Less than a year after the Cold War ended, one of its best-kept secrets came to light when the hidden purpose of West Virginia’s Greenbrier Hotel was revealed in the Washington Post.1 Beneath the hotel was a massive bunker built to house the U.S. Congress after a nuclear war, part of the nation’s “continuity of government” program. Though congressional leaders had urged the newspaper not to expose the secret, the Post’s executive editor justified the publication as a “historically significant and interesting story that posed no grave danger to national security or human life.”2 Ted Gup, the journalist who uncovered the Greenbrier’s macabre function, went further, arguing that the facility had been potentially destabilizing even when its existence was a secret. Evacuating Congress during a crisis might have telegraphed that the United States was bracing for nuclear war, precipitating a Soviet first-strike. Far from an act of irresponsible journalism, Gup cited the story as a case study in the value of an inquisitive press corps.3
Though lawmakers quickly acknowledged the Greenbrier’s obsolescence, the revelation remains controversial.4 Despite a plea for discretion, a small number of journalists had substituted their own judgment on national security for that of the U.S. defense establishment. The tension that the story illuminated — between the value gained by revealing sensitive information and the potential harm invited by doing so — has only grown more pronounced since terrorism emerged as the dominant security threat. This tension usually concerns information that, like the bunker location, has been formally designated as secret. Most recently, WikiLeaks’ release of more than a half-million classified documents has revived debate over the legitimacy of leaking as a form of civil disobedience.5 However, a more complex question concerns the advisability of making public, or drawing attention to, a variety of mostly unclassified information that is nonetheless useful to terrorists.6 Examples of this information include media descriptions of target vulnerabilities, hypothetical attack scenarios, and sensitive counterterrorism measures. The central question explored in this article is whether the availability of this unclassified knowledge benefits our adversaries more than it advantages society.
The motives behind disclosures of sensitive information vary, but a common refrain is that they spur remedial action that would otherwise be avoided. Critics argue, however, that these revelations recklessly endanger the public. Whatever their effect, a soft consensus seems to have formed that airing this information does not subtract from national security to such an extent as to justify the extraordinary powers that would be required to suppress it. This attitude represents a stark departure from previous wartime policy, when speech was frequently restricted on security grounds.7 During World War II, censorship succeeded largely because communications technology had not yet made the practice impractical. Since then, the information revolution has greatly expanded the number of people with access to sensitive information as well as the means to disseminate it. Attempts to manage this information have been less than vigorous, and in many cases the government itself has made questionable revelations in the name of greater transparency.
The existence of sensitive information in the public domain is a security concern only insofar as there are adversaries poised to exploit it. Yet on this score there can be little doubt. Gathering information from open sources is an established intelligence methodology that both states and non-state actors utilize. For example, Chinese physicists relied heavily on Western scientific literature in their development of strategic weapons.8 Modern-day terrorists appear to behave similarly. A captured al-Qaeda training manual released by the Justice Department after 9/11 advises that by using public sources “openly and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80% of information about the enemy.” Among the sources it recommends are “newspapers, magazines, books, periodicals, official publications, and enemy broadcasts.”9 The diversity of malevolent actors who might exploit this information has also grown dramatically over the previous decades. In the age of terrorism, the incoherence of the nation’s response to this phenomenon represents a significant failure.
This article examines three common forms of “sensitive information,” defined for the purpose of this analysis as knowledge that might be useful to terrorists and would be considerably more difficult — if not impossible — for them to assemble independently. This information includes: media reports and risk assessments, both private and government-sponsored, that identify critical vulnerabilities to terrorism; open-source analyses that hypothesize creative terrorist attacks; and publications that reveal potentially dangerous knowledge under the rubric of scientific openness or, in the case of classified information, the public’s “right to know.” The purpose of the analysis is to challenge the assumption that these revelations are largely innocuous. A further aim is to dispute the notion that curtailing them requires measures that are incompatible with our national values. This misconception encourages the belief that any effort to discourage discussion of sensitive information compromises civil liberties.
An alternative to draconian restrictions on speech entails fostering a culture of voluntary restraint, in which citizens refrain from inappropriate revelations out of a sense of civic duty. Its enforcement would depend not on government coercion but on individuals and institutions supplying disapproval of irresponsible discussion. Admittedly, any effort to discourage discussion of unclassified knowledge, no matter how sensitive, faces an obvious hurdle: persuading the public to accept new categories of protected information just as the government struggles to keep secret the materials it has already classified. But the challenge of safeguarding the two types of information is different. One requires more diligent enforcement of existing security protocols. The other is a societal responsibility that presents no additional burden to the government beyond promoting its merits. While the debate over the discussion of unclassified information is not likely to resume until another attack occurs, policymakers should revisit the matter before that inevitable event. In its aftermath, impulsive calls to curtail American rights may obscure the more measured option that is available today.
