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Too many eyes on too many secrets

A supporter holds picture Edward Snowden former CIA employee who leaked top-secret informatiabout U.S. surveillance programs outside U.S. Consulate General

A supporter holds a picture of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret information about U.S. surveillance programs, outside the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong Thursday. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

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Updated: July 15, 2013 7:49PM

One thing we’ve learned from the controversy over the national security surveillance leaks is that 4.9 million people have access — meaning they know or could know — to information classified as “confidential and secret.” For the really secret stuff, it’s 1.4 million people, a third of them in private contracting businesses outside of government, who have entree to “top secret” files. Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many secrets are making their way to the front page.

Betrayal of government’s top secrets is nothing new. What is different is the status of the individual betraying — or whistle blowing, depending upon your perspective — those secrets.

Betrayal would be the proper term for the 20th century’s most famous case — the transmission of America’s Cold War secrets to the Soviet Union by Alger Hiss. He had served in prominent positions in the State Department and the United Nations. When Aldrich Ames’ high-flying lifestyle of a Jaguar and luxury home led to his exposure as a mole telling Moscow about U.S. secret agents in Soviet-bloc countries, he was a top counter-intelligence officer for the CIA.

In the most celebrated case of the last half-century — the leaking of the Pentagon Papers about the origins of the Vietnam War — Daniel Ellsberg was a Harvard- and Cambridge-educated analyst for a private contractor with Defense Department business.

Contrast those men with the two biggest betrayers of secrets in the 21st century — Edward Snowden, who leaked information about the National Security Agency’s anti-terrorist surveillance, and Bradley Manning, who transmitted secret materials to the website WikiLeaks. Like Ellsberg, Snowden worked for a private contractor. But as a high school dropout and military washout, he had nothing like the credentials of the Pentagon Papers leaker. As with Hiss and Ames, Manning worked for the government, but he was a low-ranking soldier in the Army.

Clearly it doesn’t take high office or even much in the way of clout these days to pore over a “top secret” dossier.

Perhaps the problem is not that we have too many people with access to secrets but that government has too many secrets. “Unchecked official secrecy” is how current policy is described by Steven Aftergood, who writes the authoritative “Secrecy News Blog” for the Federation of American Scientists.

“Too much essential information on intelligence surveillance policy has been withheld from public access, thereby inhibiting public debate, precluding informed consent, and inspiring growing cynicism,” Aftergood wrote recently. Also classified as a government secret is the administration’s legal justification for secretly collecting metadata on the phone calls of hundreds of millions of Americans — secrets wrapped in secrets.

As I’ve written before, I think it’s a rush to judgment to say the anti-terrorism surveillance program that has foiled, according to NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander, dozens of plots is a violation of Fourth Amendment privacy rights. But if the administration won’t even explain its legal authority, reasonable people can come to other conclusions.

A dangerous world obviously requires government secrets. Yet insiders prize inside information. So it’s not surprising that intelligence, diplomatic and military officials are quick to reach for the “top secret” stamp. But too many secrets constitutes a formula for undermining our democratic republic.

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