We’ve all heard the term “stovepiping.” Among clearance holders, this means only reporting upward, brass tacks, through the chain of command. What could be wrong with that? Plenty. We often must share outside our chain of command to accomplish our goals. What’s more, sometimes the plain facts don’t offer the context needed to make educated decisions. This bureaucratic faux pas can turn into a security calamity when we don’t know when and with whom to share our secret information. Having written standards and a plan of action can help advise organizations of when sharing knowledge with others is critical.

For those with a scientific background, the idea of setting standard security practices blocks innovation. Scientists often argue that findings in a lab are reality that must be shared with anyone to expand humanity’s wealth of wisdom. Each scientist then builds upon the discoveries of others. Indeed, this is true. We benefit every day from scientific breakthroughs which serve us in ways never dreamed of by the inventors. Could the inventors of radar, a miracle defensive weapon against Axis bombers of World War II, have ever believed that today it would protect virtually every aircraft that flies in our modern world? And yet it has become a standard safety feature—thanks to information sharing. The Intelligence community is similar.

The Cold War Failures of Stovepiping

Though radar is now shared with the entire world, at the time, it was a closely guarded secret. We clearance holders must know what we can and cannot do with our own information. In general, everyone knows not to discuss it outside of “channels” –but the proper channels aren’t always clear. For example, President Harry Truman was not told by his own senior staff that there were a considerable number of identified Soviet spies in the U.S. government—some of them very active. But thanks to bureaucratic stovepiping, sharing was not considered essential. The FBI had definitive information on Soviet spies from intercepting Soviet message traffic from their embassy in Washington to Moscow. We knew this for years, and yet the President was not told.

Senior decision makers, in receipt of the damning evidence from the FBI intercepts, stonewalled. They chose not to advise the President of these spies because they didn’t want to compromise a secret source of information: the FBI interception of trans-Atlantic Soviet cables.

As a result, arguments about if, who, and how many spies flourished across America. Legal actions, political recriminations, and partisan hatred raged. All this controversial phenomenon could have been dispelled had the President been advised. The spies continued to operate, known but not arrested. Truman did not take appropriate actions against the spies because he simply did not know of the intercepts, which proved they existed.

Our electronic collections from the airwaves would have resolved many cases. For example, Alger Hiss, a senior civil servant whose espionage compromised many State Department missions, who spoke to the President in person at Yalta, was among the spies who had to be convicted without this vital evidence. Years were wasted and Soviet spies like Hiss remained active as other evidence was gathered to win the conviction. Because no one told Truman, his party was perceived as being soft on communism.

Unfortunately, this stovepiping was not left in the Cold War era. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were a damning indictment of not sharing valuable information. Many organizations all held separate pieces of the puzzle, but for various reasons, never talked and put the pieces together. We can only speculate on how many lives might have been saved if they had.

How We Can Avoid the Stovepiping Trap

Let us, fellow clearance holders, not fall into such a trap. Know what is classified, and to whom you can report. At each level, know how to share, appropriately. By that I mean you need to write down, clearly, each agency and at what level others should know something. Consider your part of any classified mission something which requires not only reporting, but sharing as necessary. Who can receive your information? Who must receive it? No one denies this is a balancing act, but must be considered, decided, and agreed upon.

Too often, classified information is treated as a coin of exchange. Instead of information being used to safeguard and protect, it’s harbored as a spring-loaded mechanism to damage bureaucratic enemies. Stonewallling and stovepiping jeopardize the effectiveness of our institutions. Nothing should prevail over our mission to defend the Constitution. Thus, when a report is rendered, it must be given to all who need to share knowledge of it. This needs to happen formally, in writing, and with a purpose in mind.

If a decision is to be rendered on further sharing beyond the norm, remember this: The purpose of secret information is to protect the society itself. If it can be trusted to remain safe, if shared with outside agencies to affect a common good, then that must be formally acknowledged. It should be in writing ahead of time, or in a written memorandum afterward. No one can foresee all possibilities which might require sharing. But not everyone can protect against not sharing enough, either. Know that these are possibilities and act accordingly. Forewarned is forearmed.



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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.