The emergence of terrorism has occasioned the reevaluation of what had been a steady increase in transparency across many sectors of society. The shift in attitude concerning knowledge of natural gas line locations is instructive. For decades errant digging had occasionally punctured pipes containing explosive gas, with lethal results. Industry and government responded by advertising their location as widely as possible. After 9/11, however, a series of reports highlighting the possibility of natural gas attacks led some to question the wisdom of this effort. A 2004 New York Times headline captures the dilemma: “Mapping Natural Gas Lines: Advise the Public, Tip Off the Terrorists.” In response to these concerns, pipeline maps began to be removed from many gas company web sites.10 Similar fears have arisen in other countries. In 2008, flood risk experts in Britain’s Environment Agency incurred the wrath of security officials when they published maps depicting regions under severe threat in the event of dam failures.11 As in the United States, however, such objections have been inconsistent, leaving unresolved the question of whether society is better served by openness or discretion.
Reactions to the identification of vulnerabilities can generally be divided into two schools of thought. The first contends that vulnerability assessments are often indistinguishable from terrorists’ target research and should therefore be closely guarded. In keeping with this view, Dennis Pluchinsky, a former State Department intelligence analyst, facetiously accused the American media of “treason” for its post-9/11 security coverage, which he suggested had “clearly identified for terrorist groups the country’s vulnerabilities.”12 The opposing view is that identifying security gaps has a mostly salutary effect. As Georgetown Law Professor Laura Donohue argues, “Citizens are entitled to know when their milk, their water, their bridges, their hospitals lack security precautions. If discussion of these issues is censored, the state and private industry come under less pressure to alter behavior…”13 Of course, these outcomes are not mutually exclusive — publicizing vulnerabilities may simultaneously alert terrorists to promising targets and prompt policymakers to protect them. In these cases, the crucial question is whether the benefit of identifying a vulnerability outweighs the possibility that the likelihood of its being exploited will increase. Since 9/11, many commentators have taken this wager, as a brief review of the literature illustrates.
In 2005, Slate writer Andy Bowers published instructions on how to exploit a loophole in the No-Fly List using online check-in. This convenience allows travelers to print boarding passes at home and proceed directly to airport security, where they present some form of government identification. While the names on the pass and ID must match, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not scan the barcode or compare the name against the No-Fly List. Only at the gate is the boarding pass scanned, but no matching identification is required. Bowers suggests that terrorists could travel with two boarding passes — one legitimate, purchased with a stolen credit card, and the other a counterfeit created using widely available software. At the first checkpoint, the passenger will pass through as long as the fake pass corresponds with the ID. The scan of the genuine pass at the gate will not register alarm because it contains an innocent name. Bowers justified this revelation with a familiar defense — if he could discern the loophole, “any terrorist worth his AK-47 realized it a long time ago.”14 In another piece, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg provided a recipe for fabricating a homemade knife in flight with steel epoxy glue: “It comes in two tubes, one with steel dust and then a hardener. You make the mold by folding a piece of cardboard in two, and then you mix the two tubes together…. It hardens in 15 minutes.”15 Goldberg also described passing through security wearing under his shirt a polyurethane bladder designed to sneak 80 ounces of alcohol into sporting events, presumably sufficient to hold enough liquid explosives to destroy an aircraft in flight.16
A frequent target of journalistic exposés is the security surrounding the nation’s critical infrastructure, particularly facilities that manufacture or store dangerous materials. In one “60 Minutes” investigation in 2004, camera crews infiltrated several chemical plants to demonstrate their susceptibility to terrorism.17 Though these investigations often contain sensationalist or self-congratulatory undertones, such reporting can still be done responsibly. In 2005, for example, ABC News investigated the security at nuclear research reactors on 25 university campuses using undercover graduate students to penetrate the sites.18 The laxity of the security would later be featured in a televised special on vulnerable nuclear sites. However, six weeks before the broadcast, the investigative team disclosed its findings to university officials and government personnel, allowing time to heighten security at the facilities. In doing so, a program that might have instantly increased a security threat was limited to a mere embarrassment for the universities.
Despite the practice of “overclassification,” in which the government makes secret an abundance of innocuous material, government reports are ironically the source of much sensitive information.19 The Smyth Report, the unclassified history of the Manhattan Project, provides a useful lesson.20 Released in August 1945, the report had several purposes: to educate the public about the atomic bomb, showcase openness in government, and signal what could and could not be said about the new weapon. A debate raged over whether the report revealed too much —physicist Leó Szilárd claimed it “clearly indicates the road along which any other nations will have to travel” — but officials ultimately judged that nothing vital was revealed.21 However, historian Michael Gordin argues that the Smyth Report was in fact “crucial for the Soviet [bomb] project—perhaps the most important single source of American information….” Thirty thousand translations were distributed to Soviet research institutes. According to Gordin, had the report not existed, “the Soviets would have had to write a guidebook of their own. Smyth saved them the trouble….”22 Dr. Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi weapon scientist who defected in 1994, recalled using the same materials in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. He later wrote, “I was sure that if U.S. officials knew how valuable its Manhattan Project reports would be to us years later, they would have kicked themselves.”23
The practice of revealing sensitive information for the sake of openness in government continues today. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, regularly scandalizes Congress and the media with revelations of slipshod security practices. A typical report in 2007 described the ease with which undercover agents passed through airport security with concealed bomb components.24 Beyond confirming the practicality of this attack mode, the report provided clues on the simulated bomb design that an astute terrorist might have perceived. A later report catalogued deficiencies in the security surrounding the nation’s biosafety level 4 laboratories, which house pathogens such as Ebola and smallpox.25 Another provided details of the behavioral profiling techniques that TSA uses to screen for suspicious airline passengers.26 These reports are made public despite evidence that terrorists are aware of them. Indeed, in 2010, an al Qaeda affiliate released an English-language document detailing its attempt to detonate explosives on two U.S.-bound cargo aircraft; the document referenced a GAO assessment of cargo inspection methods, demonstrating the network’s awareness of this source of information.27
These revelations would be beneficial if they consistently prompted corrective action, but in many cases they do not, as an earlier series of reports illustrates. In 2003, GAO provided a virtual guide to collecting material for a radiological dispersal device (RDD), which could easily be obtained due to weaknesses in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) licensing process.28 Four years later, an investigation revealed that these weaknesses had not been addressed. After establishing a sham business with only a post office box, investigators acquired a license to receive radioactive materials and then doctored it to permit unlimited acquisition of sources. The investigators then contracted with two U.S. suppliers to purchase moisture density gauges containing enough americium-241 and cesium-137 to construct an RDD.29 While this investigation finally forced the NRC to suspend its licensing program, the government has identified other security gaps where the potential for timely remediation is severely limited.
