Posts from June, 2009

Declass Panel Helps Overcome Reflexive Secrecy

One of the most successful innovations in the otherwise mostly stagnant domain of classification policy was the creation of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), an executive branch entity that was established by President Clinton’s 1995 executive order 12958.

For over a decade, the ISCAP has maintained an astonishing record of ordering the declassification of information in a majority of the documents that have been presented for its review.  In each of those cases, the Panel effectively overruled the classification judgment of one of its own member agencies.  There are policy lessons to be learned from this experience concerning the often poor quality of routine classification actions and the value of extending declassification authority beyond the originating agency.

Bill Burr of the National Security Archive recently prepared a thoughtful overview of the creation and the operation of the ISCAP, together with a compilation of several of the latest documents that it approved for release.  See “The Secrecy Court of Last Resort: New Declassification Releases by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP),” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, June 5.

Further Declassification of Reagan-Era Directives

One of the minor offenses of the Obama White House is its inexplicable failure to publish presidential directives — now dubbed Presidential Policy Directives — even when they are unclassified.  But presidential directives from prior administrations continue to enter the public domain following repeated declassification reviews.

Several National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs) issued by President Reagan were released in full or with fewer redactions last April at the Reagan Library (all pdf):

NSDD 12 on “Strategic Forces Modernization Program” was released in its entirety.  A section on submarine launched missiles that was censored in a prior declassification review was restored, along with other redactions (thanks to

NSDD 35 on “The M-X Program” was also released in full, including two previously censored paragraphs.

NSDD 21 on “Responding to Floggers in Cuba” was released with one paragraph still redacted but several previous redactions now disclosed (Floggers are Soviet MiG-23 fighter aircraft).

Other NSDDs that have undergone declassification review in recent years leading to significant additional disclosures include the following:

NSDD 135, “Los Angeles Olympic Games Counterintelligence and Security Precautions,” March 27, 1984 (reviewed in 2004).

NSDD 139, “Measures to Improve U.S. Posture and Readiness to Respond to Developments in the Iran-Iraq War,” April 5, 1984, including previously withheld passages concerning Saudi Arabia and Egypt (2007).

NSDD 141, “Responding to Escalation in the Iran-Iraq War,” May 25, 1984 (2007).

NSDD 147, “U.S. Policy Towards India and Pakistan,” October 11, 1984 (2007).

These directives and other NSDDs may be found here.

A New History of the National Security Agency

“The Secret Sentry” by Matthew Aid is a comprehensive new history of the National Security Agency, from its origins in World War II through its Cold War successes, failures and scandals up until the present.

Aid, an independent historian who is also a visiting fellow at the National Security Archive, has synthesized a tremendous amount of research into a narrative that is highly readable and sometimes gripping.  All of the familiar stops are there, including the Truman memo of 1952 that established the Agency, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, KAL 007, 9/11 and on to today.

But the book also includes quite a bit of unfamiliar historical material, and almost any reader is likely to discover something new and interesting.  I learned, for example, that a few months after seizing the USS Pueblo in 1968, North Korea published a book in French containing the full text of many captured NSA documents, some of which, Mr. Aid says, are still considered to be classified today (p. 142).

What will make The Secret Sentry indispensable to researchers are its nearly one hundred pages of endnotes, which constitute a unique finding aid to the most current archival releases, internal agency histories, and other valuable records.  Some of the documents gathered by Mr. Aid in the course of his decades of research later vanished from public stacks at the National Archives, prompting him to realize that some government agencies were silently — and often improperly — reclassifying declassified records.  Portions of those now inaccessible records have been integrated into this new history.

Inevitably, the book contains some minor errors.  Mr. Aid repeats an assertion by the 9/11 Commission that Osama bin Laden was alerted to NSA monitoring of his satellite phone as the result of a 1998 news story that appeared in the Washington Times (p. 383, note 69).  But he neglects to note that this assertion has been effectively refuted.  (See, e.g., “File the Bin Laden Phone Leak Under ‘Urban Myths’” by Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, December 22, 2005.)

