Posts from January, 2010

Bomb Power and the Roots of Government Secrecy

In his provocative new book “Bomb Power” (Penguin Press, 2010) historian Garry Wills argues that the rise of the National Security State and the ongoing expansion of presidential authority, including the spread of government secrecy, are rooted in the development of the atomic bomb in World War II.

“At the bottom of it all has been the Bomb,” writes Prof. Wills.  “All this grew out of the Manhattan Project, out of its product, and even more out of its process.  The project’s secret work, secretly funded at the behest of the President, was a model for the covert activities and overt authority of the government we now experience.”

The thesis of the book is not always clear or consistent.  Most often, the author refers to the secret creation of the bomb as a “model” or a precedent that would later be exploited in other contexts.  But sometimes the bomb project is seen as an integral part of other seemingly unrelated expressions of presidential authority and “the seed of all the growing powers that followed.”  And sometimes, for Prof. Wills, there is nothing else besides the bomb:  “Executive power has basically been, since World II, Bomb Power” (p. 4).

The failure to clearly distinguish or demonstrate the bomb’s asserted role — whether it is the model, the origin or the driving influence behind the growth of executive power — limits the force of the book’s argument.  If the bomb project was merely a model for organizing government activity (“the Manhattan Project showed modern Presidents the way”), then it should in principle be subject to replacement by other models.  But if it is now inextricably intertwined with the whole machinery of government, then government might be beyond the possibility of reform unless and until the bomb itself can be eliminated.

Prof. Wills, the author of many award-winning books, writes fluently and engagingly on a wide range of topics.  But in “Bomb Power,” his history is occasionally garbled.

In a chronology of the development of the National Security State, he says that covert action was authorized and defined in 1947 in the National Security Act, “despite misgivings expressed by Dean Acheson and others,” and that the 1947 Act also required regular notification to congressional intelligence committees (pp. 82-84).  But the original National Security Act was famously silent on covert action, only assigning to CIA “such other functions and duties… as the President… may direct.”  The statutory definition of covert action that Prof. Wills quotes was not enacted into law until 1991.  Likewise, notification to Congress of intelligence operations abroad was not required by law until the Hughes-Ryan Act in 1974.

But what is most disturbing of all is the author’s casual, world-weary dismissal of the possibility of change, and especially of efforts to rein in government secrecy.  “The hope of decreasing the mountains of secrecy is vanishing or gone,” he declares flatly (p. 138).  “Consider all of the classified material [now in existence],” he told National Public Radio earlier this week.  “To declassify that is immensely time consuming and expensive.  So, it’s not going to happen.”

This is a lazy and destructive message and, I think, a false one.

Though it is hard to reconcile with Prof. Wills’ theory of inexorably expanding executive power, the President of the United States last month issued an order imposing significant new limits on national security secrecy.  Stating that “No information may remain classified indefinitely,” President Obama set maximum classification lifetimes for all records, including intelligence records.  He directed that a backlog of 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification will not only be declassified but will also be made publicly available within four years.  He established a new internal review process, with public reporting requirements, to eliminate obsolete classification practices in every classifying agency at the front end of the process.  Perhaps these and numerous other related steps will all fail. But nothing in Prof. Wills’ argument dictates that outcome, and “Bomb Power” does no one any favors by fostering public cynicism and declaring defeat before the battle is over.

Physics and Secrecy

The American Physical Society will feature a session of “physics and secrecy” at its annual meeting in Washington DC on February 13.  I will be one of the three presenters.

In one sense, the whole enterprise of physics is a contest with secrecy and an attempt to discern the order that is hidden in natural phenomena.  But next month’s session is devoted to the more mundane form of national security secrecy and its impact on physicists and other scientists.

Interstellar Archaeology

The search for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe should not only focus on detection of electromagnetic signals, but should also seek evidence of the physical artifacts that an intelligence life form might produce, a scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory suggested in a paper (pdf) last month.

“Searching for signatures of cosmic-scale archaeological artifacts such as Dyson spheres or Kardashev civilizations is an interesting alternative to conventional SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which searches for radio waves]. Uncovering such an artifact does not require the intentional transmission of a signal on the part of the original civilization. This type of search is called interstellar archaeology or sometimes cosmic archaeology.”