Numerous reports have advertised shortcomings in the architecture to detect smuggled nuclear weapons, particularly the inability of radiation portal monitors at U.S. seaports to detect “shielded” nuclear material.30 Others have documented the virtual absence of scanning for railcars and small watercraft entering the country.31 This information greatly reduces terrorists’ uncertainty about the obstacles they face in conducting an attack. Micah D. Lowenthal draws on scholarship concerning criminal behavior to demonstrate how this knowledge hinders our ability to deter nuclear terrorism. Specifically, he cites a study on the effectiveness of the Lojack car retrieval system, an unobservable transmitter that allows police to track stolen vehicles. While visible theft-deterrent devices such as steering wheel locks simply shift thieves’ energies to neighboring cars, Lojack produced broad reductions in overall theft.32 The explanation is simple: criminals are aware that the device is used but are unable to identify which cars have it. Lowenthal argues that a similar phenomenon may occur with nuclear terrorism, in which “the existence of some radiation monitoring at seaports and land border crossings may deflect adversaries, causing them to focus on other gaps…that are identified as easier targets.”33 Disclosing information on the detection architecture therefore guarantees that it will have little effect on the overall risk. By contrast, deliberate ambiguity about U.S. defenses might deter terrorists from attempting a nuclear attack in the first place. At the least, such a policy would avoid steering them toward the least defended entry points.
The preceding anecdotes concern attack vectors that are, in all likelihood, already familiar to terrorists. While this information may make an attack easier to plan or more likely to succeed, a determined adversary may be able to perform the necessary research without assistance. An altogether different category of sensitive information consists of novel ideas for attacks that may not have occurred to the most imaginative adversaries. Managing discussion of these scenarios presents a special challenge, as the creativity of the 9/11 attacks ensured that exercises in innovative thinking would find a receptive audience in both the government and the popular culture.
After 9/11, conceiving novel means of wreaking havoc became something of a fiendish hobby for many analysts.34 One group of authors, noting the proliferation of hypothetical scenarios in the public domain, suggested that their source must be a basement where “thousands of monkeys who have yet to type out exact copies of the works of Shakespeare are nonetheless producing dozens of new ideas for attacks on America…”35 Many of these scenarios follow a familiar template. “At 3 a.m. on a moonless night,” begins one fictitious plot in IEEE Spectrum, “a pair of armored vans race down an access road leading up to the sprawling Hovensa oil refinery.…”36 Another scenario by Thomas Homer-Dixon (which begins at 4 a.m. on a “sweltering” night rather than a “moonless” one) involves an assault on the electricity grid during a heat wave:
In different parts of [California], half a dozen small groups of men and women gather. Each travels in a rented minivan to its prearranged destination — for some, a location outside one of the hundreds of electrical substations dotting the state; for others, a spot upwind from key, high-voltage transmission lines…. Those outside the substations put together simple mortars made from materials bought at local hardware stores, while those near the transmission lines use helium to inflate weather balloons with long, silvery tails. At a precisely coordinated moment, the homemade mortars are fired, sending showers of aluminum chaff over the substations. The balloons are released and drift into the transmission lines. Simultaneously, other groups are doing the same thing along the Eastern Seaboard and in the South and Southwest. A national electrical system already under immense strain is massively short-circuited, causing a cascade of power failures across the country. Traffic lights shut off. Water and sewage systems are disabled. Communications systems break down. The financial system and national economy come screeching to a halt.37
Innumerable scenarios of this ilk have been described in the public domain, ranging from infecting livestock with contagious diseases to setting serial forest fires.38 Security expert Bruce Schneier holds a perennial “Movie-Plot Threat Contest,” inviting participants to propose attack scenarios that are “horrific and completely ridiculous, but plausible.” The plots are reliably dramatic: irradiating Wall Street with radiological bombs, crashing explosives-filled airplanes into the Grand Coulee Dam, and so on.39 The government evidently sees value in such exercises, in part because the 9/11 Commission identified the failure of “imagination” as first among the deficiencies that contributed to the tragedy.40 Shortly after the attacks, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice famously asserted, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people…would try to use an airplane as a missile.”41 Rice’s statement was soon discovered to be incorrect — more than a dozen references to hijacked planes-cum-guided missiles were identified after the attacks. One 1999 report speculated that al Qaeda’s suicide bombers “could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives…into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the [CIA], or the White House.”42
