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Top Secret


(Overheard at an Air Force radar systems acquisition office, mid-1970s.) ?

Hey, Sarge. You left the safe open again.

Oh, get off my case. Nothing in there’s important.

But op-sec. Don’t you care about op-sec?

Op-sec applies to unclassified information.

Ok. But come on. Aren’t you supposed to keep the safe locked?

I could. But I’d never get any work done. Almost everything’s classified and every time you need something you not only have to go through the whole drill with the combo lock, but you have to sign in and write down what you took out and then do the lock thing again and sign it back in again when mostly all you need is one little minor thing.

I’m supposed to call the security officer when I see that safe open and nobody around.

He doesn’t care. He leaves it open himself. I hear the colonel’s thinking about replacing him anyway.


I guess he thinks that too much stuff is classified and it’s causing us to waste a lot of time so he argues too much.

But that’s true, isn’t it? Too much stuff is classified.

Yeah. But that’ll never change. They classify almost everything, even the radar performance data.

Certainly that should be classified.

Maybe ? if the radar wasn’t obsolete.

It’s obsolete?

Oh yeah. Those GPN-34s have been obsolete for a few years now.

Then why do we even have the specs?

Because the company is still selling them directly to Iran and there’s some talk about our office being involved?

Our office? Why?

I guess some Iranians think they’re being ripped off.

I’d think I was being ripped off too if they’re selling them as new radars.

That’s exactly what they’re doing. Then they deliver them with parts missing. I hear that they were cannibalized for spares so some of the redundant circuits are gone.

Do they even work?

Not really. I guess you could assemble one working radar out of the six they have in storage. But nobody seems to care because they don’t have any trained operators or repair technicians.

Why not?

They even don’t have technicians to attend the training classes. The last class Westinghouse held the Iranian Air Force had to send dental tech trainees just to fill up the slots.

Did they complete the training?

They sat there for five weeks. But I don’t think they learned much. They didn’t have the necessary electronics background to begin with. And they’re still designated for dental tech slots.

So what happened to the radars the company sold directly to them?

They’re all sitting in a warehouse outside of Tehran. They don’t have any decent sites to install them at. It doesn’t even matter that they’re obsolete or that they have parts missing. An older one they got from the earlier program was installed in a Valley and couldn’t see much. That was the only place they could get enough power to operate it, but it can only detect objects that are more or less directly overhead. They couldn’t get power to any of the nearby mountaintop sites.

And yet the performance specs are classified?

Yup. Top Secret. That’s why I don’t particularly care if the safe’s left unlocked.

Why is it Top Secret?

All military radar performance data is Top Secret.

Even if it’s obsolete?

The last time we had a classification meeting only the Colonel and me attended. So we didn’t get much done.

When was that?

Last month.

How many people are on the classification team?

Seven. But they don’t show up much.

Why not?

Because the meetings are ridiculous. Declassifications are always postponed. And some people dream up the most outlandish hypotheticals for keeping things classified. Besides, we need agreement of all seven committee members to declassify anything and the Colonel is very reluctant to declassify. The meetings are a lot like my wife’s school board meetings. They talk a lot but they always go along with whatever the Superintendent wants. At the classification meetings it’s pretty much whatever the colonel wants.

Have the specs been checked out?

Yeah. That’s another thing. The actual radar doesn’t meet the specs. I’ve never seen one that did. The specs are basically just a wish list. Sometimes the radars meet the specs under ideal test conditions. But in the real world there are lots of other factors that affect performance.

So even if the enemy got hold of the specs they’d be wrong?

Not only that, but they’d think the radar is a lot better than it actually is.

Maybe we should give the specs to them then?

Yeah! Maybe so. Matter of fact, we kinda already have.

What do you mean? We’ve released Top Secret data?

Not exactly. But lots of the data in the specs is included in the company’s sales brochures. I doubt they even know that some of it is Top Secret.

How do you know it’s in there?

Oh easy. I saw it out on the site survey last year in Fairbanks. Westinghouse is trying to sell a slightly newer version to the Alaska people. Trouble is, the Alaska people don’t know that none of the radars meet the specs or that some of the data may be classified.

What do you mean, “may be classified”?

Some of the info isn’t classified directly, but you can figure out the classified performance characteristics with a little bit of calculus. You know, side lobes are derived from net output power, things like that.

So is that legitimately classified Top Secret?

None of it is. It’s all basically inertia and paranoia.

Better close that safe anyway.

Ok. If you insist.

 * * *

(That’s the way I remember it. But it’s been more than 30 years now. Don’t quote me.)

MARK SCARAMELLA is Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a weekly newspaper in Boonville, California. ( He can be reached at


MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. ( He can be reached at

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