The author is generous in his citations to the leading authors in the intelligence field, from David Wise and David Kahn to Seymour Hersh and Jeffrey Richelson and other less celebrated writers — with one strange and disconcerting exception.  There is not a single reference in the entire book to James Bamford, whose 1983 book The Puzzle Palace, among others, blazed the trail that The Secret Sentry follows.  Perhaps Mr. Aid felt it was necessary to ignore Mr. Bamford so as not to be constantly agreeing or disagreeing with him, and confirming or disputing his accounts.  If that is the case, he ought to have said so.

The Secret Sentry is being published this week by Bloomsbury Press.

Something “Very Wrong” in State Dept History Office

An Inspector General review (pdf) of the State Department Office of the Historian (HO) last month confirmed that there were serious management defects in the Office and recommended reassignment of its Director as well as other changes.

The Office of the Historian is responsible for production of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, which is the official documentary history of U.S. foreign policy and one of the most important vehicles for declassification of historical records.

Allegations of mismanagement and declining performance had surrounded the Office for years until the Chairman of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee, Prof. Wm. Roger Louis, resigned last December to dramatize his concerns that the FRUS series was “at risk.” (See “State Dept: Crisis in the ‘Foreign Relations’ Series,” Secrecy News, December 11, 2008).

“In varying degrees, nearly 75 percent of the present HO employees interviewed … were critical of the way the office is run,” the IG reported.  “They alleged favoritism, cronyism, a lack of transparency, lack of interest in the FRUS, disparagement of the staff, suspicion, an absence of leadership, and, in general, the creation of an unhappy workplace.”

With plummeting employee morale and departures of experienced staff historians, “something in HO is very wrong,” the Inspector General concluded.  “HO is suffering from, and has for some time been handicapped by, serious mismanagement for which the director must be held accountable…. Despite any mitigating factors that may exist in favor of the director, this situation cannot be allowed to continue.”

“It is a devastating indictment,” said Prof. Warren Kimball, a Rutgers historian who chaired an initial review of the situation earlier this year.  “Clearly the IG inspectors listened to what we had to say.  It does give one some faith in the State Department’s internal monitoring system — slow as it is.”

The IG recommended reassignment of the Director, Dr. Marc Susser, to another Department position, and he was in fact reassigned last month.  On May 27, the State Department appointed Ambassador John Campbell to serve as the new Acting Director of the Office of the Historian.  (See “After Critical Report, State Dept.’s Historian is Reassigned” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, June 8, 2009.)

See “Management Review of the Office of the Historian,” State Department Office of Inspector General, May 2009.

The IG review also underscored the difficulties facing the FRUS series, which is supposed to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary account of U.S. foreign policy within 30 years of the events described.  In the past, the foreign policy of the Eisenhower Administration was covered in 66 volumes of FRUS.  Despite a richer and more complex record, the Nixon-Ford years were allocated only 57 volumes.  For the Reagan Administration, which has a fuller record still, only 38 FRUS volumes are planned.

Under present circumstances, the task of the FRUS series, although mandated by law, is “almost unachievable,” the IG said.

Homeland Security Intel: Operations and Oversight

The Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence mission is to collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence to reduce the threat of domestic terrorism.  The somewhat complex structure of DHS intelligence, at DHS headquarters and in six operational components, is illuminated in a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

The new report usefully examines how DHS intelligence is organized to address threat warnings, border security, critical infrastructure protection, and information sharing.  It also considers congressional oversight of DHS intelligence. See “The Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Enterprise: Operational Overview and Oversight Challenges for Congress,” May 27, 2009.

Though it is far from the most urgent or important question facing homeland security intelligence, Congress is pulling out all the stops to investigate the origin of a controversial, inartfully worded DHS intelligence memo on “Rightwing Extremism” (pdf). Last week, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a formal resolution of inquiry to demand documents related to the preparation of that memo.

