Service of Keeping Secrets

January 25th, 2015

Categories: Need to Know, Secrets, Security

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,” –Benjamin Franklin

“To keep your secret is wisdom; but to expect others to keep it is folly,”—Samuel Johnson—both on

Clearly General David Petraeus wasn’t speaking to a dead person if he, in fact, whispered classified information along with sweet nothings to his then paramour and biographer Paula Broadwell. As a high-profile person it surely was folly if he did do it.

Jack Shafer took a balanced view of the matter in “In Defense of David Petraeus,” in He posited whether “the case should have been brought in the first place,” observing that government officials deliberately leak information “sometimes to float a policy balloon, sometimes to undermine their bureaucratic opponents, sometimes by mistake, and sometimes (I’m only guessing here) to placate the mistress who is writing an adulatory biography.”

Shafer reports that 1.4+ million are cleared for top secrets and that they create “tens of millions of new classified documents each year.” He quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that with so much at top secret level it slows information between policy makers creating an unsafe, rather than a safe, situation. Shafer wrote: “If neither justice nor national security are being served by pressuring the general, prosecutors should back off.”

The reporter doesn’t suggest that Petraeus should go Scott free if he did this as it sets a bad example for lower level people who handle security matters. Shafer asks: “Did we experience a genuine security lapse in the Petraeus case, or are we merely relearning the lesson that Moynihan taught, that the bureaucracy, determined to cover its ass in advance, classifies way too much material?”

We don’t yet know, and Shafer points to two hints that reflect the benign nature of the info Broadwell received. According to the Washington Post, “aides and military officials” passed along the schedules and PowerPoint presentations in question to Broadwell. Quoting Bloomberg View, Patraeus has been “casually advising the White House on Iraq” and his security clearance still holds. Shafer concludes: “Does the right hand of the government know what the left is doing?”

Until the top security definitions are redefined, is it up to anyone to determine that one bit of information is more or less secret after the fact or are rules rules? Is this accusation a tempest in a teapot fueled by a political enemy of Patraeus or the administration? Do you keep it simple and never share sensitive work information with a soul or do you make exceptions under certain circumstances?

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4 Responses to “Service of Keeping Secrets”

  1. Simon Carr Said:

    As someone who had Top Secret clearance way back when, my first reaction in reading your post, was that they should throw the book at Patraeus, but then you got me to thinking.

    The government way over classifies its documents. At least they used to, and probably still do. When I was working, 95% of the classified stuff I read, you would find today in a moment with Google, and materials were often classified for the wrong reasons, such as trying to avoid sharing it.

    I also remembered a parallel to the Patraeus case long ago in my own family. During World War II, my father worked for the State Department and my mother for the OSS. Their colleagues knew this, and in the interest of winning the war as quickly as possible, would ask one or the other of them for a favor. Since a formal request for information might take weeks to process, would either my mother or my father be willing to find things out from the other at home after work? They obliged selectively, and used their judgment as to what to pass on through each other. (I can recall an odd conversation or two at the dinner table, but I had no idea what was going on until much later.) For several years my parents served as a clandestine but helpful pipeline between two government agencies. They were, of course, wrong to do this, but it was for a good cause.

    On balance, I think we need to know much more before we pass judgment on the General.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    WOW.I would hear my parents speak and would misinterpret what I heard and happily pass it on to all who would listen. I am surprised your parents spoke of sensitive info in front of a child. They might have had a code between them though. For example, I give nicknames to people so that if I discuss them in a public place, such as a restaurant, nobody would know who “The Daisy” was [a former boss of a friend]. I knew someone who has having lunch near her husband’s office and she heard colleagues of his at a large table behind her saying horrible things about him. This was years ago and from the second she told me the story, I adopted the nickname approach to chatting in public.

    As for the General, I’m with you. The jury is literally out although I admit that Mr. Shafer gave me a perspective that hadn’t occurred before so I thought it was worth sharing.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Town criers/gossips/those who can’t keep the mouth shut, are the cause of some of humanity’s greatest woes. Anyone with half a brain, including generals, should be aware, without having to be told, that confidential information is just that, and that means not even whispering to the family dog.

    Exceptions may be made in the event of a life threatening situation, but even then, arguments regarding ethics and principles can and will go on forever.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’m with you and the KISS principal. If it’s secret, best keep it that way. It’s such a relief to be able to look everyone in the eye and say, “I told nobody.” Once a person gets that reputation, it’s amazing how much information people share with them!

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