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"Need to know" vs. "Want to know"

By Charles Bloomer
web posted October 15, 2001

Members of Congress threw a tantrum recently when President George W. Bush announced that he would severely restrict intelligence briefings after sensitive information was leaked to the press. The president angrily scolded the Congress for failing in its responsibility to safeguard secrets. "There is a responsibility that if you receive a briefing of classified information, you have a responsibility. And some members did accept that responsibility, others didn't. I understand there may be some heartburn on Capitol Hill. But I suggest if they want to relieve that heartburn, that they take their positions very seriously, and that they take any information they've been given by our government very seriously," the president said from the Rose Garden.

Curt Weldon
Weldon

Members of Congress reacted in almost juvenile fashion. Senator Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, said, "The defense bill is not moving until we are included." Even after the president agreed to resume the briefings, Representative Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, was still angry and offended by the president's actions. "The statement he (Bush) made was off base," Weldon said. "If he has a problem with a couple of senators, he ought to come out and name them. You don't broad-brush everybody."

The blow to their egos has left these members of Congress blinded to the proper method of disclosing classified information, and the president's responsibility as the controller of that information.

The president is under no constitutional obligation to disclose any information regarding his conduct of the current war on terrorism. The constitution specifically names the president as the Commander-in-Chief of the military forces. Congress declares war, the president executes. Therefore, the president controls the strategy, methods and resources to conduct the war. Whether or not Congress has formally declared war is of no consequence. The president may, if he sees fit, share information with Congress as a courtesy. He may also withhold information.

One of the basic concepts in information security is that of the "need to know". A security clearance or position, in and of itself, does not grant the holder of that clearance or position access to classified information. The recipient of the information is given the information only when the need to know is satisfied. The person holding or controlling the information is tasked with making the determination of need to know.

The fact that the recipient wants to know is irrelevant. No matter how badly Congressmen and senators want to know the classified information contained in the intelligence briefings, they are not allowed access to that information until the controller of the information, in this case the president, determines that they have the need to know. Members of Congress can demand, insist, throw tantrums, even try to blackmail the president; but the determination is made by the president.

The president has resumed the briefings, evidently convinced that he got Congress's attention. Members of Congress that receive these briefings need to learn that the security of the United States is far more important than their fragile egos. They can start by learning the rules for safeguarding classified information. A call to the Defense Security Service would be a good place to start.

Members of Congress also need to review the constitution regarding their responsibilities during the conduct of military actions, especially how their role compares to the president's.

Additionally, Congressmen and senators should ignore their desires to respond like juveniles when they don't get what they want. Absolutely no honor was brought to Congress's reputation by the foolish statements of Senator Stevens and Representative Weldon. The trust that President Bush has tried to foster with Congress has been bruised. It is incumbent on Congress now to restore that trust.

Senators and Congressmen do not get things just because they want them. Arrogant, immature actions by our elected officials do nothing to help the president execute his responsibilities. They must accept that the president acted well within his rights. Members of Congress must also accept that the president will tell them what he determines they need to know, not necessarily what they want to know.

Charles Bloomer is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right. He can be contacted at clbloomer@enterstageright.com. © 2001 Charles Bloomer

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