The government subsequently commissioned a series of exercises to capture some of the creativity that had so disastrously eluded its analysts. In one program, the Army-funded Institute for Creative Technology enlisted Hollywood screenwriters and directors to conjure up frightening attack scenarios.43 Yet the products of these sessions remained off-limits to public scrutiny. As one official explained, “Our worst nightmare was that we would suggest scenarios to terrorists.”44 Marvin Cetron, a “futurist” who credits himself with having foreseen the 9/11 attacks, claims that the State Department removed his prediction from a 1994 government report for fear that it might “give terrorists a valuable idea they might not conceive on their own.”45
Cetron has found a more receptive market for his powers of discernment after 9/11 — he has since published several lists of “unthinkable” terrorist plots ranging from destroying Tennessee Valley Authority dams to bombing a liquefied natural gas tanker near a major city.46 While such scenarios are often farcical, they occasionally produce useful insights. In one analysis, James Acton et al. suggest several innovative means of disseminating radiological materal beyond the standard “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material is simply mixed with explosives.47 Though the common assumption is that such a device would produce catastrophic effects, the authors argue that the death toll would be “very unlikely to reach three figures.” By contrast, attacks involving ingestion, inhalation, and immersion of radiation, which they dub I3 attacks, may claim an order of magnitude more victims and would be less technically challenging to carry out.48 While their analysis stops short of providing instructions to terrorists, the authors have arguably provided several kernels of useful information.
Just as in the case of advertising vulnerabilities, government officials are often the source of worrisome scenarios. In 2009, for example, Charles R. Gallaway, then head of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, testified before Congress on the challenge of interdicting attempts to smuggle a nuclear device into the United States. Citing a government study, he noted that “the most difficult scenario to counter was the use of [general aviation] aircraft delivering a weapon from outside the borders of the U.S. directly to a target.” Gallaway observed that such an attack “would enable an adversary to bypass…multiple detection and interdiction opportunities.”49 Because a system to defeat this scenario would obviously require great time and expense to implement, and may ultimately be unachievable, the decision to emphasize this attack mode is curious. At the very least, Gallaway may have given adversaries inspiration that they did not previously possess.
On the question of giving terrorists novel ideas, commentators usually argue that our adversaries are sufficiently clever to discern the nation’s vulnerabilities. As Cetron avers, “I no longer worry about giving the bad guys ideas…. They will think of any attack we can…”50 Yet a private admission by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri casts doubt on this assumption. In a captured 1999 memo to an associate, Zawahiri conceded that “Despite their extreme danger, we only became aware of [biological and chemical weapons] when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concerns that they can be produced simply with easily available materials.”51
The year after Zawahiri’s memo was written, columnist Colbert I. King authored a detailed scenario to highlight the capital’s vulnerability. King described two heavily armed terrorists seizing control of the Washington Monument, blocking the staircases with explosives, and firing from the windows with a .50 caliber rifle.52 In his view, “Gain control of the monument and you hold sway over a large area of the world’s most powerful capital, at least for several days.” So attractive is the scenario, he suggests, that the monument “easily makes a terrorist’s list.”53 Some variation of this rationale is the default response of those who publicly speculate about terrorist scenarios and wish to avoid criticism for doing so. However, an argument can be made that his attack had not occurred to a single terrorist before King described it. Elliot Panek considers this question in assessing the effect of “Wisdom of Crowds wiki-logic” in the context of terrorism, or whether aggregating creative scenarios constitutes “doing the terrorists’ work for them.”54 He notes that generating plausible scenarios requires considerable thoughtfulness, and while “[o]ne writer (e.g., Tom Clancy) could be pretty good at that, and a bunch of devoted terrorists could be just as good if not better…a larger group of well-educated, creative people…would certainly be better at it than either Clancy or the terrorist.” Panek rejects the assumption that terrorists have already conceived of every brilliant scenario, arguing that “the most sophisticated think tank is probably no match for the collective wisdom of the [New York Times] readership…”55
However irresponsible these descriptions, authors who publish them usually insist that terrorists could, with the proper effort and imagination, conceive them without assistance. The same is true for the identification of domestic vulnerabilities. What distinguishes the final species of information considered in this article is its inaccessibility to all but the most rarefied circle of thinkers. If the first two categories concern insights that would be difficult for adversaries to gain themselves, the last consists of information that requires the complicity of a third party.