Afghan Elections: Candidates and Powerbrokers

The leading presidential candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming August 20 election are briefly profiled in a chart prepared by the DNI Open Source Center.  See “Afghan Presidential Election: Potential Candidates and Powerbrokers” (pdf), May 4, 2009.

Further background on elections in the region may be found in “Middle East Elections 2009: Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, May 18, 2009.  (Elections in Lebanon took place on June 7.)

Identity Theft, and More from CRS

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

“Mexico’s Drug-Related Violence,” May 27, 2009.

“The 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) ‘Swine Flu’ Outbreak: U.S. Responses to Global Human Cases,” May 26, 2009.

“The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” updated May 15, 2009.

“USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives After 15 Years: Issues for Congress,” May 27, 2009.

“Airport Improvement Program (AIP): Reauthorization Issues for Congress,” May 29, 2009.

“Identity Theft: Trends and Issues,” May 27, 2009.

Peter B. Versus the CIA

Employment disputes are all too common inside and outside of government, including at the CIA.  In one pending lawsuit, a former CIA employee claimed that the Agency improperly terminated his employment and communicated negative information about him to another prospective employer, thereby violating his rights.

In this case, however, the name of the aggrieved employee is a national security secret.

“As plaintiff’s true name is classified, he has been permitted to file as ‘Peter B.’,” according to a recent court ruling (pdf), in which Judge Richard W. Roberts rejected the CIA’s motion to dismiss the case.  “Peter B’s” attorney, Mark S. Zaid, whose name is not classified, welcomed the June 1 opinion.

Online Transparency Discussions Move Forward

An innovative White House attempt to engage the interested public in the development of government policy on openness and transparency is moving briskly and, so far, productively.

An initial online brainstorming session attracted over 98,000 visits and generated some 2,450 “ideas” for increasing public access to government information, over 11,000 comments on those ideas, and over 200,000 votes in favor or against them.  The process threatened to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of proposals, not all of which were clearly focused or formulated, and some of which were eccentric or irrelevant (legalize marijuana!).  But the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy team that is managing the process was able to distill the best suggestions into a substantive but digestible core.

The next step is an online discussion of the particular proposals that is intended to flesh them out and to convert “lofty principles into specific actions” that the executive could take, said Dr. Beth Noveck, the OSTP Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government.  Interested members of the public are invited and encouraged to participate in the process.  To catch up on the latest developments, see the OSTP Open Government blog.

Other White House efforts to address overclassification and the spread of official controls on unclassified information have received a less enthusiastic reception.  Critics (including Secrecy News) expressed concern that these initiatives may be insufficiently ambitious in conception and that they provide no formal mechanism for public input.  See “Critics Blast Obama Classification Review” by Justin Rood, ABC News The Blotter, June 3, 2009.

A Few Intelligence Science Board Reports

There is “an astonishing number of groups and activities concurrently pursuing the subject” of information sharing, according to a newly disclosed 2004 report (pdf) of the Intelligence Science Board (ISB).  But those activities are not well coordinated.  “In effect, we aren’t even sharing information about information sharing.”

The ISB is a little-known advisory panel that addresses intelligence science and technology issues at the direction of the Director of National Intelligence.  Almost all of its products are classified, but a few are not.

It’s hard to say whether the ISB is influential.  But it has performed important and interesting work, most notably on the science of interrogation.  Its 2006 report on “Educing Information” (pdf), concluded that there was no scientific evidence to support a belief in the efficacy of coercive interrogation.  (“Intelligence Science Board Views Interrogation,” Secrecy News, January 15, 2007.)

Now the only other unclassified ISB reports have been released by ODNI under the Freedom of Information Act:  “Concept Paper on Trusted Information Sharing” (November 2004) and “What Makes for a Great Analytic Team?:  Individual versus Team Approaches to Intelligence Analysis” (February 2005). All of the unclassified ISB reports are available here.