Paper Trail: The Afterlife of a Document in a Defense Industry Office

Intelligence man with files

This true horror story carries an unforgettable burden for clearance holders.

In a smoky, blasted and blitzed 1940 London, some 300 British unexploded bomb experts were killed over several months trying to defuse German electrical bombs. No one, it seemed, could fathom the intricacies of this latest Luftwaffe trick which rendered time bombs more deadly than any previously encountered.

Only a crashed German aircraft, with a bomb intact, finally revealed the key to how these bombs could be defused. Imagine the horror then, when it was discovered that the bomb was itself a British invention and a patented device. Its diagram and construction intricacies were on file, gathering dust in a patent office where observant German spies had found them eight years earlier. British bomb experts died because practices which could have been protected were not.

What Makes a Document Sensitive?

Do you know what happens to the documents you create? I tried this once. We asked an office to show us how a document ‘moves’ from creation to use. Then we walked it through to the ‘end’. Numerous people impacted its creation. Each was able to review, change, add or delete information from it. Each kept ‘an electronic copy’. When it came time to prepare the briefing for the program, about a dozen more people became aware of it. It would have left the office after that, upon completion, to be given to a briefer who delivered the information. And there, most believed the paper’s travels were done.

But no. Not by a long shot. Printed hard copies of the briefing were shared. This was done by the expedient of the fax. A common fax served the entire office floor. So no one knew, really, who might have seen it before it was picked up by the authorized person. Copies had been discarded. (After all, the document wasn’t classified!) There were no markings on the document, so the papers were simply thrown in the trash. The sanitation persons certainly weren’t controlled. Where the trash went after disposal was anyone’s guess. We checked. The papers were taken to a city disposal point, where they were packed away with other papers until they could be delivered and buried in a common mound. Back at the office, hard copies kept ‘for record’ were numerous, unaccounted for, and plentiful. Everyone who touched, advised, or simply wanted to keep a copy did so. No one knew who, or how many, had one.

Then an almost humorous development occurred. In the course of this study, someone thought to put ‘FOUO’ on some of the papers associated with this document. One day a member of the original document creators received direction to move to another organization. Someone else said to a young team member, “Empty out his work space.”  He did. Every single paper in his desk was disposed of in a trash container, and all of that taken outside to the dumpster. Only then did a cleaning man see a marking on one of the papers piled in the dumpster, “FOUO.” That document laid atop some 200 other pages associated with the original document. He reported it.

Where do papers go when they leave your desk?  One way to control them is to classify them, but is that necessary?  Only classify what truly needs to be. You can monitor who has copies, how those copies are dealt with, and what happens to them if you use minimal controls. But you can’t control what you don’t know.

Here are some other ideas.

  • Use FOUO wisely.
  • Install a process on your fax to state who sent a document, and to whom it is going.
  • Only fax classified documents on a machine specially made for that purpose.
  • Shred documents. How hard is that? Make shredding a policy.
  • When someone leaves for another assignment, shred all the materials in his area.  We found time and again that some of the worst violations occurred when someone, bored and feeling put upon, is told to empty a former colleague’s desk space.
  • Train your cleaning team. Tell them the meaning of FOUO, classified markings, and so forth. Tell them to report any marked documents they see.
  • Have a clean desk policy. This helps ensure documents are put away at night.

Remember the patent office story? Remain cognizant of what happens to the papers you create. Do they go to a patent office? Are they subject to review under the Freedom of Information Act? Are they possibly subjects of legal disclosure or discovery? Know these things, because they can all become sidings onto which your trail of paper might be shunted. Protect against unwitting revelation. Remember the golden maxim: who has a need to know?

John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.

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