The secrecy parable

Doug Samuelson

The neighborhood holiday party had reached the point where people loosened up and started talking a bit more about work. This was somewhat unusual, as it happened that many of the people at the party had government security clearances. Everyone there had been visited, at one time or another, by an investigator checking whether someone else in the neighborhood seemed to have a flashy lifestyle, loud quarrels with family members, friction with neighbors or other troublesome behavior. From time to time they compared notes on who had asked what about whom. And, of course, talking about one’s classified work was one of the things investigators always asked about, so these people were generally reticent.

Still, they had common interests to talk about – especially the restrictions on their activity. Some of these restrictions could be burdensome, like having to report foreign travel and contacts, but at least the reasons were understandable. More vexatious were the difficulties they encountered trying to get other agencies to share information, even when such sharing was mandated from on high. “Some outfits always have some bureaucratic procedures you just have to go through, and somehow those procedures take weeks, when you needed an answer in a few days,” Howard lamented. “Or sometimes they’ll just claim they have to double-check the data. It’s not as if we’re going to base national security decisions on the third decimal place, we just want a ballpark figure. But noooo!

Bob added, “And, of course, if you try to escalate the issue to higher management, the bureaucrat worker bees decide that it must be important, so they’d better make sure every box is checked showing that proper procedures and reviews were followed – which  slows it down by a factor of three or four.”

Everyone laughed. Bob went on, “And sometimes it’s bureaucratic politics. Agency A may be holding out for a trade: Hey, Agency B, give us the data we want, and then we’ll let you have what you requested. Or Agency A is afraid Agency B might issue a scathing critique of Agency A’s analysis as soon as it’s released, so they want to hold off to get their story right. Forget national security secrecy; what may really be holding up the action is internal competition.”

“I don’t remember where I heard this or who said it,” Howard recounted, “but at some conference years ago, this very knowledgeable speaker explained: We don’t have any silos, but we do seem to have an awful lot of cylinders of excellence.”

They all laughed again. Then Sheila agreed, “Walt Kelly didn’t live long enough to find out how right he was. Remember that classic ‘Pogo’? We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

Tim noted, “I worked in R&D in private industry for several years, and there it’s a little different. Some things are trade secrets. How you do certain things, or which customers you’re selling them to, is information you want to protect ferociously. You don’t even want to let on that you have certain kinds of secrets, let alone what they might be. But for some methods and systems, where you can expect that competitors will figure out the main idea fairly quickly once they see some of your results, what you want to do is file for patent protection, then publicize the invention as widely as possible. If you ever want to sue someone for patent infringement, you want as much evidence as possible that they should have known you were there first.”

“Not even letting on that you know something can be really important,” Howard agreed. “That’s why we’re instructed never to confirm or deny anything on sensitive subjects. Let’s say a persistent questioner asks whether you ever had an illicit relationship with Alice. You say no. With Beatrice? No. With Carol? No. But then they ask about Diana. If you say ‘No comment,’ they’ll take that as probably a yes. That’s why knowledgeable people ‘no comment’ a lot of questions.”

“And then,” Tim added, “there’s always the possibility that the information is secret simply because it might be embarrassing. I remember a story from the 1980s when a computer scientist wanted to leave the Soviet Union. The KGB told him he couldn’t leave ‘because you know too much about our research.’ He protested, ‘I work in microcomputers. The Americans are at least five years ahead of us in every area I work on.’ And the KGB guy said, ‘Yes, and that, Comrade Scientist, is exactly the information we do not want you to share with them.’ ”

“At least in that case there was an issue of letting the other side know how the competition stood,” Howard said. “But sometimes it’s even cruder than that – just not wanting anyone to know what wrongdoing you committed. I think we might be seeing some of that in the news these days, don’t you?”

This generated some hollow laughs and a number of eye rolls. Nobody seemed to need to ask what he meant. A couple of people reached for their drinks. “And it just keeps on coming,” Tim growled. “It’s a good time to be a comedian; there’s no shortage of material.”

Sheila responded quietly, “You’re reminding me of a good story I heard many years ago, a joke Nikita Khrushchev used to tell on himself. He said that a man had run through the streets of Moscow shouting, ‘Khrushchev is a fool!’ He was sentenced to 16 years in Lefortovo Prison – one for publicly insulting the party general secretary, and 15 for revealing a state secret.”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va.