Posts from March, 2009

A Test of the New FOIA Policy

In a test of the new, more forthcoming Freedom of Information Act guidelines that were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 19, the Federation of American Scientists has asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to reconsider its refusal to disclose the budget total for the National Intelligence Program for fiscal year 2006.

The new FOIA policy is intended to reverse entrenched secrecy practices and to encourage appropriate release of information.

“By restoring the presumption of disclosure that is at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act, we are making a critical change that will restore the public’s ability to access information in a timely manner,” said Attorney General Holder last week.  The new guidelines (pdf) “strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information” and indicate that the Justice Department will not defend FOIA denials in court unless disclosure would damage a protected government interest.

That all sounds promising, but it remains to be demonstrated in practice.

Adding to several other pending FOIA cases that will test the practical meaning of the newly declared policy, we have asked the ODNI to reverse its recent denial of the 2006 budget total.  Although the 2007 and 2008 budget figures have been formally declassified, the 2006 figure remains classified.

This ODNI practice of classifying obsolete budget information while releasing current budget information is “stupid,” said Steven Garfinkel, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, at a March 16 conference sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the Washington College of Law.

It also appears to be at odds with the views of the DNI himself.  In response to a pre-hearing question (pdf; question 35C) at his confirmation to be DNI, Adm. Dennis C. Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee:  “I believe the annual disclosure of the aggregate intelligence appropriation, as required by law, should continue. It has not, to my knowledge, caused harm to the national security, and provides important information to the American public.”

Given these developments, we suggested in a FOIA request (pdf) to ODNI today, “it seems questionable either that the Justice Department would defend the continued denial under FOIA of the 2006 intelligence budget total, or that the DNI would supply a sworn declaration to a federal court to try to justify the withholding of this information.”

USAF Org Chart Departs from Phone Directory Secrecy

The United States Air Force has published a detailed organizational chart of its headquarters (pdf) including the names and telephone numbers of key personnel.

What makes this of more than passing interest is that it represents a departure from the post-9/11 Pentagon practice of withholding the names and phone numbers of Pentagon officials from publication in the Department of Defense telephone directory.  Prior to 9/11, Pentagon phone directories were made available for sale to anyone who wanted them.  I used to get a copy once or twice a year at the Government Printing Office (GPO) Bookstore on North Capitol Street for the use of the Federation of American Scientists.

Then, in a move that heralded a massive withdrawal of government information from the public domain, the document suddenly ceased to be available.  “The DOD Telephone Directory since September 11, 2001 is marked ‘For Official Use Only’ and is no longer sold by GPO,” according to a notice formerly posted on the GPO web site.

A bowdlerized version of the Pentagon phone book was later published for public use, with the names of Pentagon officials deleted.  Thus, “The listing for secretary of defense includes only ‘Hon. …’ for the Honorable Robert M. Gates,” reported Bill Gertz of the Washington Times on September 7, 2007.

The Air Force has abandoned such a policy, and its new org chart provides the names and the phone numbers of its headquarters staff without restriction.  Access to the complete, unexpurgated Pentagon telephone directory, however, remains limited to those with a .mil address and a “Common Access Card” that is issued to DoD employees and contractors.

Why does DoD withhold its telephone directory when other agencies with national security responsibilities such as the Department of State and the Department of Energy openly publish their telephone directories on their websites?

One answer is “OPSEC,” or “operations security,” meaning the concealment of unclassified indicators to frustrate foreign intelligence collectors.  But that rationale could apply equally to Energy and State, which do not embrace it.  Besides, the Pentagon itself survived the Cold War without such an extreme secrecy policy.

Another answer is that unlike other agencies, “We were attacked,” as one Pentagon employee told Secrecy News, citing the September 11 terrorist strike on the Pentagon.  That is a conversation stopper but not much of an explanation, since there is no known reason to believe that the Pentagon telephone directory was used by the 9/11 terrorists.

The Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody

Last year the Senate Armed Services Committee held two hearings on the detention and interrogation of suspected enemy combatants held by U.S. forces, probing into the origins of military interrogation policy and documenting some of the key decisions that were made.

“Today’s hearing,” said Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin, “will explore how it came about that the techniques called survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training, which are used to teach American soldiers to resist abusive interrogations by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were turned on their head and sanctioned by Department of Defense (DOD) officials for use offensively against detainees. Those techniques included use of stress positions, … use of dogs, and hooding during interrogation.”

The record of those hearings has recently been published, supplemented by detailed questions and answers for the record and documents obtained by the Committee (in the PDF version).

See “The Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” hearings before the Senated Armed Services Committee, June 17 and September 25, 2008.

Nuclear R&D in Nine Nations, and More from CRS

The organization and management of nuclear weapons research in nine countries — the United States, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom — are examined in a new report from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Nuclear Weapons R&D Organizations in Nine Nations” (pdf), March 16, 2009.

