Russian scientists are sweating. A couple of their number have been charged with treason for having released information considered sensitive by their government. One scientist was sentenced to seven years in April.

Apparently, these scientists attended conferences on hypersonic weaponry over the years, in one case dating to 2012. Now it appears they are alleged to have released classified information. A Siberian research think tank has rallied to their defense. This body claims younger scientists are simply finding other paths in life.

Why risk prison for scientific research, if it is so fraught with doom-laden accusations of treason?  The defenders of the scientists claim the material they presented and discussed had been vetted and cleared over and over. ‘Treason’ responded their government. Chillingly, the investigators are not other scientists but the ‘secret services’.

Laws up to interpretation

Science in Russia has now fallen under one of the premier indicators of a dictatorship. The laws are so vague they can be interpreted however the government desires. There is a cynical line by police-state officials that says, “Give me the man. I’ll give you the crime.” In this case, the accusation of treason is intended to strike fear into others. Indeed, the brain drain in Russia has reached tremendous levels as a consequence of such extreme rule by fear. Russian science and technical experts are voting with their feet.

We in the free world are constrained by rules which prohibit the release of information. However, those rules are published and can be read. They can also be challenged. We, who work within, or implement, these rules need to know them. For any public disclosure, we are required to have established release methodologies. Commands and private entities with classified programs need to create, publish, and brief such projects, the better to control what is and isn’t released.

Freedom in FOIA

We have a wonderful system in the Freedom of Information Act. This act allows anyone, anywhere, to request information from our government. Why? Because our government is answerable to the people. This is a means whereby reasonable amounts of information can be provided to inquiring people. Thus all engineers, scientists, and technicians must work with this possible release of their work as a possibility.

Know your authorizations under the law to mark your work as ‘not releasable’. Cases have been long argued in court concerning the controlled nature of all information created by the government. With so much established case law, information can be readily checked. The days of marking every single thing the government produces as restricted are long over. Know what can, and under what circumstances, what cannot be released.

Prepared to Present

Releases at conferences require a long lead-up time. In most commands, an entire array of reviewers must be consulted and provide a signed agreement to release.

The first and foremost person to request the release is the author of the document. Next would come his own departmental chain of responsibility.  His boss must agree that all be released. The foreign disclosure officer in security, together with a legal review must also sign up as having agreed to the release after the subject-matter experts have weighed in. If a command or company has an Operations Security (OPSEC) officer, that expert must sign off as well. This is because he can determine whether information not formally classified can be released, avoiding the release of information that could point to real classified information. Next after all these reviews, the Public Affairs Office must sign off, since they are presumably cognizant of all interactions of cleared programs under their supervision. Ultimately, the final arbiter of the document must be the directorate head. He or she can make the final decision to release the data, once all the foregoing offices have had a chance to review the information.

Such lengthy projects are necessary because we not only want to protect information but also those who created it. Each person on this list is attesting that they know what is classified or not, releasable or not. They are cognizant not only of the significance of their classified program but as the chain of responsibility moves up, even greater is the significance of how this program interacts with others.

Unclassified but still unreleasable

The old adage may be true, ‘My program may be unclassified, but not releasable’. It is not releasable because it is only a component of a classified program. Adversarial collectors and spies are delighted to find detailed patent requests, ideas papers, and the like in dreary, turgid scientific reviews. With this information, they can begin to piece together the picture of a classified program. Remember that espionage is the very last method employed by adversaries. Why waste the skills of a long recruited, developed, and deployed spy when you can get what you need through technical means, or by simply looking online?

Alas, poor Russian scientists. They’ll soon have their day in the glass cage where they’ll receive long sentences for treason. This is what happens when you work for a lawless government. Or better said, a dictatorship that governs however it wants.

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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.