The U.S. Navy: Keeping the Nation's Secrets

By Norman Polmar, Author, The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet

Similarly, a landmark Department of Defense study in 1985, directed by retired Army General Richard Stilwell, stated, "It is clear that the volume of classified documents is enormous. Obviously, the Department [of Defense] needs to protect much of what it is doing with classification controls. Nonetheless, too much information appears to be classified and much at higher levels than is warranted." 2

Examples of overclassification abound. The Defense Department refused to make public any photos of Soviet Pomornikclass air-cushion assault craft in 1986 because they were being "saved" for a report being prepared for then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, scheduled for publication the following year. (Allies in NATO made the photographs available to U.S. journalists.) Senator Sam Nunn told of attending a classified Defense briefing at which all of the charts used by the briefers were classified secret, including one that simply said, "We must not fail." When Nunn asked why the four words were secret, nobody at the briefing could give him an answer. So he provided his own: "When you are classifying a whole lot of things, you tend to classify everything. . . . By trying to protect everything, you protect nothing."

"For official use only" and "restricted distribution" also are used—improperly—to withhold information from the public. 3 After then-congressional staffer William S. Lind wrote a hard-hitting critique of the Army's unclassified manual FM 100-5 Operations , the Army slapped an "unclassified classification" on the document that read:

DISTRIBUTION RESTRICTION. This publication contains technical or operational information that is for official government use only. Distribution is limited to U.S. government agencies. Requests from outside the U.S. government for release of this publication under the Freedom of Information Act or the Foreign Military Sales Program must be made to Commander TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command].

The Army still handed out the manual to members of Congress, staffers, and anyone perceived as a potential ally. To others, it was simply "unavailable."

The Navy did the same thing with the Monthly Ships Progress Report . This periodical listed the yards in which Navy ships were being built, along with the dates of their keel laying, launching, and commissioning. After severe congressional criticism in the 1970s over delays in shipbuilding programs, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NavSea) "restricted" the circulation by marking it "For Official Use Only." In the 1980s, NavSea added the following "Distribution Statement B" in a renewed effort to keep the document out of unfriendly hands:

Distribution limited to U.S. Government Agencies only; ADMINISTRATIVE/OPERATIONAL USE; [date]. Other requests for this document shall be referred to COMNAVSEA [Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command].

The information in the document was readily available to anyone who called the Pentagon's information offices, only a mile from the Naval Sea Systems Command. The Pentagon not only provided the dates and shipyard information on request, it even issued press releases on every ship contract award, launching, and commissioning. Finally, after a decade of appeals to higher-level government officials, the Naval Sea Systems Command once more made the document available to the public in 1994.

The epitome of the classification game playing may have occurred when the U.S. Navy refused to release a list of the cryptographic machines that were in the spy ship Pueblo (AGER-2), which was captured by North Korean forces on 23 January 1968. Copies of such lists exist not only at the headquarters of the U.S. National Security Agency and Naval Security Group, which controlled the ship's intelligence collection activities, but also in Pyongyang and in Moscow—probably with several of the machines themselves, along with their technical manuals.

Playing such games with security classifications accomplishes little and makes a mockery of the entire system designed to keep the nation's secrets from getting to places like Pyongyang and Moscow. The desire to withhold virtually all defense and national-security information tends to reduce the effectiveness of meaningful U.S. classification policies and hence damages U.S. security in general. As the Commission to Review Department of Defense Security Policies and Practices states in its report, Keeping The Nation's Secrets , Defense security policy "specifies that the signer of a classified document is responsible for the classification assigned but frequently, out of ignorance or expedience, little scrutiny is given such determinations. Similarly, while challenges to improper classifications are permitted, few take the time to raise questionable classifications with the originator." 4

It is perhaps inevitable that institutions wishing to protect secrets—real and perceived—tend to overclassify information, but the personal use of classification by military officers seeking to further their own goals is clearly beyond the pale of integrity. Several examples stand out.