All of this of course is quite speculative, not to say whimsical.  “With few exceptions interstellar archaeological signatures are clouded and beyond current technological capabilities,” the author notes.

But the concept and the logic behind it are explained with pleasant clarity in “Starry Messages: Searching for Signatures of Interstellar Archaeology” by Richard A. Carrigan, Jr., Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, December 1, 2009.

OSC Translates the 2009 Fatah Charter

Last year, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah in the Arabic acronym) led by Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas gathered in Bethlehem and approved a revision of its charter for the first time since the 1960s.  That revised charter (pdf) has recently been translated into English by the DNI Open Source Center.

The document is not particularly conciliatory in tone or content.  It is a call to revolution, confrontation with the enemy, and the liberation of Palestine, “free and Arab.”  Interestingly, it stresses the role of women in the movement.  “The leading bodies will work to arrive at 20 percent participation for women, provided this does not conflict with organizational standards or the Internal Charter.”  And it insists repeatedly on the need to safeguard the movement’s “secrets.”

But what is perhaps most significant is what is not in the document.  The original Fatah charter (or constitution) from the 1960s embraced “the world-wide struggle against Zionism,” denied Jewish historical or religious ties to the land, and called for the “eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence.”  None of that language is carried over into the new charter, which manages not to mention Israel, Zionism, or Jews at all.

The English translation of the new Charter, which does not seem to be available elsewhere, has not been approved for public release by the DNI Open Source Center.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

Project Bioshield, Honey Bees, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Terrorist Attacks on Commercial Airlines: Federal Criminal Prohibitions,” January 22, 2010.

“Project BioShield: Authorities, Appropriations, Acquisitions, and Issues for Congress,” January 22, 2010.

“Charitable Contributions for Haiti’s Earthquake Victims,” January 22, 2010.

“U.S. and South Korean Cooperation in the World Nuclear Energy Market: Major Policy Considerations,” January 21, 2010.

“Argentina’s Defaulted Sovereign Debt: Dealing with the ‘Holdouts’,” January 21, 2010.

“Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder,” updated January 7, 2010.

Commission of Inquiry on Torture: A Road Not Taken

Last year the Senate Judiciary Committee considered a proposal by Senator Patrick Leahy to establish a formal “commission of inquiry” that would investigate the conduct of the post-9/11 war on terrorism, including detention, rendition and interrogation policies.  The record of a Senate hearing on the proposal was published earlier this month, but that seems to be all that remains of it.

“It is not enough to say that America is discontinuing the policies and practices of the recent past,” said Amb. Thomas Pickering, one of the witnesses who testified in favor of the idea at the March 2009 hearing.  “We must, as a country, take stock of where we have been and determine what was and is not acceptable, what should not have been done, and what we will never do again. It is my sincere hope that the commission will confront and reject the notion, still powerful in our midst, that these policies were and are a proper choice and that they could be implemented again in the future.”

While commissions are rarely effective in advancing policy changes, they often serve to produce a detailed public accounting and an expanded documentary record, even when the subject matter is otherwise generally classified.  From the Church Committee to the 9/11 Commission, such investigations have provided permanently valuable bodies of knowledge.  And from that point of view, the failure to pursue a commission of inquiry to ventilate the persistent controversies of the recent past seems regrettable.

Opponents argued that the commission would inevitably turn into a partisan witch hunt;  that it was unnecessary, since the Obama Administration had already pledged to chart a different course;  that the Justice Department was responsible for ascertaining if any crimes had been committed, and prosecuting them;  and that anyway, it was time to move onward.

“We really ought to follow regular order here,” argued Senator Arlen Specter. “You have a Department of Justice which is fully capable of doing an investigation. They are not going to pull any punches on the prior administration.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the proposal and convened the hearing, said he would only move the idea forward if there was a bipartisan consensus behind it.

“This idea for a commission of inquiry is not something to be imposed,” Sen. Leahy said. “Its potential is lost if we do not join together. Today is another opportunity to come forward to find the facts and join, all of us, Republicans and Democrats, in developing a process to reach a mutual understanding of what went wrong and then to learn from it. If one party remains absent or resistant, the opportunity can be lost, and calls for accountability through more traditional means will then become more insistent and compelling.”

No such consensus could be achieved, and the proposal was abandoned.