Sensitive information is often revealed in the service of a beneficial purpose even if its immediate impact appears harmful. One famous case fitting this description is the New York Times’ revelation of the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping program. After first learning of the program, the Times’ refrained from publishing the story for a year, in part due to the urging of administration officials.56 In December 2005, just before publishing their sensational scoop, journalist Eric Lichtblau and the newspaper’s editors were summoned to the White House, where these officials again attempted to dissuade them from going to print. Their case was compelling: disclosure of the program would instantly eliminate its effectiveness and place American lives in danger. As Lichtblau later recounted, “the message was unmistakable: If the New York Times went ahead and published this story, we would share the blame for the next terrorist attack.”57 This argument was ultimately unpersuasive, although the Times’ account of the program did omit certain sensitive details.58 While the revelation was highly controversial—President Bush described it as “a shameful act” — the story prompted a constructive national debate on wartime executive power.59 Many civil libertarians applauded the skepticism of a press corps that since 9/11 had been supine in its coverage of the administration’s counterterrorism policies.
In other cases, dissemination of sensitive information resembles plain vandalism. This motive is evident in the work of John Young, founder of the web site Cryptome.org.60 Young’s hobby is to make public the government’s most closely held secrets, his motivation appearing to extend no further than his conviction that “There’s nothing that should be secret. Period.”61 Among the information he has published are the locations of nuclear weapon storage facilities and the home addresses of senior government officials.62 In 2009, Young embarrassed TSA by posting an inadequately redacted manual that included airport metal detectors settings and a list of countries whose passport-holders require special scrutiny.63 The following month he posted a similar document on screening procedures for explosive residue in checked baggage.64 While these revelations have an impish quality, an argument can be made that they impose greater discipline on the government to protect sensitive information, if only to avoid embarrassment. The same cannot be said for the amateur satellite trackers who gleefully publish the orbital inclinations of classified U.S. satellites. This phenomenon led a commission on the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which operates the nation’s spy satellites, to note that “public speculation on how NRO satellites are used has aided terrorists and other potential adversaries in developing techniques of denial and deception to thwart U.S. intelligence efforts.”65 Despite this admonition, the practice continues, most recently in 2010 when the orbit of the Pentagon’s classified X-37B spacecraft was revealed less than a month after its launch.66
Though the damage that results from these revelations may be quite severe, those who make them often belong to professions whose ethic sometimes requires disdain for government secrecy. In other cases the disseminators are everyday citizens with a penchant for mischief. In recent years, neither group has been particularly amenable to pleas for discretion. The government has had greater success in managing the communication of another cohort—scientists who conduct “dual-use” research. However, several recent lapses in caution among this group demonstrate the continued risk that attends the dissemination of sensitive information.
In the early 1980s, many U.S. officials grew concerned that the Soviet Union was compensating for its technological inadequacy by mining the U.S. scientific literature. A 1982 incident conveys the climate at the time. Days before a major engineering conference, the Department of Defense (DoD) blocked the delivery of more than 100 unclassified papers on the grounds that Soviet bloc representatives would be present at the conference.67 In response to the broader concern, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) convened the Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security to explore tighter controls on academic communication.68 While federal law grants broad authority to classify scientific research and thereby restrict its publication, deference to scientific openness had made the government reluctant to exercise this power.69 The panel’s findings, known as the Corson Report, acknowledged that a Soviet intelligence-gathering effort was directed at the American scientific community and that a substantial transfer of U.S. technology had indeed occurred. However, the panel determined that American universities, and open scientific communication more generally, were the source of very little of this transfer. Moreover, it concluded that formal policies to restrict scientific communication “could be extremely damaging to overall [U.S.] scientific and economic advance as well as to military progress.” Calling for a strategy of “security by accomplishment” rather than secrecy, the report argued that the “limited and uncertain benefits of such controls are, except in isolated areas, outweighed by the importance of scientific progress…”70 Though the demise of the Soviet Union appeared to vindicate this conclusion, the emergence of transnational terrorism revived the unease that inspired the Corson panel. Rather than the loss of military technology, recent anxieties have centered on publications in the life sciences and their potential utility to bioterrorists.
