. Veteran CIA case officer James Lilley learned early in his career how Chinese agents had “swindled� his office with supposedly inside information on Chinese developments that later proved to be “embroidered versions of articles from provincial Chinese newspapers.� Similarly, European con men reportedly passed off Soviet newspaper articles as intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain to operatives of the CIA and the West German Gehlen Organization in the 1950s. More recently, journalist Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has leaked classified information in his stories. His published photocopies of actual intelligence documents underscore how the overt and covert streams mingle.

The more one considers the problem, the less distinct appears the distinction between open information and secrets. Let us consider the case of the B-29 bomber aircraft, whose use in the Second World War was reportedly classified. Samuel Halpern, an officer of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), recalled how he once surprised an admiral by referring in his briefing to the B-29 Super Fortress bombers. When the admiral demanded to know how Halpern knew of the “highly classified� aircraft, the OSS officer replied that he had learned of the bomber through monitored Japanese radio broadcasts. In short, what is classified to some is open information to others. This can lead to the absurd situation where foreigners learn details of US intelligence operations in their country through their national media, while the American public and Intelligence Community remain unaware of the overseas exposure. Perhaps “unilateral secret� would be the proper term for this phenomenon!