My signature is atrocious; little more than a scribble with some looping. A few years ago, while cashing a check at a bank, the teller asked me if I had a young child at home, which I did. My daughter was one year old at the time, and I asked the teller how she knew. She said it looked as if a child had scribbled on the back of my check. She got embarrassed when I pointed out that the scribble to which she referred was my signature.
My signature devolved into the illegible mess it is because, in the Navy, I was accountable for the destruction of an abundance of classified documents and I had to sign a lot of forms attesting to the receipt and proper disposal of those documents. In some cases I might sign for an entire manual, while in others I might need to account and sign for each page of a book containing highly sensitive information. There were days when I had to sign my name hundreds of times.
Classified data was my life. I was an intelligence specialist and having access to information was essential to my job, which was to help in the planning of combat missions for the members of my squadron’s aircrew. In order to obtain the proper clearances my background was thoroughly checked and I was made aware, in no uncertain terms, that careless or intentional mishandling of the information in my care would be met with severe consequences. Neither I nor any of my shipmates wanted to take up residence in the town of Leavenworth, Kansas.
It was drilled into my head that each scrap of classified information was a piece to a large and complex puzzle, and that the more pieces the enemy gathered, the clearer the picture they wanted to see. It was drilled into my head that it was an honor and a privilege to be granted access to classified information and that disrespecting that honor was more than a criminal act – it was a sign of a lack of personal character. It was drilled into my head that when classified information is leaked, people die.
It makes me crazy, therefore, when I read accounts of international political situations in which craven sources within the Department of Defense who request anonymity, an anonymous member of Congress or staffer, or other governmental personnel trade such secrets for political favor.
It makes me apoplectic when these accounts have names attached to them and there seems to be no consequences for their actions.
With the ongoing war in Iraq, hardly a day goes by when some piece of sensitive military information isn’t being reported in the papers or on the news, but the big case in the headlines these days involves Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who seems to be taking the fall for the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. I don’t know how that’s going to end up, but what I do know is that someone used classified information to gain a political advantage, and that’s rotten business.
The case that really drives me bananas is that of former National Security Advisor Samuel “Sandy” Berger. During the 9/11 Commission investigation of events leading up to and immediately following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Berger got caught leaving the National Archives with highly classified documents stuffed in his clothes, admits to the crime, but says it was “unintentional.” He since has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $50,000 fine, but is free to roam anywhere but the National Archives, where he has been banned for a period of three years.
For lesser offenses, I was always told, I’d spend the rest of my days breaking big rocks into little rocks with a heavy hammer.
We live in a celebrity driven culture these days where face time on television is equated with importance. Driven by ego, people with access to valuable information will use that access to buy favors from reporters. It makes them feel important to be at the center of a story, even if it is as an unnamed source. The thirst for political power and favor overrides the knowledge that lives of others may well be at stake. Classified information has become little more than a piece on the board of political gamesmanship. The black market traders of this information often go unpunished. In fact, it seems the authorities have little interest in finding out who these people are.
This past week reports surfaced that suggest the U.S. military is concerned that television portrayal of torture, particularly as it is conducted on the hit Fox show 24, is influencing impressionable minds in the military to believe that a couple twists of the boot screw will get anyone to spill their guts. They worry that, inspired by Jack Bauer, soldiers will take to freelance interrogation to extract information.
It’s time the U.S. took stock of the message it sends when criminals like Sandy Berger betray the trust of the country they purport to serve. By slapping those who commit crimes on the wrist, failing to aggressively investigate and identify the many unnamed sources who feed secrets to reporters, and by failing to have the guts label such actions as traitorous and espionage, a far more sinister impression is created. And the consequences may be far more dire.