The Value of a Secret: Secrecy vs Innovation

Everything ran in its own compartment. I think that far more than people realize, it was a tragedy of bureaucratic inability to adapt to unconventional situations.

Robert Komer, National Security Advisor, 18 Aug 1970, Vietnam


The current system for managing military secrets is itself a risk to national security. It will require an overhaul in order to meet the goals of the National Security Strategy. In his Network Centric Warfare Article nearly 20 years ago Vice Admiral Cebrowski defined the speed of command as:

The process by which a superior information position is turned into a competitive advantage. It is characterized by the decisive altering of initial conditions, the development of high rates of change, and locking in success while locking out alternative enemy strategies.

Goals at the national, department, and Service level for greater innovation and agility throughout multi-domain operations will never be met as long as security policy restricts the flow of information between the operators and acquisition professionals of each domain. When an organization limits the free flow of information, serious flaws can remain hidden for years, if not decades. This condition makes it difficult to learn the appropriate lessons and adapt operational designs and strategies between armed conflicts. If our goal is to increase the flow of essential information to optimize our acquisitions and operations around the globe, then why do we allow non-effective information security procedures to cripple our military might? This article will draw on examples from the business and education sectors to illustrate the fundamental link between agile innovations and free flow of information. Likewise, the US must prevent its own security policies from resulting in the development of the wrong weapons, tactics, or strategies for current and future multi-domain operations.


Over the course of twenty years of service, nine years operational and eleven in flight test, I have been witness to the parasitic drag security policies impose on training, operations, and the development of war-winning weapons. We seem more focused on keeping secrets from the other members of our team than developing new weapons and tactics capable defeating our enemies. I will someday watch news footage of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen dying in battle, because security policy prevented the innovation and agility needed to organize, train, and equip them to kill the enemy, survive, and return home. This further extends into real-time information flow impeding the effective employment of force. On March 27, 1999, Vega 31, Lt Col Darrell Zelko, was shot down while piloting a single-ship F-117. Ironically, the majority of the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) did not even know he had taken off. Excessive compartmentalization of the F-117 missions in Allied Force over Serbia significantly delayed his recovery operations, potentially risking his capture, and, ultimately, his life. The loss of F-117 materials and design techniques as a result of the crash was a far greater blow to national security than divulging the F-117 program to cleared members of the US military would have been.


“If 200 Americans know something, it’s no longer a secret in the modern era.” –Adage

A security bureaucracy has grown up using management methods rooted in an industrial age that is long gone. In his thesis on information management in 2000, Micheal Cartney states:

Typically, one begins with the business strategy of the enterprise, identifying the main value-adding activities and strategies to enhance. However, some organizations allow information sharing and security objectives to be based upon and driven by the security community’s or the information management community’s objectives.

The DOD, as a whole, falls firmly in the latter paradigm. Its security methods broadly fall into physical security, personnel security, and information security disciplines. The fundamental shifts in the global information environment are the rapid growth in information velocity, storage capacity, computational methods for correlating information, and ease of sensing information. Information velocity captures the idea of how quickly information can move around the globe, be replicated for dissemination, and be simultaneously received by different people. The growth in storage capacity means that a determined information adversary will never “forget” any data, ever. The vast amounts of information being produced every second, coupled with near-infinite storage capacity, have given rise to the field of “big data analytics” which uses computational methods to automatically process information to yield the desired knowledge.

If the enormous corpus of existing information is insufficient for a particular need, the ease of sensing information has never been greater. BlackSky Global started launching a constellation of 60 satellites last year designed to image most of the Earth’s population 40 to 70 times a day. They will sell these high-resolution images on demand for less than $100, a tenth of today’s prices. This commercial trend will continue to build a remote sensing constellation with over 600 satellites by the year 2021. By the same time, the FAA estimates there will be over 7,500 small drones hobbyists active inside of US airspace, many equipped with network enabled cameras capable of germane surveillance and reconnaissance. Further, nearly every member of the military has a smartphone and at least one social media account, providing further fuel to power big-data analytics of location, morale, and awareness of military forces.

