secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

Coolidge Report on Classified Information (1956)

The MemoryHole is down, so here’s my little intro to the Coolidge Report as well as the report itself. It’s helpful I think to revisit Coolidge during this time of public examination of WikiLeaks and the impact of classified information disclosure on national security.

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The Coolidge Committee, chaired by attorney and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles A. Coolidge, is one committee in a series of commissions and committees organized to review policies and procedures related to classifying security information, secrecy, unauthorized disclosures of classified information – and leaks.  Formally titled the “Committee on Classified Information,”  the Coolidge Committee was established as a five member committee by Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson in August, 1956. Harold C. Relyea (7) suggests that Secretary Wilson was prompted to create the Committee due to “two columns by New York Times reporter Tony Leviero” related to defense policy: “one in May revealing serious inter-service disputes over defense policy, and another in July disclosing a proposed 800,000-man cut in military personnel.”

In charging the Committee, Secretary Wilson wrote Mr. Coolidge on August 13, 1956, requesting he ask “…a senior retired officer from each Military Service to serve with you.” Admiral William M. Fechteler, General John E. Hull, General Gerald C. Thomas, and Lieutenant General Idwal H. Edwards served beside Coolidge reviewing “present laws, Executive Orders, Department of Defense regulations and directives pertaining to the classification of information and the safeguarding of classified  information,” as directed by Secretary Wilson. The Committee also undertook an “examination of the organizations and procedures in the Department of Defense designed to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of classified information in any manner” (Coolidge Committee report, Appendix A. 1-2).   It is this latter issue that has earned the Coolidge Committee a notable place in information security history.

The Coolidge Report identified several types of leaks: the Administrative Leak, or the “unauthorized disclosure of administrative matters”(Part VII; 4d), and the  Classified Information Security Leak, which is categorized by the Committee as “deliberative disclosures of classified information” (Part B.) Research on the sociology of leaks has continued by Stephen Hess, who developed a typology of six types of  leaks. From a systems perspective however, the complex process of leaking is a “symbiotic relationship.” As philosopher Sissela Bok (1984:248) explains:

As government secrecy expands, more public officials become privy to classified information and are faced with the choice of whether or not to leak…growing secrecy likewise causes reporters to press harder from the  outside  to uncover what is hidden. And then in a vicious circle, the increased revelations give government leaders further reasons to press for still more secrecy.

On November 8,  1956, the Coolidge Committee issued its final report. According to Relyea (8), the Committee’s recommendations were based in part on the testimony of forty-seven witnesses, who were  “largely men at the policy level of Government, rather than at the working level. Apparently, the Committee sought policy advice rather than documentation of past leaks and their causes.” In its report, the Committee concluded that the current security classification system was “sound in concept,” but that vague classification standards and the failure to punish overclassification had caused overclassification to reach “serious proportions” resulting in diminished public confidence in the security classification system. Twenty-eight recommendations, which ranged from “ten covering overclassification, eleven covering different issues relating to unauthorized disclosures of information; and the remaining seven matters relating to Department policies vis-à-vis Congress, industry, and the press” were offered by the Committee (Moynihan 1998:171).

Of particular interest are the Committee’s Recommendation No. 2e, which states that the “classification system is not to be used to protect information not affecting the national security,”  Recommendation No. 2f.  which urges to the DoD to “cease attempts to do the impossible and stop classifying information which cannot be held secret (12), and finally, in what possibly reflects the early origins of the often ambiguous sensitive but unclassified information concept, the Committee targeted “open source’ materials such as scholarly journals as one avenue of inadvertent disclosure of “sensitive” information:**

We have received compelling evidence of the real harm caused by information published in trade and technical journals. In some cases the data disclosed approaches complete specifications and detailed performance data of new planes or weapons – matters which are of the greatest help in enabling a potential enemy to attain superiority in that vital field by taking advantage of our progress or concentrating on counter measures (19).

Crafted fifty years ago in language that is eerily post 9/11, and most relevant to recent disclosures regarding the proliferation of secrets in the U.S. government, the Coolidge Commission (1) observed

Being  a democracy, the government cannot cloak its operations in secrecy. Adequate information as to its activities must be given to its citizens or the foundations of its democracy will be eaten away…on the other hand, our democracy can be destroyed in another way, namely, by giving a potential enemy such information as will enable him to conquer us by war. A balance must be struck between these conflicting necessities.

It is in this light that the Coolidge Commission remains a significant study of security information policy.  The report is also a reminder that democracies must continually review their policies on national security information, its classification,  declassification, exemptions, and its dissemination to the citizens. If not, as the Pentagon Papers illustrate, unauthorized disclosures and leaks become the avenue of the conscience:

…to the extent that a government violates the law and fundamental moral principles, men and women of conscience may consider themselves morally obliged to refuse any part of these activities. And to the extent that a government betrays its citizens by keeping such activities secret, the obligation may extend to combating these activities by exposing them in public (Bok 1989:209).

Read Report to the Secretary of Defense by the Committee on Classified Information (Washington DC: November 8, 1956) and a bonus declassified doc from the Secretary of Defense memo “Implementation of the Coolidge Committee Report,” dated July 8, 1957. The memo includes a mini-history of DoD Directive 5200.1,  “Safeguarding Official Information in the Interests of the Defense of the United States.”


**The Committee anticipated OSINT, or open source intelligence, by several decades.



Bok, Sissela. Secrets. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

___________. Testimony before the United States. Congress. House Committeeon the  Judiciary. Subcommittee onCourts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of  Justice. 1984, Civil Liberties and the National Security State : hearings before the  Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice of the  Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress,   first and second sessions, November 2, 3, 1983 and January 24, April 5, and  September 26, 1984. Washington: GPO, 1984.   246-257.

Hess, Stephen. The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and their Offices.Washington, DC : Brookings Institution, 1984. 77-79.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Secrecy: the American Experience.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Relyea, Harold C. “Security Classification Reviews and the Search for Reform.” Government Information Quarterly 16 no. 1 (1999): 5-27.

Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Appendix G: Major Reviews of the U.S. Secrecy System. 1997. and Appendix A: 8. “A Culture of Secrecy,”


Written by S.

July 26, 2010 at 9:31 pm