Until well after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. satellite photography was highly classified. 5 On 6 April 1983, Lieutenant General Lawrence Skantze, then head of Air Force research and development, provided Congress with satellite photos of two new Soviet fighter aircraft, apparently spotted at the Ramenskoye test center. General Skantze was seeking funds to develop the Air Force's own advanced aircraft—to counter the Soviet fighter threat. Although General Skantze's staff supposedly reviewed his testimony to remove classified material, the two photos were published in the record of the committee's hearings. Nonetheless, when journalists asked for copies of the photos, they were told that they were classified and could not be released.

Appeals under the Freedom of Information Act were to no avail, despite the fact that congressional publication had rendered the photos legally unclassified and aviation magazines were reprinting copies of the pages that had appeared in the committee's published hearings showing the satellite photos. (Lieutenant General Skantze subsequently was promoted to full general, even though, according to a senior Air Force intelligence officer, "The unauthorized disclosure of such information could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security." 6 )

In a similar vein, some naval officers have used classification as a weapon to stop criticism of Navy programs. As a defense analyst, I have been a critic of the Seawolf -(SSN-21) program. In early 1988, I was interviewed by Navy Times and quoted as saying that the designed top speed of the new Seawolf submarine was 35 knots. 7 I immediately wrote a letter to the paper stating that the 35-knot speed was taken directly from the published, unclassified testimony of Admiral James Watkins, then-Chief of Naval Operations, made before a congressional committee three years earlier . 8

In June 1988—some three months after the Navy Times article and my letter were published—the then-head of the Navy's submarine programs had his office inform the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) that I had divulged classified information. For more than a year the NIS and Defense Investigative Service conducted an investigation of me, without my knowledge. When finally confronted with the accusation, I cited the published Watkins testimony. I was informed by the investigators that the Navy had "reclassified" the Seawolf ’s speed.

The Navy's Office of Congressional Liaison and the staff of the House Appropriations Committee informed me that such a reclassification has, in fact, "never been done" in the committee's memory. 9 Nonetheless, the investigation continued. Finally, in February 1990, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations personally ordered that the investigation be dropped.

At the same time, security services were investigating supposed violations having nothing to do with real national security, there was a continuous hemorrhage of important secrets. During the 1980s Craig D. Kunkle, Clayton Lonetree, Ronald W. Pelton, Jonathan Jay Pollard, Glen M. Souther, John A. Walker, Jerry Whitworth, and others were found to have intentionally compromised national security, most selling military secrets to the Soviets. Perhaps part of the problem, in the words of Robert M. Gates, is that:

we're trying to protect too much stuff. We just have this mountain of material and the more you have, the more thinly spread your effort to protect it. So if we can cut down on the amount of classified documents, then we can concentrate our resources more carefully, and similarly, if we can have tighter compartmentation, then you can really focus the maximum efforts on those categories of information . . . that are the most sensitive. 10

It is important to safeguard sensitive information and equipment. But it may be time—in this post-Cold War era, as we approach the 21st century—to revisit both our classification procedures and the manner in which officials use—and misuse—the procedures for keeping the nation's secrets.

1 Interview with Robert M. Gates, Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, VA, 17 January 1989. Gates served as Director of Central Intelligence from November 1991 to January 1993.

2 Department of Defense, Keeping The Nation's Secrets (Washington, DC: 1985), p. 49.

3 The only valid DoD classifications are Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret; within those categories there can be compartmented (code-word) programs to limit access to specific types of material.

4 Keeping The Nation's Secrets, p. 49.

5 See N. Polmar, "Here's Looking at You, Boris," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1995, pp. 87-88.

6 Letter from BGen. Paul H. Martin, USAF, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, to author, 9 July 1984.

7 William Matthews, "Sea Wolf [sic] Designed for Undersea Stealth," Navy Times 22 February 1968, pp. 29, 31.

8 Seawolf [letters to the editor], Navy Times, 21 March 1988, p. 22.

9 Author's telephone conversation with Capt. Ronald Testa, USN, Office of Legislative Affairs, and with Mr. Donald Richburg, staff, House Appropriations Committee, 9 February 1990.

10 Gates interview. 


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