Through their outbursts, cryptic language and boneheaded questioning of State Department officials, the committee members left little doubt that one of the two compounds at which the Americans were killed, described by the administration as a “consulate” and a nearby “annex,” was a CIA base. They did this, helpfully, in a televised public hearing.One of the first rules about classified information is "neither confirm nor deny." Either provides information. Depending on the setting, "I can't say anything about that" can also provide information. Better to stay away from certain topics altogether or change the subject when they arise.
So, when a publicly-available overhead photo was shown in yesterday's Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) should have just kept his mouth shut. Instead,
“Point of order! Point of order!” he called out as a State Department security official, seated in front of an aerial photo of the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, described the chaotic night of the attack. “We’re getting into classified issues that deal with sources and methods that would be totally inappropriate in an open forum such as this.”Another rule: don't identify classified material as such in public.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) helpfully added
“In this hearing room, we’re not going to point out details of what may still in fact be a facility of the United States government or more facilities.”Um, you just did. And there was more, which Milbank documents.
The hearing probably should have been held behind closed doors, but the Republicans wanted to make an example of the administration's handling of the Benghazi situation. And then they didn't have sense enough to deal properly with what they knew. They should also have known that the State Department witnesses would have known how to handle classified information, but they may have wanted to score points by pointing out what they thought was classified.
I think some other things were coming into play, too. Congressmen may not have the same training in how to handle classified information that others are required to have, or they may feel that they are important enough to ignore it. They may not have thought about the tactics that can avoid disclosing classified information. I have also seen people talking about their clearances to make them a status symbol. There's some difference in opinion on that, but it would seem to me that having a clearance should be something that isn't generally known. And too much information is classified, which makes it easier to believe that none of it is really truly important. But they're talking about operational details here, people and places, and those are important.
I guess the State Department and "other agencies" are rethinking their Libya operations anyway.
Cross-posted at The Agonist.