Posts from January, 2009

Viewing Secrecy Through “Blank Spots on the Map”

“I think that trying to understand secrecy through geography helps make the subject more real,” writes Trevor Paglen in a new book about secret government. “Thinking about secrecy in terms of concrete spaces and practices helps us to see how secrecy happens and helps to explain how secrecy grows and expands.”

Paglen, a geographer, writes about secrecy at the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, secret prisons in Afghanistan, secret satellite constellations in orbit, secret contractor locations around Washington, DC, and elsewhere. He considers their enabling conditions, as well as their implications for American democracy and public policy.

“The United States has become dependent on spaces created through secrecy, spaces that lie outside the rule of law, outside the Constitution, outside the democratic ideals of equal rights, transparent government, and informed consent,” he concludes. Worse, “the black world’s historical geography shows that where black budgets manifest into a space, informal violence becomes the norm.”

“Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World” by Trevor Paglen has just been published by Dutton Books.

The book has won enthusiastic blurbs from Andrew Bacevich, Robert Baer, Rebecca Solnit, and other esteemed authors. But it has important limitations and defects.

Paglen is a fluid writer with an eye for paradox and incongruity. But he is not a perfectly reliable guide to secrecy policy and practice. There are probably closer to three million persons holding security clearances, not four million [see correction below]. The majority of them are not employees of “the black world” of covert or unacknowledged programs but are engaged in perfectly overt activities that happen to involve handling of classified information. It is absurd to suppose that “In terms of numbers of pages, more of our own recent history is classified than is not” (p. 279). It is not correct to say the term “DET 3″ never appeared on official Groom Lake documents (p. 41); it appeared on a facility security guide. The TIARA and JMIP intelligence budget categories which Paglen says are classified (p. 204) have not been in use for several years now.

Paglen’s point of departure is that there is a “lack of serious literature” about black sites and classified government operations (p. 13). But this premise cannot be sustained. If anything, there is an excess of largely repetitive material on the same themes. There are at least two books about Groom Lake alone, the subject of Paglen’s chapter 3. There are at least two other books about the 1953 Supreme Court decision in the Reynolds case on state secrets, which he summarizes in chapter 10. There are several other books about the black budget and classified spending, a topic he introduces in chapter 12, and so forth.

There are also some surprising “blank spots” in Paglen’s own narrative. In the 1990s, an independent researcher named Glenn Campbell spent years mapping the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, testing its perimeters and security procedures, scouting out the best public domain vantage points, and tracking the “Janet” airplanes in their daily flights to and from Groom Lake, fifteen years before Paglen did something similar. Without a credential or a book contract, he produced an astounding volume of genuine “black world” geography called the “Area 51 Viewer’s Guide.” But except for a misspelling of his name in an incidental footnote (p. 286), Campbell’s pioneering effort goes completely unacknowledged. Campbell himself would probably find his erasure from the record sublime, but to me it is dispiriting.

Finally, Paglen is so fascinated by the corruption of secrecy that he misses an opportunity to think more critically and more deeply about the subject. In his view, the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, is an instrument of “domination” while those who work diligently to expose its secrets are servants of “the public good” (p. 119). But what if the opposite is true? What if by performing secret missions that are authorized and funded by the people’s elected representatives the NRO is actually an agent of liberty? And what if those who work to penetrate its secrecy are thereby undermining its democratically authorized mission? These are live issues for some of us, and there are various ways to respond to them. But in “Blank Spots on the Map” the questions themselves find no place.

Correction: Paglen was roughly correct about the number of security clearances, which reached a reported 4.2 million in 2010, and I was mistaken.

Responding to a Nuclear Detonation, and Other Resources

“It is incumbent upon all levels of government, as well as public and private parties within the U.S., to prepare for” a nuclear detonation in a U.S. city, according to a new U.S. government document.  “Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation” (pdf) was drafted by an interagency team and published by the Homeland Security Council earlier this month (h/t

Security requirements for the protection of classified or controlled information held by the Department of Energy are set forth in a newly revised “Information Security Manual” (pdf), DoE Manual 470.4-4A, January 16, 2009.

