Harvard Law School Professor Jack Goldsmith wrote an op-ed for the Oct. 21, 2010 edition of the Washington Post titled “Our nation’s secrets, stuck in a broken system.” The piece addresses Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama Wars,” in which ostensibly classified information – presumably obtained from senior White House officials – is disclosed regardless of the “grave damage” that could result from its release. 

While Goldsmith asserts that “overclassification [of information] is rampant,” he nonetheless portrays as hypocritical the “lack of seriousness” with which high-level breaches are treated by the administration, and “incongruous [with the] unprecedented number of prosecutions of lower-level officials for their disclosures of classified information.”

Goldsmith also points out that such a cavalier stance has the effect of making the media “disrespectful of security classifications when deciding whether to publish information that the government wants to keep secret.”

Goldsmith, the Henry L. Shattuck professor of law at HLS, is a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on National Security and Law. He served as an assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.

Our nation’s secrets, stuck in a broken system

by Jack Goldsmith

Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” contains remarkable revelations about the inner workings of the administration’s national security team and the development of its policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Equally remarkable is how much classified information is in these revelations — so much classified information, in fact, that it calls into question the legitimacy of the presidential secrecy system.

The fireworks begin in Chapter 1, which recounts President Obama’s post-election intelligence briefing from Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence in the Bush administration. Several highly classified programs and their code names are described. Subsequent chapters reveal classified reports, memorandums, conversations, programs, meetings and the like.

Woodward unquestionably received much of this information from senior government officials (just as he seemed to receive classified information from officials for his books about the Bush era). One cannot assume that the information came from the people being quoted or from the authors or recipients of documents; much of it could have come from second- and third-hand sources.

Information becomes classified when someone with authority in the executive branch determines that its revelation would cause “exceptionally grave damage” (in the case of top-secret information) or “grave damage” (in the case of secret information) to national security. Overclassification is rampant. But a great deal of the information revealed in “Obama’s Wars” — such as a “breakthrough” National Security Agency eavesdropping technology — seems indisputably properly classified and includes things that the government should want to keep secret.

Read the full op-ed at  WashingtonPost.com »