Countering CIA’s Conflict of Interest in Declassification

Last week the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to submit the 480-page executive summary, findings and conclusions of its five-year investigation into the post-9/11 CIA Detention and Interrogation Program for declassification review. But in an obvious conflict of interest, the review is expected to be performed by the CIA itself.

“The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, in an April 3 statement. “This is not what Americans do.”

The standard process for declassification therefore puts the CIA in the awkward and untenable position of deciding whether to enable (or to prevent) the release of information that portrays the Agency itself, or some of its personnel, as having engaged in behavior that was brutal, lawless, and unaccountable.

Instead, it is the White House, not the CIA, that should lead the declassification process, said Sen. Feinstein, as reported today by McClatchy Newspapers.

“As this report covers a covert action program under the authority of the President and National Security Council, I respectfully request that the White House take the lead in the declassification process,” Sen. Feinstein wrote. (Feinstein: CIA should not lead declassification review of report about interrogation tactics by Ali Watkins, McClatchy, April 8).

However, it may not be possible to exclude CIA from the declassification process altogether, since it was CIA that generated and classified most or all of the information at issue. While the President certainly has the authority to declassify the report, the White House would be unlikely to possess the detailed knowledge of the underlying records that would be needed to do so independently.

But there are ways to minimize and counteract CIA’s conflict of interest in declassification.

First of all, the Senate Intelligence Committee will be in a position to make its own judgment as to the validity of any CIA redactions of the report. Unlike the typical FOIA requester who pursues a document he has never seen, the Senate Committee knows exactly what is in the report, which it produced. If CIA moves to withhold information in ways that are frivolous, questionable or unfounded in genuine national security concerns, the Committee will recognize that immediately and will be able to elevate those specific disagreements with the CIA to the White House for resolution.

Another possible option would be for the Senate Committee to engage the services of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB).

That Board’s statutory purpose is, among other things, “To review and make recommendations to the President in a timely manner with respect to any congressional request, made by the committee of jurisdiction, to declassify certain records or to reconsider a declination to declassify specific records.”

While the PIDB, which is made up of non-governmental personnel, cannot declassify anything on its own authority, it could serve to backstop the regular declassification process with an independent perspective, and could also provide political cover for the President to overrule an unwarranted refusal to declassify.

In 2006, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the Public Interest Declassification Board to review an Administration decision to classify portions of two Committee reports on prewar intelligence on Iraq. At the time, the Board said it doubted that it could carry out the review without White House authorization.

So Senators Ron Wyden and Russ Feingold introduced legislative language to clarify that the Board is authorized to review declassification proposals — or evaluate agency refusals to declassify — at the initiative of a congressional committee of jurisdiction. Their measure was enacted into law in the FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act.

While this function has never yet been performed by the Board, it remains available to Congress at its discretion.

“The classification system exists to protect national security, but its outdated design and implementation often hinders that mission,” wrote PIDB chair Amb. Nancy E. Soderberg in a November 2012 letter to President Obama transmitting a Board report.

“The system is compromised by over-classification and, not coincidentally, by increasing instances of unauthorized disclosures. This undermines the credibility of the classification system, blurs the focus on what truly requires protection, and fails to serve the public interest. Notwithstanding the best efforts of information security professionals, the current system is outmoded and unsustainable; transformation is not simply advisable but imperative,” she wrote.

CIA Agrees to Provide Softcopy Records to Requester

After the Central Intelligence Agency refused to release records requested under the Freedom of Information Act in softcopy format, requester Jeffrey Scudder filed a lawsuit against the Agency demanding that it comply, and he received a rather sympathetic hearing from the judge. (CIA’s Refusal to Release Softcopy Records Challenged in Court, Secrecy News, March 17, 2004).

Yesterday the parties to the dispute reported that they found “a creative solution… that will render the issue moot.”

“Defendant [CIA] has agreed to provide the 419 records that Plaintiff has requested in an electronic format by putting PDF copies of the requested records on its website,” where they can be downloaded at will. CIA will also refund the charges it demanded for printing out the electronic documents.

While this seems like a satisfactory solution for requester Scudder, it leaves the underlying problem, which is also faced by other requesters, unresolved.

“Too Mild a Nuclear Option”? National Security in the 1970s

U.S. nuclear weapons strategy evolved during the Nixon administration from a reflexive policy of massive retaliation against a Soviet attack to a diverse range of options for more limited nuclear strikes. The transition was not without some bumps.

A declassified 1974 memo recorded that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger at first needed some persuading about the efficacy of limited strikes.

Kissinger “expressed concern that many of the options appeared to him as too timid. He judged that nuclear use must have a decisive military effect in order to achieve the desired political goal– convince enemy to stop.”

“Too mild a nuclear option is likely to convince the enemy to persevere, or respond tit for tat, or both,” Kissinger said, as paraphrased in the 1974 Pentagon memo.

The formerly Top Secret memo (document 36) is one of many that appeared in a richly informative, 1,000-page new volume of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on National Security Policy, 1973-1976 that was released this week.

Kissinger was soon convinced of the need for greater flexibility, and presented the argument himself to President Nixon.

“The concept that we could ‘win’ a war through virtually unlimited nuclear exchanges has become increasingly irrational as the Soviets acquired the capability to destroy the United States– even if the U.S. were to strike first,” he wrote in a memorandum to the President (document 30). “This has resulted in concern that such a strategy is no longer credible and that it detracts from our overall deterrent.”

The proposed new nuclear policy would therefore provide “for the development of a broad range of limited options aimed at terminating war on terms acceptable to the U.S. at the lowest level of conflict feasible.” Still, it would preserve “the major SIOP-type options in the event that escalation cannot be controlled.”

Kissinger asked President Nixon to approve the proposed steps and “authorize me to sign” the new nuclear weapons policy. Nixon did approve, but he wrote that “RN will sign.”

The FRUS volume is full of impressive, candid and chatty source documents on the diverse national security issues of the time, including anti-satellite weapons, the notorious “Team B” competitive analysis project that challenged CIA assessments of Soviet military strength, the Glomar Explorer effort to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, and the growing threat of Soviet surveillance and interception of U.S. communications.

The fear that Soviets were monitoring U.S. telephone communications inspired a concerted effort to improve communications security against espionage and the invasion of privacy.

“The President… recognizes that U.S. citizens and institutions should have a reasonable expectation of privacy from foreign or domestic intercept when using the public telephone system,” according to National Security Decision Memorandum 338 of September 1, 1976 (document 180).

The Foreign Relations of the United States series has been an important driver of the declassification process, identifying high-value historical records for declassification review. While it sometimes represents the state of the art in declassification, other times it lags behind, probably due to the painfully slow pace of the review and production process. (The latest volume was under declassification review from 2007 to 2014.)

In some peculiar cases, FRUS both leads and lags in declassification. So, for example, the new FRUS volume includes a copy of the 1976 National Security Decision Memorandum 333 on “Enhanced Survivability of Critical U.S. Military and Intelligence Space Systems” (document 91). The newly published document includes two declassified paragraphs that had been withheld from public release as recently as 2008. Incongruously, however, the new FRUS version of NSDM 333 also withholds two lines concerning threats against U.S. satellites that it mistakenly says were “not declassified.” In fact, those lines were declassified years ago in the NSDM 333 that is available from the Ford Presidential Library. The two contrasting and complementary versions of NSDM 333 can be viewed here and here.