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Why is OPSEC important?

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla., -- Operations Security... hmmm. It's just another one of those programs the Air Force pushes, it doesn't apply to me. It really can't harm the Air Force if I discuss the work we're doing while I'm at lunch, or throw those documents in the trash. They're not classified; only classified stuff really needs to be protected, right?

Not true, In the mid '80s, I experienced an event that truly emphasized the importance of good OPSEC. This event left a lesson learned that has guided me through more than 20 years of working in many different positions. Almost everything we do can be construed or pieced together as critical information. Over the years, I know coworkers were impatient with my refusals to discuss activities over the phone or via email or shredding almost everything. But I had learned my lesson.

We were participating in an exercise involving organizations from the base level up to the Joint Chief's of Staff. We were in a building separated from the main portion of the base - simulating another location far away. At that time, we thought we knew who the enemy was. They were the Soviets.

Of course, they could be easily recognized walking down the street, or the instant they spoke, they would have an accent and be dressed in fur hats and coats. They weren't here, in the middle of Oklahoma. We really weren't conscious of any threats, even though we were participating in an exercise simulating war. I'm not even sure we had an OPSEC program at that time, and I really don't remember the specifics of the exercise -- I just remember the event that emphasized good OPSEC practices to me.

Our Exercise Evaluation Team chief decided the exercise participants were being a little cavalier in throwing our documents in the trash rather than in the boxes identified for classified destruction. He decided to conduct a little test, and at the same time, verify that no classified materials were in the dumpster specified for our trash.

The team chief identified a couple of enlisted members and instructed them to go "dumpster diving." They were told to go through documents in the trash, make selections, and put them aside in another small receptacle. I'm sure these members were thrilled to be dumpster diving - did I mention this was summer in Oklahoma - but they did a very thorough job of inspecting the contents. I am sure they appreciated that the dumpster only had a couple of days of garbage in it, rather than a full week's worth.

Once their receptacle was full, and the trash in the dumpster was pretty thoroughly screened, the documents were taken inside to an empty room. The team chief then called in a staff sergeant from the main base to finish the test. This staff sergeant had absolutely no knowledge of the exercise scenario, or the actions and capabilities we were to be testing.

The staff sergeant spent approximately two hours in the room, with no outside contact, reviewing the documents and making notes. At the completion of the two hours, this staff sergeant, with absolutely no knowledge of our exercise and mission, was able to come out and brief us on exactly what we were doing and why we were there. The amount of detail was amazing, and it all came from unclassified documents thrown in the trash. Just imagine what someone could have done if he were looking for information on a specific weapon system and had the fortitude to wade through our trash.

This simple three-hour exercise, conducted on a whim by an experienced team chief, left an impression on me that lasted for over 20 years.

In today's environment, where we don't have a clearly-defined enemy and our personal information is constantly at risk, think how much more dangerous lax OPSEC practices can be in both our personal and professional lives.

Hopefully, relaying my experience those many years ago will have an impact on you and you will apply good OPSEC practices in everything you do, both in your personal lives and on the job. We can never be too safe, and just a small lapse may lead to great harm. Think and practice OPSEC.