Classifying Intelligence Blunders

The U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment might be throw­ing out its pros­e­cu­tion of sus­pect­ed Al Qae­da ter­ror­ist Zacarias Mous­saoui because it doesn’t want to allow him to ques­tion anoth­er Al Qae­da detainee in court. With­out the tes­ti­mo­ny of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the judge might throw out the entire indict­ment against Mous­saoui. What’s the Jus­tice Department’s ratio­nale? It says any tes­ti­mo­ny “would nec­es­sar­i­ly result in the unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sure of clas­si­fied information.”

Almost three years lat­er, what kind of clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion could Mous­saoui pos­si­bly have? Sure­ly noth­ing that future ter­ror­ists could use. The only thing he could talk about is con­di­tions in the pris­ons. Bin al-Shibh is being held in a secret loca­tion under mil­i­tary law but has report­ed­ly con­fessed to being part of the 9/11 attacks. Sure­ly all the infor­ma­tion he knows about the attacks is also known by dozens of oth­er Al Qae­da mem­bers still at large. Why is U.S.Attorney John Ashcroft’s Jus­tice Depart­ment so ner­vous about let­ting bin al-Shibh speak in public?

A gov­ern­ment will clas­si­fy a piece of infor­ma­tion if it feels that its dis­clo­sure would threat­en nation­al secu­ri­ty: that with it, its ene­mies could use it to launch some new attack. But every­thing that Mous­saoui and bin al-Shibh know is already known by our ene­mies. Gov­ern­ments some­times will abuse their pow­er and declare some­thing clas­si­fied if it con­tatins infor­ma­tion that would be embar­rass­ing to its rep­u­ta­tion or its polit­i­cal leaders.

It’s a big deal to risk throw­ing away a case like this, and it seems like­ly that Ashcroft is try­ing to keep some piece of infor­ma­tion from the Amer­i­can peo­ple. He could be try­ing to keep skele­tons of past U.S. mis­deeds safe­ly in the clos­et, using “nation­al secu­ri­ty” as the blan­ket to cov­er up the truth. The two sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists might know quite a bit about U.S. intel­li­gence coöper­a­tion with Afghani ter­ror­ists dur­ing the 1980s (when they were aim­ing their attacks at the Sovi­et Union). They might know about U.S. intel­li­gence mis­takes that could have pre­vent­ed 9/11. They sure­ly know about con­di­tions in the secret pris­ons were even detainees’ names and loca­tions are con­sid­ered “clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion.” Who’s secu­ri­ty would be threat­ened if this kind of infor­ma­tion got published?