Current policy on biosecurity was discussed in a newly published congressional hearing entitled “One Year Later — Implementing the Biosurveillance Requirements of the 9/11 Act,” House Homeland Security Committee, July 16, 2008.

The record of a May 21, 2008 House Judiciary hearing on “FBI Whistleblowers,” featuring witness testimony from Bassem Youssef and Mike German (now of the ACLU), has also been recently published.

New Directive Seeks to Bolster Air, Sea Intelligence

Ambitious new interagency structures that are supposed to provide an improved intelligence response to maritime and air threats to national security are described in a newly-disclosed Intelligence Community Directive.

The directive establishes what it calls Communities of Interest (COI) “to maximize intelligence collection and all-source analytic coordination.”

“IC stakeholders in the maritime and air COIs shall aggressively collaborate and share information to proactively identify and mitigate threats posed within these domains as early and as geographically distant from the U.S. as possible,” the new directive states.

A plan to maximize air domain awareness “directs development and improvement of new capabilities that enable persistent and effective monitoring of all aircraft, cargo, people, and infrastructure in identified areas of interest and at designated times, consistent with protecting civil liberties and privacy,” the directive says.

“Creating a shared common awareness among intelligence, law enforcement and operational communities is a complex task,” the directive notes, “and many associated policy and legal implications must be resolved to achieve success.”

The January 14, 2009 directive, signed by former Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell, has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Global Maritime and Air Intelligence Integration,” Intelligence Community Directive 902, effective 14 January 2009.

U.S. Military Embraces Space Control, “Proximity Operations”

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued updated military doctrine on space operations (pdf) that includes new material on “offensive space control” and “proximity operations.”

Offensive space control “entails the negation of enemy space capabilities through denial, deception, disruption, degradation, or destruction.”

“Adversaries — both state and non-state actors — will exploit increased access to space-based capabilities. Hence, it is incumbent on the US military to negate the adversaries’ use of those space capabilities that affect the safety and well-being of US, allied, and coalition forces,” the new publication says.

Another new section of the document addresses “rendezvous and proximity operations,” in which “two resident space objects are intentionally brought operationally close together.”

In addition to assembly and servicing missions, proximity operations “include the potential to support a wide range of future US space capabilities,” which are not further specified.

See Joint Publication 3-14, “Space Operations,” January 6, 2009.

The Pentagon acknowledged using two micro-satellites to approach and inspect a third, disabled satellite, New Scientist reported last week. See “Spy satellites turn their gaze onto each other,” January 24.

The U.S. Army defined its own mission in space in “Department of the Army Space Policy” (pdf), U.S. Army Regulation 900-1, January 23, 2009.

Blair: Intel Classification Policy Needs “Fundamental Work”

“There is a great deal of over-classification,” admitted Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the nominee to be the next Director of National Intelligence, at his confirmation hearing last week.

“Some of it, I think, is done for the wrong reasons, to try to hide things from the light of day. Some of it is because in our system, there is no incentive not to do that, and there are penalties to do the reverse, in case you get something wrong and don’t classify it.”

“So I think we need to do fundamental work on the system,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden at the January 22 hearing.

“I’ll be working to see if we can come up with a different approach that incentivizes it at the right level and that informs not only those of you who have security clearances on this committee but the wider interested public whose support we need,” Adm. Blair said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse pursued the same question.  “My experience,” the Senator said, “is that, over and over and over again, we have seen official secrecy used not for national security purposes, but to mislead the public and to frame — or more particularly, mis-frame — an outside, political debate. Will you pledge to us that you will take this trust of secrecy that you are given as Director of National Intelligence and use it only to protect national security and not to manipulate public opinion or frame or mis-frame political debates?”

“Absolutely, Senator,” Adm. Blair replied.

The DNI-nominee also told Sen. Kit Bond and Sen. Whitehouse that he favored prosecution of leakers of classified information.  “If I could ever catch one of those it would be very good to prosecute them.”

He suggested that there might be new technical steps that could be taken to identify leakers.

