Posts from October, 2007

GAO Seeks Greater Role in Oversight of Intelligence

Congressional oversight of intelligence should be augmented by the assistance of specially-cleared investigative teams from the Government Accountability Office, say some congressional leaders, and GAO officials appear eager to assume the task.

“The need for more effective oversight and accountability of our intelligence community has never been greater,” said Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) earlier this year. “Yet the ability of Congress to ensure that the intelligence community has sufficient resources and capability of performing its mission has never been more in question.”

Sen. Akaka introduced pending legislation (S. 82) that would reaffirm the ability of the GAO to conduct audits and investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies at the request of a congressional committee. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House (H.R. 978). Proponents say the legislation could receive favorable consideration next year. (The 2008 intelligence authorization bill, passed in the Senate today, does not address the matter.)

“I believe that there are many areas in which GAO can support the intelligence committees in their oversight roles,” said David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. Among the areas he identified are intelligence acquisition and contract management, human capital management, information technology architectures and systems, and business transformation efforts.

“We have significant knowledge and experience that can be of benefit to the Intelligence Community in connection with a broad range of transformation issues,” he stated.

Mr. Walker expressed his support for the Akaka bill and for an enhanced GAO role in intelligence oversight in a previously unpublished March 1, 2007 letter (pdf) to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the idea of greater GAO involvement in intelligence oversight was sharply discouraged by Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell, who argued that the GAO could damage delicate relations between the intelligence agencies and the oversight committees.

“If not moderated, self-initiated action by the GAO or action on behalf of non-oversight Committees could undermine the ability of Intelligence Committee leadership to direct or stay abreast of oversight activities, and could risk upsetting the historic balance struck between the two branches of government in national security matters,” DNI McConnell wrote in a March 7 letter (pdf) to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The DNI’s concerns are groundless or else could be remedied by simple modifications to the Akaka bill, responded Mr. Walker (pdf) on March 16.

The GAO/DNI correspondence was entered into the record of a March 21, 2007 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee which is soon to be published. Copies were obtained in advance by Secrecy News.

The history of GAO attempts to engage in intelligence oversight dating back to the 1950s was examined in depth by Frederick M. Kaiser in “GAO Versus the CIA: Uphill Battles Against an Overpowering Force,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 15:330-389, 2002.

Obama Would “Reverse Policy of Secrecy”

Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama “will reverse this [Bush Administration] policy of secrecy,” his campaign stated this week, and he addressed the subject in a high-profile address at DePaul University on October 2.

“I’ll lead a new era of openness,” he said.

“I’ll turn the page on a growing empire of classified information, and restore the balance we’ve lost between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in a democratic society by creating a new National Declassification Center.”

The Obama campaign said the proposal was based upon a recommendation of the 1997 Moynihan Commission on Secrecy, and that the Center would “serve as a clearinghouse to set rules and regulations for declassification for federal agencies, and to make declassification secure but routine, efficient, and cost-effective.”

“We’ll protect sources and methods, but we won’t use sources and methods as pretexts to hide the truth. Our history doesn’t belong to Washington, it belongs to America,” Sen. Obama said.

This appears to be the most extensive discussion of secrecy and transparency issues in the presidential campaign to date. The subject was briefly addressed by Senator Clinton in her online campaign literature.

As far as could be determined, no Republican candidate has spoken out against current secrecy policy or advocated increased transparency. However, former Senator Fred Thompson issued a report on government secrecy that urged greater openness when he was chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 1998 (Sen. Rept. 105-258).

DoD Doctrine on Civil Support

The use of U.S. military assets and capabilities in a domestic, civilian context is both politically and legally sensitive. A new Defense Department publication (pdf) defines military doctrine concerning such “civil support” missions, which might include disaster relief, emergency response or support to law enforcement.

“Introducing federal forces into an otherwise civil response situation requires a clear understanding of authorities and their limits.”

The new publication aims to provide such an understanding.

“DOD components do not perform any function of civil government unless authorized,” the document states.