Other noteworthy new CRS reports that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Cuba: Issues for the 111th Congress,” updated March 18, 2009.

“The Constitutionality of Federal Contracting Programs for Minority-Owned and Other Small Businesses,” March 16, 2009.

“Ongoing Government Assistance for American International Group (AIG),” March 16, 2009.

OSC Views Leadership of Russian Armed Forces

Senior military leaders of the Russian Federation were profiled last December by the Russian publication “Rossiyskoye Voyennoye Obozreniye” and the resulting compilation was recently translated by the DNI Open Source Center (OSC).  The personal and professional backgrounds of some two dozen military leaders are summarized and accompanied by photographs, some of which are quite striking.

The OSC translation has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Russia: Biographies, Photos of RF Armed Forces Leadership,” Rossiyskoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 29, 2008, via the Open Source Center.

Report on Intelligence Oversight in the 110th Congress

Between 1978 and 2004, the annual intelligence authorization bill was the principal vehicle for the congressional intelligence committees to assert their influence and control over U.S. intelligence agencies, by modifying agency statutory authorities and imposing reporting requirements.

So the failure of Congress to pass an intelligence authorization bill since December 2004 is a significant handicap to the oversight committees and inevitably constitutes a diminution of their own authority and influence.

But even so, the intelligence committees have remained at the center of momentous intelligence policy debates, sometimes intervening in Administration policy and sometimes acquiescing in it.

A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee summarizes the Committee’s activities in the last Congress, in which it addressed a host of major and minor issues from the amendment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to the proposed expansion of the authorities of the Public Interest Declassification Board.

The 50-page report contains much that is familiar, along with some new details on staff study projects, “the poor status of IC financial management,” the Committee’s own difficulty in obtaining information from the Administration, and other topics.  See “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate, Covering the Period January 4, 2007 to January 2, 2009,” published March 2, 2009.

One qualitative change in intelligence oversight that is not mentioned in the new report is that the Committee no longer publishes intelligence agency answers to Questions for the Record that are submitted following the Committee’s annual intelligence threat hearing.

In the past, richly substantive agency answers to Committee questions would appear in the published hearing volume late in the year.  But now the intelligence agencies no longer provide, and the Committee no longer demands, unclassified answers to such questions.  The last time they were published was in the 2003 hearing volume on “Current and Projected Threats to the National Security of the United States” (pdf).

The significance of the continuing failure to pass an intelligence authorization bill was assessed in “Intelligence Authorization Legislation: Status and Challenges” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, February 24, 2009.

President’s Intel Advisory Board Members All Resigned

Secrecy News previously criticized the White House web site for failing, among other things, to provide a current roster of members of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.  (“White House Web Site Off to a Slow Start,” Secrecy News, March 9.)

But it turns out that there are no current members, since the entire membership of the Board resigned at the end of the previous Administration.

A White House official told Ben Lando of Iraq Oil Report that the previous members resigned by mutual agreement during the presidential transition and that the Board is now vacant.

“It will not be a matter of months” until new PIAB members are appointed but “maybe a matter of weeks,” Iraq Oil Report quoted the official.  See “Texas oilman Ray Hunt is no longer serving as a presidential adviser on intelligence issues,” Iraq Oil Report, March 17 (at bottom of page).

China’s Foreign Aid Activities

The People’s Republic of China has significantly increased its foreign aid to Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia from less than $1 billion in 2002 to an estimated $25 billion in 2007, according to recent academic research.

The motivations, intentions and impact of this activity are examined in a new report from the Congressional Research Service that has not been made readily available to the public. See “China’s Foreign Aid Activities in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia” (pdf), February 25, 2009.

Israel as a Nuclear Power

A 2008 Defense Department study of future national security trends seems to have escaped many of the conventional filters that normally limit the candor of such public documents.

As previously noted, the Joint Operational Environment 2008 (JOE 2008) study set off alarms in South Korea because of its discussion of North Korean nuclear weapons and it aggravated Mexican officials with its consideration of potential political instability in that country.  (“DoD Future Trend Study Provokes Foreign Reaction,” Secrecy News, March 5.)

But JOE 2008 also departed from the norm in U.S. Government documents by identifying Israel as a nuclear weapons state.

“In effect, there is a growing arc of nuclear powers running from Israel in the west through an emerging Iran to Pakistan, India, and on to China, North Korea, and Russia in the east,” JOE 2008 stated (pdf, at page 37) in a discussion of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The unusual reference to Israel’s nuclear status was noticed by Amir Oren in Ha’aretz, who explained that “Israel’s nuclear program is rarely, if ever, explicitly mentioned in public, unclassified U.S. official documents.”  See “U.S. Army document describes Israel as ‘a nuclear power’,” Ha’aretz, March 8.