“If confirmed,” he added, “I would like to come to talk to you about some ideas where we can build in some technical, some procedural safeguards into agencies so that it’s not a case of going back afterwards and trying to get records and question people but we have some tools that will let everybody who works for the government know that if you are going to pass classified information to a reporter or to someone, there will be a trace of it which will make it relatively quick to identify you as the one who did it,” Adm. Blair told Sen. Whitehouse.

Presumably this refers to improved tracking of classified intelligence “records,” not of “information.”

In answers to pre-hearing questions (pdf), Adm. Blair said that he favored continued publication of the annual intelligence budget total.  “It has not, to my knowledge, caused harm to the national security, and provides important information to the American public,” Blair said.

He also endorsed declassification review of 25 year old classified intelligence records.

“While much intelligence information remains sensitive even at 25 years, that which can be released to the public should be. Intelligence — especially the intelligence that informed key policy decisions — can and should ultimately become part of the country’s historical record.” [at p. 55]

The profound confusion that prevails in intelligence classification policy was recognized last year in an internal report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (Secrecy News, April 10, 2008). Even the most basic concepts of classification policy, it said, are open to question and interpretation.

“The definitions of ‘national security’ and what constitutes ‘intelligence’ — and thus what must be classified — are unclear,” the ODNI report stated (pdf).

A new directive signed by outgoing DNI Mike McConnell on January 21 is intended to “foster an enduring culture of responsible sharing and collaboration within an integrated [intelligence community]” and to breakdown traditional “stove pipes” that inhibit communication within the government.  See “Discovery and Dissemination or Retrieval of Information Within the Intelligence Community,” Intelligence Community Directive 501 (pdf),  January 21, 2009.

The continuing classification of obsolete Cold War intelligence satellite imagery, to the disappointment of space historians and others, was examined in “A ray of sunshine into a dark world: the future declassification of satellite reconnaissance information” by Dwayne Day in The Space Review, January 26.

Correction: An Anomalous Rise in Public Knowledge

Secrecy News last week misquoted a line in President Obama’s inaugural speech.  He did not say: “And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge will be held to account….”  What he said was “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account….”

The erroneous reference to “public knowledge” was also published by the Washington Post, United Press International, and other news outlets.  It may have originated with a mistake by the FDCH transcription service.

The text of the inaugural address on the White House web site says “public dollars,” not “public knowledge,” and it is clear from the tape of the speech that that is correct.  Thanks to reader LD for questioning the discrepancy.

There must be lots of historic events that were mistakenly transcribed and reported.

“You can’t make an anomalous rise twice,” said J. Robert Oppenheimer, according to the official record of his momentous hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.

But what Oppenheimer actually said was “You can’t make an omelet rise twice” (as noted by Philip M. Stern).  Oh well.

The Oppenheimer case is to be reviewed once again in the latest episode of PBS’s American Experience tonight.

President Obama Declares “A New Era of Openness”

In a breathtaking series of statements and executive actions, President Barack Obama yesterday announced “the beginning of a new era of openness in our country.”

“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” he told reporters at a January 21 swearing-in ceremony.

“The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed” (a paraphrase of the October 2001 policy statement of former Attorney General John Ashcroft).  “That era is now over.”

“Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known,” President Obama said.

Moreover, “I will also hold myself, as president, to a new standard of openness…. Information will not be withheld just because I say so.  It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well-grounded in the Constitution.”

“Let me say it as simply as I can.  Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

Accordingly, the President issued several new policy statements.  A new policy on Freedom of Information directed that “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” and called for the Attorney General to develop new FOIA guidelines reflecting that principle.  A broader statement on Transparency and Open Government directed agencies to “harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public,” and ordered preparation of recommendations for an Open Government Directive.  A new executive order rescinded an order issued by former President Bush that imposed increased restrictions on public access to presidential records.

The whole package gained immense force from the fact that it was presented on the President’s first full day in office.  (By comparison, the Clinton and Bush Administrations did not get around to addressing FOIA policy until October of their first year in office.)  The actions closely tracked the recommendations of openness advocates, and they represented a personal commitment to openness and accountability that goes far beyond what any previous President has dared to offer.