The danger of publishing sensitive scientific material was powerfully illustrated by a group of Australian scientists conducting pest control research in the late 1990s.71 In a now-infamous experiment, the scientists inserted the interleukin-4 gene into the mousepox virus with the aim of producing an “infectious contraceptive” for mice.72 Rather than sterilizing the subjects, however, the modified mousepox killed them, including many mice that had been immunized against the unaltered virus. The implications were ominous — a similar modification could yield vaccine-resistant viruses that are lethal to humans, including smallpox. Both the scientists and the editors of the journal to which the work was submitted understood its potential for misuse.73 Their controversial decision to publish was based on the conclusion that the crucial elements of the research had already appeared elsewhere and that so much dangerous information was already available that one additional article would be inconsequential.74 Nonetheless, the mousepox episode would be the catalyst for yet another NAS study on the dangers of scientific communication.75 Yet even before its commencement, scrutiny of dual-use research had greatly increased in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The dilemma in publishing such information is a familiar one. While certain scientific findings could aid malevolent actors, failing to air them in the open literature might inhibit research that holds the key to the defense. After contemplating this quandary, the American Society for Microbiology released guidelines in 2002 for reviewing manuscripts submitted to the journals under its purview. Under this voluntary process, peer reviewers would alert editors if material “might be misused or might pose a threat to public health safety,” and a determination would be made concerning modifications.76 (While only a handful of manuscripts have since been flagged, editors have deleted sensitive details on several occasions.77) The following year, the editors and publishers of the nation’s leading life-science journals met to discuss the publication of such information. During this meeting, a near-consensus emerged that “there is information that…presents enough risk of use by terrorists that it should not be published.” The group recommended that in circumstances in which the potential danger of publication exceeds the potential benefit to the public, sensitive papers should be modified or not published at all. In these cases, alternative means of communication such as academic seminars should be used to minimize the risk of misuse.78 The eventual NAS report also reflected a preference for self-regulation, noting that “imposing mandatory information controls on research in the life sciences…[would] be difficult and expensive with little likely gain in genuine security.”79 As an alternative to government oversight, the NAS panel endorsed the concept of “voluntary self-governance of the scientific community rather than formal regulation by government.”80
The presumption underlying this system is that scientists will censor themselves responsibly, obviating the need for government oversight, and that there will be agreement on what should not be published. The mousepox case calls both of these assumptions into question. After a review of the case, the editor of the Journal of Virology expressed no misgivings about the decision to publish.81 Likewise, the NAS panel deemed the publication “appropriate,” stating that there was “little technical information that was not already abundantly available in the literature.”82 Moreover, the research “alerted the scientific community to such a possibility occurring either intentionally or spontaneously.”83 However, at least one of the researchers involved in the experiment later expressed misgivings about its merit. Dr. Ian Ramshaw noted that even before discovering a method to increase the lethality of pox viruses, his team had stumbled upon another “dual-use dilemma” — creating an agent of contagious sterility — that was scarcely less sinister. As a weapon against humans, Ramshaw considered this “as bad as making a virus that kills the individual” and concluded that the original research “should never have started in the first place.”84
Another article published after the NAS report reinforces the limits of self-censorship. In 2005, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences approved for publication the research of Stanford University scholars Lawrence Wein and Yifan Liu, who had analyzed a release of botulinum toxin in the milk distribution system.85 Wein and Liu had determined that absent detection, an attack involving less than 1g of the toxin would poison 100,000 people.86 Among this exposed group, Wein later elaborated, more than half would likely perish.87 Just prior to publication, an official of the Department of Health and Human Services requested that the journal hold the piece, calling it “a road map for terrorists.”88 After a brief delay to review the request, the editors proceeded with publication, which NAS president Dr. Bruce Alberts defended by noting that all of the information that could be useful to terrorists was “immediately accessible…through a simple Google search.”89 This is a familiar, yet spurious, defense. Putting aside that simply conceiving the attack mode is an important element of every plot, the existence of information on the Internet is not evidence of its harmlessness. Disparate, mundane information can be aggregated in such a way that the ultimate product is highly sensitive.
The “Nth Country” experiment, a little-known exercise during the Cold War, illustrates the potential dividend that open-source research can yield. In 1964, the U.S. government recruited three young physics postdocs with no knowledge of nuclear weapons and tasked them with designing a bomb with a “militarily significant yield” using only open-source literature. To the dismay of many officials, their ultimate design was deemed workable.90 In a later instance, journalist Howard Morland used public information and expert interviews to approximate the design of a hydrogen bomb, which he described in a piece for Progressive magazine.91 After receiving a copy of the article, the government attempted to suppress its publication, setting off a highly public legal battle.92 Only after similar information appeared in a separate publication — its author inspired by the Progressive case to commit an act of civil disobedience — did the government cease its attempt to silence Morland.93
A more recent case involves the doctoral dissertation of Sean Gorman, a George Mason University graduate student. Gorman and his research partner used public information culled from the Internet to map the fiber-optic network that connects American industry. The result was a tool that a government official described as a “cookbook of how to exploit the vulnerabilities of our nation’s infrastructure.”94 According to its description in the press, the tool allowed a user to “click on a bank in Manhattan and see who has communication lines running into it and where… [or] drill into a cable trench between Kansas and Colorado and determine how to create the most havoc with a hedge clipper.” When the pair presented their research to a room full of chief information officers of U.S. financial firms, it was suggested that they not be allowed to leave with their briefing. At the urging of government officials, the university directed that only general summaries of their findings be published.95 This outcome, in which private citizens acted voluntarily to mollify the government, provides some optimism that sensitive information can be protected without formal restrictions. Yet the ad hoc nature of these interventions, and the absence of a culture of discretion that would make them unnecessary, ensures that much dangerous knowledge will continue to be available.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to sanitizing discussion of sensitive information is the unresolved question of its harmfulness. Since 9/11, vulnerabilities have been identified in countless targets without terrorists’ exploiting them. Several high-impact, easily replicable attacks have occurred and have not been copied. Consider, for example, the Beltway Sniper attacks, in which two snipers killed 10 people from a converted sedan in October 2002. These shootings fairly traumatized the Washington, D.C., area and are often cited as an ideal template for future attacks.96 Yet after eight years no similar attack has occurred. The few attacks that have been attempted, such as Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway, have required no special choreography or insight into security gaps.97 While this observation might explain the complacency surrounding sensitive information, a spectacular attack may quickly invalidate it, especially if such information turns out to have enabled its success. The danger of disseminating sensitive information should be evaluated a priori and not on the basis of recent experience.