The field of physical security can certainly protect some spaces from sensors, but every secure area has a border and the ability to capture and process big data from the edges of secure areas is a difficult problem. Current security methods are not so much evil as ineffective. Security policy seeks to overturn massive global trends towards greater information velocity, availability, and transparency for unrealistic time-scales. Where the F-117 may have been secret for twenty years, the first operational product of the third offset will be lucky to remain secret for five. Unfortunately, our personnel and information security policies appear to willfully ignore these massive changes in the global security environment. Much as King Canute attempted to hold back the incoming tide, the waves of information cannot be stopped simply by saying the data must be contained. Security policy unnecessarily restricts information flow within the US military (the only domain in which DOD security policy has any control) while information flows freely to and between adversary nations. We invite any reader with security clearances to consider the difference in available awareness of adversary nation capabilities with available awareness of joint multi-domain capabilities.

An analogy from gun control may be helpful. A primary argument against gun control is that gun control policies are only effective upon the law-abiding population and have an insignificant effect on gun possession and use by the criminal population. Similarly, security policy restricts collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and innovation among the population of the Department of Defense over which punitive measures may apply, but has insignificant effect on information movement outside that population in the intelligence and research communities of adversary nations. The major difference is that physical guns require time and resources to create while information may be copied for negligible cost, transmitted at the speed of light to vast numbers of people, and combined or re-combined in infinite ways to create new information. Current security policy ignores these differences and contributes to the disarming of the US acquisition and operational communities, while adversary nations accelerate innovation through collection and collaboration.


Innovation is the method of producing a new product idea or method. More specifically, disruptive innovation is “to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble.” This is exactly what the defense industry must accomplish to stay in front of our enemies. Over the last 20 years, since the beginning of the information age during the dot com boom, innovation has changed from being the desirable, but not essential, attribute of some companies to being necessary for survival. Life expectancy of a top company was 67 years in the 1920s, but now is only 15 years. It is important to note that parallels with the business world break down at a crucial point – old, powerful companies struggling with innovation and agility regularly practice a strategy of buying innovation through buying innovative young companies that have demonstrated some potential – no such option exists in the defense world.

The development of the second offset, stealth technology coupled with precision weapons, has been one of the largest leaps forward in US defense technology in the modern era. After Air Force Research Lab performed the initial stealth research, this breakthrough was brought to fruition by the Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank, California. The Chief Engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson used unorthodox practices to manage his products including his management of information. Skunk Works was located in a hangar offset from the remainder of the Burbank Airport known only as Building 82. Kelly used this isolation to select only the best personnel to work on his advanced projects. He had been granted autonomy from the Lockheed Corporation based upon his past performance over the course of 30 years of aircraft development. When Ben Rich took the reigns from Johnson, he allowed all ideas to be heard to create intellectual revolutions within the organization. The idea for stealth actually came from a young radar expert, Denys Overholser, reading a Russian manuscript discussing the edge wave diffraction. This is a lesson of having the right people inside an organization, giving them to correct environment to cultivate great ideas, and then allowing all ideas to be heard by the decision makers inside of the organization – none of these can happen with the current restrictions in place on the innovators of the DOD by the security apparatus.


As noted by Steve Coll in Ghost Wars, the national intelligence apparatus of the United States colossally failed to prevent the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This failure was dissected at length by the 9/11 Commission and the lessons to be learned are publically available in the 9/11 Commission Report. It is important to note the Commission did not fault an individual agency or office for failing to share information when requested – everyone acted in accordance with security policy. As a result, 3,500 Americans died, the US economy suffered a 38.7% decrease in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the US had to budget an additional $1.8 trillion in costs for the Global War on Terror. Furthermore, the US military faced untold impacts to military readiness due to an increased ops tempo stemming from 16 years in combat. Specific failings of the security policy leading up to 9/11 were over-classification and excessive compartmentalization of information among agencies. The report states “What all these stories have in common is a system that requires a demonstrated ‘need to know’ before sharing. This approach assumes it is possible to know, in advance, who will need to use the information. Such a system implicitly assumes that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits of wider sharing. Those Cold War assumptions are no longer appropriate.” A system with an open architecture will create inherent vulnerabilities due to increased access—i.e. incidents reminiscent of Snowden and Manning. As such, this increased attack surface must be weighed against the need to share information to improve efficiencies and innovate. However, if the restrictions on government networks prevent our own personnel from completing the mission, haven’t we aided the enemy in gaining the advantage anyway?


