That is one of those military acronyms which everyone who has ever been in the military for longer than – oh, I don’t know – a couple of years? A single hitch in one of the armed services? Whatever; what it means in plain English is “operations security” – and what that entails in the larger sense – drilled in by basic training, refresher training, briefings, a constant dribble of AFRTS spots cautioning the same in 30 second bites, and occasionally by the direct intervention of a supervisor administering a stern reminder – is that you keep your mouth shut about stuff and treat classified material with every care. Even stuff that seems minor, inconsequential, trivial, and is not in point of fact, actually classified. Because a whole lot of little pieces put together by an expert analyst could reveal a pretty big picture; a big and possibly life-threatening picture to someone, or hundreds, even thousands of someones.
I performed this analysis myself in a small way myself, during the build-up to the First Gulf War, through the medium of casually listening to a whole lot of reader spots emanating from our lead station, and some chatter from friends, to the effect that they couldn’t get a reserved room in the casual barracks at that base, all of a sudden. And sure enough – a radio reader spot to the effect that there was limited availability of rooms in a particular transient facility. Another reader, to the effect of restricting automobile traffic on a certain road at that base; checking a map of that base revealed that road was the one in front of that very transient facility. And finally – a notice to the effect that mowing the grass in that particular area was delayed until further notice. Put that together with knowing that transport aircraft were stopping over in large numbers on their way downrange … why, yes; the aircrews were being billeted there, to catch up on sleep before the last long haul to Saudi Arabia. Unclassified? Heck yes – it was on the radio, for gosh sake. Significant information for someone who might want to disrupt the transportation conveyor belt into the theater of conflict? Very possibly.
In the larger sense, OPSEC means paying attention, and especially paying attention to that which is classified information. My own clearance and that of other broadcasters never went any higher than Secret, possibly because we were broadcasters and the powers-that-be feared and probably with good reason (see above) that we would inadvertently blab all kinds of indiscreet stuff into a live microphone. Even at that lowly level, I dealt later on with classified information as the security NCO. The production facility at Hill AFB occasionally worked with materiel which was restricted from general use; yes, we had a secure safe, and now and again I had to serve as courier, collecting classified scripts, video footage and other stuff which I did not actually know what it was – as it was all secured in a sealed envelope – meeting the arriving carrier at the gate at SLC airport, and taking it to the unit and securing it in the safe. I didn’t deal with this materiel often enough to become blasé through familiarity, and I was never in the least bit of doubt that loosing, or compromising classified materiel would have severe adverse effects on my so-called career.
History is chock-full of instances where a break in security – the intercepted message, the boastful bragging to the wrong person, or an outright traitor – spelled disaster and death. History is likewise full of instances where a strategic or tactical secret was kept through heroic efforts on the part of individuals or organizations, an effort rewarded with success. Knowing that people may die, and in job-lots, if you are not careful does tend to concentrate ones’ attention to OPSEC. And this is why that practically every retired military person that I have talked to personally, or commented through social media in the last couple of days, is incandescently furious that Hilary Clinton – for reasons of her own carelessness or convenience – flung down and danced upon every procedure on the books for keeping classified information secure. There are people who have had careers wrecked, been charged, served time for just a hundredth part of the lack of care that she demonstrated in her time as Secretary of State.
But they were none of them Hilary Rodham Clinton. To compromise national security on a grand scale is obviously one of those privileges which rank hath.