Inevitably, several caveats are in order.  A “presumption of disclosure” really only applies to records that are potentially subject to discretionary release, which is a finite subset of secret government information.  Vast realms of information are sequestered behind classification barriers or statutory protections that remain unaffected by the new policy statements.  “In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” the President said.  But throughout the government secrecy system, there is not a lot of doubt or soul-searching about the application of secrecy.

For example, last week Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., the director of the ODNI Intelligence Staff, denied a FOIA request for declassification and release of the 2006 intelligence budget total, even though the 2007 and 2008 budget numbers have already been officially disclosed (Secrecy News, January 14).  According to ODNI, the 2006 number is still classified, and its disclosure would compromise intelligence sources and methods.  The problem here is not that doubt mistakenly yielded to secrecy instead of disclosure.  The problem is that General Burgess and his colleagues cling to an obsolete and counterproductive classification framework.

Unfortunately President Obama’s new directives do not yet encompass the needed overhaul of the national security classification system.  That may have to wait another day or two.

Various Resources

“The Bush administration has left in its wake a demoralized national-security press corps, battered by leak investigations, subpoena-happy prosecutors, and a shift in the legal and wider culture away from the previous understanding of journalism’s mission and First Amendment protections,” writes Laura Rozen in the Columbia Journalism Review.  See her story “Hung Out to Dry” along with a series of other articles on openness and secrecy.

“Secrecy” by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, a movie that critically examined the national security secrecy system from several contrasting perspectives, is now available on DVD.  It premiered last year to appreciative reviews.

Attorney Sheldon I. Cohen represented a naturalized American of Israeli origin who was initially denied a security clearance after he said that he would not bear arms against Israel in the event of a conflict between Israel and the United States.  Mr. Cohen describes the resolution of the case in a new write-up (pdf).

The admiration that many Americans feel for President Obama is celebrated and ridiculed in a new anthology of Obama speeches and writings, published in the form of a “Little Blue Book” that “easily fits into pocket or purse.”  President Obama’s “guiding principles will enlighten the minds of the people and prepare the way for a new era of change,” the booklet promises.  “In order to master the President’s ideology, it is essential to study many of the basic concepts over and over again, and it is best to memorize important statements and apply them repeatedly.”

Obama: We Will “Do Our Business in the Light of Day”

Updated below

President Barack Obama found room in his inaugural address to affirm a commitment to open, accountable government.

“And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government,” the President said.

There are several notable aspects to this formulation.  First, it clearly states that government information belongs to the public and that it is only temporarily managed by its current custodians in office.  It reasserts the original constitutional linkage between public disclosure and wise government spending.  It acknowledges the need for reform and correction of bad government information habits.  And it implicitly recognizes that the vital relationship of trust between the people and the government has been broken and needs to be restored.

Some of the Obama Administration’s initial steps towards greater openness seem to reflect more enthusiasm than careful consideration.

For example, the new White House web site now states that “We will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.”

This does not make a lot of sense, since the White House cannot amend legislation that has already been passed by Congress or take any other action in response to public “review and comment” except to veto the measure.  Public comments on pending legislation need to be directed to members of Congress, whose specific function is to represent their constituents’ interests and concerns.

Nevertheless, the proposal is another sign of a new willingness to engage the public through increased disclosure and communication.  And it’s another reason to stop and wonder at this new Administration.

Update: And see President Obama Declares “A New Era of Openness”, January 22.

Presidential Transition Binder Shines a Light on FEMA

The structure and functions of the normally somewhat opaque Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are illuminated in a 238-page briefing book (pdf) that was prepared for the presidential transition.

“The FEMA 2009 Presidential Transition Binder… is intended to serve as a reference for FEMA leadership and employees to help orient them to its organizational structure, programs, resources, stakeholders, and operations,” the document states.

The Binder, which has not otherwise been made readily available to the public, was obtained by Jonah Czerwinski, who writes the Homeland Security Watch blog.