We are trying to field 21st century things with a 20th century acquisitions process.” – Lt Gen Holmes

The Honorable Frank Kendall, Under-Secretary for Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, identifies two requirements for innovation: knowledge and freedom, and two “human intangibles” that foster innovation: risk tolerance and persistence. Current security policy continually fights against innovation by restricting knowledge to a very limited subset who can prove a “need to know” – and we can see from the 9/11 report how poorly the security apparatus can determine “need-to-know.” Further, those with the right knowledge are restricted from freedom of action by security constraints which limits collaboration either through outright compartmentalization or through a Byzantine system of Service-specific information fiefdoms. The value of collaboration is highlighted by Mr. Kendall:“Innovation, in the commercial and the DOD context, tends to be based on collaboration. Multiple technical disciplines often have to come together, and the synergy between multiple disciplines may be the central feature of the innovative idea.” By preventing information flow through over-classification and excessive compartmentalization, current security policy acts as a contraceptive to innovation.

As an example, I have participated in numerous design meetings as a test pilot in which I evaluated and re-designed displays and controls for new sensors/weapons on fighter aircraft (aka pilot-vehicle interface or PVI). Anyone who has flown the F-4 and the F-15E in its current form can testify to the importance of PVI as a means of extracting the maximum value from sensor/weapon improvements. As 4th-generation fighters go through modernization campaigns, collaboration with 5th-generation designers and operators would be immensely helpful in identifying and implementing effective PVI for managing the vast increase in data associated with cutting-edge sensors. That collaboration would be difficult under current security policy, but perhaps not impossible if my local security fief takes a big-picture approach. Where the current approach utterly fails is in enabling collaboration between PVI designers for fighter aircraft and AEGIS missile cruisers, or between a cyber-security operations cell and the control element for a formation of future unmanned combat vehicles. Across all domains, every community of operators is struggling with macro changes in information volume and velocity. These are defining characteristics of future high-end conflict. Innovation towards integrated solutions to multi-domain operations will never happen with current security policy because the knowledge is compartmented, freedom of action is restricted to the community or Service security fiefdom, and collaboration is aborted before it becomes viable.


DOD security professionals are not the problem – DOD security policy is. Our current security policies reflect a reasonable balance of competing values within the information environment of 1960, not 2017. DOD, joint, and service leadership should re-assess the enormous “cost of security” in light of the modern information environment. This is fundamentally a leadership task, as the greatest cost is not monetary, but is instead the opportunity cost of innovation and integration for multi-domain operations that never happens – weapons never built, joint tactics never developed, information combinations never realized. Due to massive over-classification and over-compartmentalization of everything in the DOD, this study cannot be performed with any credibility by the authors. The following recommendations are presented for further discussion and study.