If one accepts the premise that sensitive information may be useful to attentive adversaries, the central question is how to manage this information more appropriately. Previous wartime restrictions on speech are neither politically acceptable nor technologically feasible in the present day. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 1917 Espionage Act, which criminalized the transmission of “information relating to the national defense” to the country’s enemies.98 Latter-day incarnations of this law were proposed after 9/11, such as Dennis Pluchinsky’s suggestion—risible even in those fearful days — that laws should be enacted “temporarily restricting the media from publishing any security information that can be used by our enemies.”99 Such proposals have little chance of enactment, but variations are being pursued that are only slightly less troubling. The following discussion examines the efficacy of the government’s usual approach to managing sensitive information. Additionally, several alternatives are put forward that are both less intrusive and potentially more effective than the bald restrictions on speech that are often proposed.
Even when the government has legitimate objections to the release of information, either classified or merely sensitive, efforts to suppress its publication occasionally backfire.100 This occurred in 1979 when the government attempted to censor Howard Morland’s hydrogen bomb article. Hugh E. DeWitt, a retired government physicist, noted then that the genesis of the controversy was the Department of Energy’s (DOE) response to Progressive’s editors, who had submitted Morland’s manuscript for confirmation of its technical accuracy. According to DeWitt, “Had [DOE] responded with their usual curt lsquo;no comment’ the article would have appeared, attracted little attention, and been quickly forgotten.”101 The pursuit of an injunction implicitly confirmed the value of its content. A similar episode unfolded in late 2010 when the Pentagon purchased and destroyed 9,500 copies of Operation Dark Heart, the memoir of a former intelligence officer in Afghanistan.102 DoD officials had determined that the book contained classified operational details. However, because dozens of advance copies had already been distributed, comparison of the censored second printing with the original work allowed for the identification of its sensitive revelations.103 As a result of the publicity, the redacted version of the book soon topped Amazon’s bestseller list.104
Still more vexing than protecting appropriately classified information, which the government has a clear justification to safeguard, is managing the potential harm of unclassified information in the public domain. As Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy notes, “[government officials] can’t order the nonpublication of a paper just because they consider the findings lsquo;sensitive.’ No such category short of classification exists…”105 Often the appropriate response is not to impose formal restrictions at all, which are likely to be ineffective, incompatible with the First Amendment, or both. Indeed, the government’s inability to silence WikiLeaks illustrates its impotence in policing speech in the Internet age.106 Public leaders should instead promote a culture of voluntary restraint, in which gratuitous revelations of sensitive information are collectively frowned upon. After 9/11, the government took tentative steps to encourage this approach, but they rarely extended beyond the advice issued by the National Infrastructure Protection Center, which asked Americans to “apply common sense in deciding what to publish on the Internet.”107 While many commentators would ignore any request to refrain from publishing sensitive information, even a small reduction in irresponsible discussion would be preferable to the current paradigm.
Changes in societal mores are probably more responsible than any technological development for the increased traffic in sensitive information. Irresponsible disclosures frequently occur without any social penalty for those who make them. This represents a dramatic shift from earlier generations, when cooperation with the government on security matters was more uniform. In one well-known example, American physicists refrained from publishing results on nuclear fission experiments during World War II for fear of assisting the Nazi bomb program.108 Even among provocateurs, there is precedent for self-restraint. Daniel Ellsberg’s name is synonymous with exposing government secrets, having leaked the Pentagon Papers. Yet Ellsberg conscientiously withheld four volumes regarding sensitive negotiations out of concern that they would disrupt the peace process.109 Such discretion can still be found, although it is uncommon enough to be conspicuous. In their analysis of radiological terrorism, for example, James Acton et al. stopped short of revealing a radiation immersion scenario that they claimed would “readily kill several hundreds and disrupt a large city.” As for the specifics of the plot, they wrote, “We will not describe it.”110 In an earlier episode, the government sought a voluntary embargo of the details of a 1984 incident in which religious cultists poisoned 751 people in Oregon with Salmonella. Fearing the attack would inspire copycats, officials asked the Journal of the American Medical Association to refrain from describing the method for twelve years; the editors agreed.111
As an alternative to formal restrictions on communication, professional societies and influential figures should promote voluntary self-censorship as a civic duty. As this practice is already accepted among many scientists, it may be transferrable to members of other professions. As part of this effort, formal channels should be established in which citizens can alert the government to vulnerabilities and other sensitive information without exposing it to a wide audience. Concurrent with this campaign should be the stigmatization of those who recklessly disseminate sensitive information. This censure would be aided by the fact that many such people are unattractive figures whose writings betray their intellectual vanity. The public should be quick to furnish the opprobrium that presently escapes these individuals.
The need to influence the behavior of scientists is particularly acute. The Corson panel, while expressing little enthusiasm for restrictions on scientific communication, noted the existence of a category of research that merited “limited restrictions short of classification” on a largely voluntary basis. This category represented a “gray area” lying between research that can be discussed openly and that which the government has good cause to classify.112 While the need for voluntary self-censorship among scientists is already well recognized, there is still some resistance to the idea that scientific communication should ever be constrained. To wit, one of the researchers involved in the Australian mousepox experiment defended their publication on the grounds that “Anything scientifically interesting should be published.”113 An effort must be made to temper this attitude and make clear that the pursuit of scientific knowledge does not absolve researchers of their social responsibility.
