Secrecy is known to impair even intended communication. It slows down desired processes and increases the costs of classified development programs, for example.

An extreme example was the super-secret anti-tank rifle of the Polish Army in 1939. It was stored in containers, unknown even to battalion commanders and completely unknown to their intended users till months before the war. As a result, there was no good doctrine for their employment in place.

The rifle itself was technically interesting and impressive, but it was also ineffective when eventually the German Army attacked in autumn 1939 with a tank force that was still highly vulnerable to anti-tank rifles (few tanks had at least their frontal armour plating strong enough to resist those AP bullets).

Classification of information is almost futile in face of professional, well-funded spies. There was almost a consensus during the Cold War that the Russians had the blueprints of new Western weapon systems and aircraft by about the time of their introduction into service.

That lead even to the cancellation or avoidance of certain R&D efforts in cases of technology that was at least as useful to the Warsaw Pact as to us.

The idea that secrets have a kind of half-life time measured in hours (tactical secrets in combat) to a few years (blueprints) is a rather disillusioning one to many people. The obvious follow-on question to such a disillusionment is to ask why we don't declassify rather early in order to better avoid the disadvantages of secrecy.

That leads to the different treatment of field manuals in NATO; the British are quite strict (all field manuals classified, even the British Army Review is classified) and the Germans are quite secretive as well (all field manuals classified) while the U.S. Army on the other hand declassified hundreds of field manuals. Their FM 3-24 about COIN was declassified from the beginning, which fostered intense military and political debate on COIN with international experts.

The actual enemies were after all likely able to learn faster about such doctrines (and especially about how much the doctrine is really being followed) by experience than they could by translating and reading.

It's regrettable that Germany still lacks a Freedom of Information Act and a corresponding attitude towards information. A bit more information would probably help to kick start a competent debate on security policy issues and Bundeswehr reform in our mass media.
That's on the other hand probably why it doesn't happen. The last SecDef (Jung) barely informed the parliamentary committee, after all.

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That alone wouldn't suffice for a full blog post over here, so let's go on with the creative, theoretical part:

Let's first make some assumption;
(1) The average duration till a breach of secrecy is known and the variance is small.
(2) Restricting publication has disadvantages.
(3) Restricting publication offers advantages only till the breach of secrecy.

This set of assumptions would mean that there's a trade-off between the risk of declassifying still secret info (due to the variance) and enjoying the advantages of open info.

That simple trade-off is the 'simple' answer. A more intricate one would consider the foreign espionage effort and therefore the foreign breach of secrecy as endogenous, not exogenous. This means it can be influenced.
It's possible to improve secrecy somewhat (at certain costs), but the more interesting approach is to influence the foreign espionage by setting the end of secrecy yourself.

Imagine this; a secret is set to be disclosed after five years. A foreign intelligence service can expect to get access to it after 4+/-1 years with an expensive espionage effort. They would most certainly try it if there was no date for disclosure set. Would they do it in the knowledge that they could only 'buy' one year improvement?
This adds another variable; their preference. How much is 1 month advance worth? Two months? A year?
One thing is very likely; they would be ready to spend more for getting an info at all than for getting it barely a few months earlier.

In the end, it might be possible to keep info secret for longer if you are ready to disclose them smartly and predictably.

This adds another advantage; you could declassify just 95% - the advantage of knowing the final 5% would probably too little to justify the expense of a full espionage effort. The final 5% could sometimes be important, sometimes trivial - that adds a risk premium into the opponent's decision.

A strategy of timed declassification of information could discourage much espionage by devaluing it. The end result might be even better than just a small extension of the period of secrecy.

This theoretical idea offers of course no definitive classification strategy.
The best strategy decision depends on many (more) variables - many of them likely even unknown to the intelligence agencies themselves. It may be that no timed declassification would ever extend the period of secrecy or discourage espionage. It may just be an odd, theoretical extreme that doesn't happen in practice.

Then again we don't really lack whistle-blowers who consider the existing (de)classification strategies as questionable. The lower levels of secrecy ("restricted", "NATO restricted", "VS-NfD") are obviously just a joke and keep almost nothing secret against professional spies. Even journalists often seem to work with leaked "confidential" documents.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Re: classification of U.S. manuals, I recall reading something written by a U.S. MI type back in the Eighties that one of his Soviet counterparts complained to him "It's useless to study your manuals and analyze your doctrine because you don't bother to read your own damn manuals or follow your own doctrine."

    I think the U.S. attitude (hubristic, perhaps, but there then...) is that it's all about the execution. "We're so good that you can read our game plan and we'll STILL beat you..."

  2. Re: VS-NfD - This really is a joke. Is there actually any relevant "secret" information contained in such documents or is that thing just a reflex?! I mean, you dont need any professional spies for getting that stuff at all...just good connections to a cleaning lady or say, a conscript in his third month. Thats probably the way the media get their hands on these papers as well.

  3. I think secrecy has value. It may be true that foreign spies find most things out, but they can never really be sure. Mistakes are often made, double agents may play a role, and the target nation may actually manage to keep their secret a secret. It's possible to spoof an enemy by leaking false information, but such information is much more plausible if the enemy is operating in the dark.

    It is a fact of human nature that more weight is given to "stolen" information than to that which is obtained freely. The thrill of having a secret source unbalances even the most well-funded and well-trained analyst. Politicians, being generally unprofessional in their use of intelligence, are especially vulnerable to this, as we have seen quite recently. Thus secrecy offers an opportunity to deceive the enemy by toying with his spies.

    The Russians are big believers in this. They argue that even if you cannot prevent the enemy from finding out a fact you can affect the amount of confidence he has in it. Even a small chance of being wrong must influence his calculations and with millions of small facts to check and verify and assess there is a systematic uncertainty that builds up. As always, the Russians took things a little too far, even classifying field maps, but the logic is sound.

    Against this, it is also true that governments keep secrets not so much for strategic reasons as for political ones. The ability to call out the government and demand they explain themselves is what the Freedom of Information Act is all about.