  1. Incentivize sharing information and the production of shared information. We must transition from a “need to know” mentality to a “need to share” mentality. The 9/11 Commission made this exact recommendation, but it appears to have only been heard by the intelligence community and not the operational and acquisitions communities. A senior engineer on a development program I worked with (after the requisite 9-month period for consideration by the security gatekeeper) quipped that his program was so secret that only he, the security manager, and the janitor were briefed to it…which made it difficult to get anything done! In the current environment, a program’s value is sometimes judged by how few people are allowed to know about it – exactly the wrong idea! The Intelligence community has found a way to facilitate this through the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise system, or ICITE. Access to the ICITE system is “established by the originators of intelligence information,” instead of a uniform and generic security policy.
  2. Increase umbrella briefs within the operational and developmental community. A band-aid fix is to group together many of the small compartments for information into larger compartments. While this falls short of the fundamental redesign needed, it is the most achievable short-term solution for increasing collaboration.
  3. Require information life-cycle planning. A timeline for declassification or lower classification of information should be part of program management. This is already partly considered, but risk tolerance is extremely low and there is no over-arching incentive for a program to reduce compartmentalization. To be done effectively, a “cost of information” needs to be developed. The Joint force is stuck in the paradigm that Michael Cartney warned us about in 2000, and understanding the cost of this is the first step in fixing the problem.
  4. Quantify a conceptual cost of secrecy. Much of this article is simply an argument for a different cost-benefit balance, but finding a better balance is difficult without a better concept of the cost of secrecy. Much like a “carbon tax/credit,” coordinated secrecy policy needs a conceptual “currency” to aid in strategic decision making. According to Peter Swire, this currency should reflect the decreasing value of secrets over time and should explicitly consider the relative value of secrecy policies relative to DOD and adversary awareness of the information being protected. In addition, as the value of secretes decreases, the cost to maintain facilities, networks, and storage devices remains the same and in some cases increases drastically. The worst travesties of the current security regime are those in which adversary awareness is likely very high and DOD awareness if very low – in those cases, the adversary is reaping benefits from collaboration but our own forces are not. While the likelihood of worse-case situations may be subject to debate, long-term effects of stifled innovation will soon become apparent as innovating adversaries catch up to and potentially overtake US in technological and organizational superiority.
  5. Create a common joint network for information at all levels of classification and make it accessible to everyone everywhere depending on that individual’s clearance. With current security policy, even if the consecutive miracles occur of having the right people accessed to the right information at the right time, it is all-too-often difficult to access a common information system to enable effective collaboration. Cebrowski and Garstka noted the fact that in complex environments it is best to organize from the “bottom up yielding self synchronization” so we can “make combat moves at a high-speed continuum”. If we do not work NOW to create a common joint network, self-synchronization will not be possible when we need it in a future high-end conflict. ICITE is another great example of how to build a collaborative network – both with physical networks and through human connections. It has already been realized that the improved use of the metadata surrounding a well connect network of this type will yield a five times improvement in current intelligence processing capability.
  6. Facilitate crowd-sourcing information and ideas. With a common joint network, collaboration similar to Yelp or Amazon reviews becomes possible.
  7. Develop a system for different “access permissions” to secrets. The current security paradigm treats all access as the same, but this all-or-nothing approach fails to make use of different constraining functions available with modern information systems. An individual should be able to participate in verbal discussions on any compartment at his/her clearance level, access read-only material or otherwise controlled (e.g. hard-copy printouts) on a wide range of compartments, and network read/write access to a still small subset. Finally, all information in the cloud could be encrypted in storage and only a very few users following certain processes should have access to transfer decrypted information off the network. Such a process would greatly increase information velocity within the DOD for a relatively small increase in overall risk of information transfer to an adversary. The ICITE system provides an end-to-end solution for storing, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence to all members of the IC and joint community in accordance with existing intelligence protocols.


“The youngest member of your organization can the set the classification of any document with the click of a mouse and it takes the oldest person to undo it. Why can’t I share it? Show me where it’s written!” – USAF Four-Star General, Air Command and Staff College, 2017

The need to create an information management revolution has been knocking on the door of the joint force for the past 20 years. As the amount of information continues to grow exponentially, the security apparatus must adapt to facilitate innovation not only for acquisitions and development, but also for current combat operations. The information security strategy must be developed by the heads of organizations instead of imposed upon operators by unbending and antiquated regulations. All rules and norms for information management must be constantly questioned in order to keep up with other technologically advanced nations. In the words of Gen Stanley McChrystal “share information until you’re afraid it’s illegal” to create an increasing lethal joint force.


Douglas “Crack” Creviston is a graduate from the USAF Academy, MIT, and the USAF Test Pilot School, and was a Research Fellow at the National Defense Intelligence College. He is an experimental test pilot primarily in fighter aircraft, with more than 2,000 hours in the F-15E, F-15C, F-16, and light ISR aircraft, including tours in support of Operation ONW and OIF. He has test experience in a variety of acquisition programs including AESA radars, EW systems, targeting and ISR systems, and air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.


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