See “Civil Support,” Joint Publication 3-28, 14 September 2007.

Declassification Lessons from Nazi War Crime Records

Last week the National Archives announced the release of the final report to Congress (pdf) on implementation of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which is said to be the largest single-subject declassification program ever performed by the U.S. government. Millions of pages of records from World War II and the early Cold War years relating to Nazi war crimes have been released as a result.

But the lessons learned from declassifying the “extraordinary collection” of documents may prove even more important than the documents themselves, wrote Steven Garfinkel, the chairman of the interagency working group (IWG) that led the program.

In particular, he said, the effort “has demonstrated that disaster does not befall America when intelligence agencies declassify old intelligence operations records.”

“Before the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, intelligence agencies, supported by the President, the Congress, and the Federal courts, routinely and consistently exempted files containing intelligence sources and methods from declassification, regardless of the age or actual sensitivity of the information.”

The Act deliberately rejected that policy of absolute denial and authorized the publication of intelligence sources and methods, albeit historical ones.

And so the newly disclosed records do “indeed reveal the vast interrelationship between British intelligence and the OSS [Office of Strategic Security, a U.S. predecessor to the CIA].”

Yet “it is preposterous to suggest that releasing OSS records under the [Act] is a threat to our current working relationship with the United Kingdom,” Mr. Garfinkel wrote in the preface to the new report.

“The declassification lessons learned during the implementation of the Disclosure Acts can and should be applied to other intelligence records of similar age, and may even be applied to records of somewhat more recent vintage, no matter how sensitive the information within these records once was,” said Mr. Garfinkel, who served as director of the Information Security Oversight Office from 1980 to 2002.

It is essential that such lessons be learned, he said, because in practice the declassification process is arbitrary, unpredictable and subject to the whims of individual declassifiers.

“Whether a request for declassification is answered with a yes or a no is essentially determined by whoever happens to make the disclosure or non-disclosure decisions,” Mr. Garfinkel candidly stated.

“All of the laws and orders and regulations, all of the classification and declassification guides and guidance can be cited to support either answer this person cares to give.”

“The individual in charge makes the call based on his or her experiences, biases, proclivities, knowledge, or ignorance, and for many years thereafter, all of us may be stuck with it,” he wrote.

In light of this unsatisfactory situation, Mr. Garfinkel expressed the hope that classification officials throughout the government might learn that “government secrets, even intelligence secrets, are finite,” and should be subject to ultimate declassification.

A copy of the final report to Congress of the Interagency Working Group on Nazi War Crimes Disclosure, including Mr. Garfinkel’s preface, is available here.

JASON on the Reliable Replacement Warhead

There are significant uncertainties associated with the design of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, the proposed new nuclear weapon, according to the JASON defense science advisory panel.

The unclassified executive summary (pdf) of the new JASON report, first reported by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post on September 30, is here.

Related background is available in “Nuclear Weapons: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, updated September 18, 2007.

Military Guide to Terrorism 2007

U.S. Army intelligence has issued an updated version of its handbook on terrorism in the 21st century.

“The handbook is a high level terrorism primer that includes an overview of the history of terrorism, descriptions of terrorist behaviors and motivations, a review of terrorist group organizations, and the threat posed to our forces, both in the United States and overseas.”

Two of the four supplements to the handbook, one on case studies in terrorism (pdf) and one on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (pdf), have also been recently updated.

See “A Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century,” U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, TRADOC Intelligence Support Activity — Threats, Version 5.0, 15 August 2007.

Selected CRS Reports

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News include the following (all pdf).

“Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2007,” updated September 12, 2007.

“The Military Commissions Act of 2006: Analysis of Procedural Rules and Comparison with Previous DOD Rules and the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” updated September 27, 2007.

“Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1999-2006,” September 26, 2007.

“Afghanistan: Narcotics and U.S. Policy,” updated September 14, 2007.

“Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues,” updated September 19, 2007.

“Iraq: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy,” updated September 12, 2007.

“Presidential Signing Statements: Constitutional and Institutional Implications,” updated September 17, 2007.