An understandable objection to self-censorship arises when one considers that huge quantities of classified information are being maliciously leaked under the auspices of WikiLeaks. It might seem curious to criticize well-meaning professionals for discussing unclassified information that is far less damaging than the genuine secrets being revealed. Yet the nihilism of this small group is not the standard against which one’s actions should be measured. Nor does it release conscientious citizens from their duty not to endanger the nation.
Outside of the laboratory, discretion in national security matters is nowhere more important than in the field of journalism. The World War II-era Office of Censorship owed much of its success to the voluntary cooperation of the press.114 The relationship between the government and the media is more adversarial today, but vestiges of past cooperation remain. For example, in journalist Bob Woodward’s account of the 2007 troop “surge” in Iraq, he pointedly refused to describe a secret technology used to target insurgent leaders, which he credited with much of the campaign’s success.115 In other cases, however, journalists’ carelessness has caused considerable damage to the nation’s security. The authorized biography of Timothy McVeigh provides a useful example. Based on interviews with McVeigh, two journalists described in detail the bomb he used in the Oklahoma City attack, including its triply redundant fusing mechanism.116 Because information that appears in major newspapers or works from leading publishing houses bears a certain institutional imprimatur, terrorists may find it useful. Would-be bombers face the dilemma of not knowing which of the multitude of Internet bomb designs are feasible, and operational security may preclude their testing a device. Given that McVeigh’s design had been dramatically demonstrated, detailed instructions on how to replicate it should not have been provided.117
Even more important than omitting certain sensitive details is to refrain from sensational reporting that magnifies rather than diminishes security threats. Calling attention to alarming information, ostensibly to prompt its redress, may instead compound the danger, especially if a remedy is not practicable. Once such incident took place in 1975 when Britain’s Sunday Times reported that the U.K. patent office had allowed the formerly secret formula for the VX nerve agent to be published.118 British officials scrambled to remove the offending documents from public libraries.119 However, far from eliminating a threat, the story drew attention to information that was already widely available, having been declassified in several countries years before.120 One British patent agent noted that “without the indiscretion of the Sunday Times an amateur would have been unable to identify and locate the relevant document.”121 Worse, according to Geoffrey Forden, the Times story was the catalyst that initiated Iraq’s nerve gas program.122 Another example can be found in the reporting on the WikiLeaks releases. Several media outlets described a leaked State Department cable that listed sites around the world whose destruction would “critically impact” U.S. national security. Among these were African mines that produce cobalt and bauxite as well as locations where underwater communications cables reach land. One article defended these revelations on the specious grounds that “any would-be terrorist with Internet access and a bit of ingenuity might quickly have identified” the sites.123 Yet as a result of this carelessness, a terrorist would require neither ingenuity nor the patience to scour thousands of leaked documents to identify the most sensitive information.
Journalists should be encouraged to resist the notoriety that attends such reporting by appeals to their sense of civic responsibility. However, it is not the purpose of this essay to suggest that self-censorship should always be the default response when sensitive information is obtained. The media’s role in exposing government incompetence plays a crucial function in maintaining the nation’s civic hygiene, and revealing secrets is occasionally necessary for this purpose. Yet for revelations that potentially threaten public safety, a set of criteria should be established that assist the media in choosing responsibly between silence and disclosure. Regarding security vulnerabilities, the crucial question is whether the potential exists for timely remediation. If it does not, little is gained by drawing attention to weaknesses in the nation’s defenses. An additional determinant should be whether alternative mechanisms exist to alert the government to a deficiency. Here the government has a clear responsibility to ensure that public exposés are not the only means to correct a shortcoming in security.
Whatever the excesses of the U.S. response to 9/11, avoiding wholesale restrictions on the discussion of sensitive information represents a triumph of moderation. Yet in our reverence for free expression, communication has been tolerated that carries considerable security risks while delivering questionable benefits to society. Greater discipline can be imposed on the discussion of sensitive information without formal, coercive restrictions on speech. Indeed, this effort should be predicated on forestalling even greater erosions of liberties that may occur after another devastating attack.
Just as the evolution of social mores has been a factor in making irresponsible communication more acceptable, efforts to discourage these discussions should center on challenging their basic appropriateness. Civic and professional leaders possess considerable power to influence popular perception. This power should be harnessed to place the burden of policing irresponsible discussion squarely in the hands of the public. Its success will ultimately be achieved not by coercion but by persuasion — specifically, by convincing citizens that the government is not the sole arbiter of the sensitivity of information and that responsibility for protecting the nation extends to every citizen who possesses it.
Dallas Boyd is a national security analyst with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Mr. Boyd received a BA degree in history from The Citadel and a Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Boyd performs research and analysis for U.S. government customers concerning terrorism, U.S. counterterrorism policy, nuclear deterrence, and adversary decision-making. His current work involves assessing emerging technology threats to U.S. national security. Mr. Boyd may be contacted at email@example.com.
The author thanks Nash’at Ahmad, James Beard, Matthew Kutilek, Stephen J. Lukasik, Al Mauroni, Joshua Pollack, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this article. These reviews significantly clarified his thinking and writing.