See “Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry,” Senate Judiciary Committee, March 4, 2009.

Unmanned Aerial Systems in Joint Air Operations

Unmanned aerial systems (UASs) like the Predator drone, which are increasingly in demand for U.S. military missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere, involve challenges to mission control, according to a new Pentagon publication on joint air operations (pdf).

“Recent operations have demonstrated that UASs can be critical to the success of dynamic targeting missions and prosecution of targets of opportunity (unplanned, unanticipated) or TSTs [time sensitive targets].”

However, “UAS communication links are generally more critical than for manned systems, relying on a nearly continuous stream of communications for both flight control and payload for mission success. Therefore, communications security, and specifically bandwidth protection (from both friendly interference and adversary action), is imperative.”

Furthermore, DoD says, “Our adversaries are developing and acquiring UASs, so it is imperative our C2 [command and control] and DCA [defensive counterair] nodes are able to differentiate between friendly and enemy UAs and cruise missiles.”

See “Command and Control for Joint Air Operations,” Joint Publication 3-30, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 12, 2010.

“Drones are more glitch-prone than traditional planes,” wrote Noah Shachtman in Wired’s Danger Room on January 25, and a U.S. drone reportedly crashed last weekend in Pakistan.

Earthquakes, Haiti, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Earthquakes: Risk, Detection, Warning, and Research,” January 14, 2010.

“Haiti Earthquake: Crisis and Response,” January 15, 2010.

“U.S. Immigration Policy on Haitian Migrants,” January 15, 2010.

“The Future of NASA: Space Policy Issues Facing Congress,” January 14, 2010.

“The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) — Responsibilities and Potential Congressional Concerns,” January 15, 2010.

CRS Lawsuit, Marine Mammals, Declassification Funding

A federal court yesterday declined (pdf) to issue an injunction requiring the Congressional Research Service to immediately reinstate Col. Morris Davis, who was fired from CRS after publishing his personal opinions on the subject of military commissions. But DC District Judge Reggie Walton said that, based on the record so far, Davis’s claim that his termination by CRS violated the First Amendment appears to be “well-founded.”  (First reported by by Josh Gerstein in Politico, January 20.)  Davis is represented by the ACLU.

A lengthy rule governing the unintentional “taking” of marine mammals by the U.S. Navy, resulting in their harassment, injury, or death, was published in the Federal Register today.  The rule does not deal with the use of marine mammals for defense missions that was the subject of a recent Navy Instruction, but with the damage to these animals that is anticipated due to military activities conducted at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.  “Although the Navy requests authorization to take marine mammals by mortality, NMFS does not expect any animals to be killed,” according to the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Office of Management and Budget has authorized a request for $5 million in next year’s budget to fund the new National Declassification Center that is supposed to coordinate and expedite the declassification of historical records.  The budget request, to be presented to Congress next month, was noted yesterday by William H. Leary of the National Security Council in a panel discussion at American University’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy on the new Obama Executive Order on national security classification.

DoD “Clarifies” Doctrine on Psychological Operations

The Department of Defense has issued a new publication (pdf) to update and clarify its doctrine on “psychological operations.”

Psychological operations, or PSYOP, are intended to “convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”

PSYOP is among the oldest of military disciplines, but the new DoD doctrine continues to wrestle with basic definitional issues.

It endorses a new, negative definition of the term “propaganda,” which had formerly been used in a neutral sense to refer to “Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.” From now on, propaganda will refer only to what the enemy does:  “Any form of adversary communication, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.”

The new doctrine also dictates that the term “perception management” shall be eliminated from the DoD lexicon (pdf).

DoD acknowledges that PSYOP is limited by legal constraints, including statutes, international agreements, and national policies. Among other things, the DoD doctrine states, there is a “requirement that US PSYOP forces will not target US citizens at any time, in any location globally, or under any circumstances.”  Yet in a near contradiction, the doctrine also states that “When authorized, PSYOP forces may be used domestically to assist lead federal agencies during disaster relief and crisis management by informing the domestic population.”  Perhaps the PSYOP forces are supposed to inform the domestic population without “targeting” them.

Fundamentally, psychological operations are tethered to the reality of U.S. government actions, for good or for ill.  As the new doctrine notes, “Every activity of the force has potential psychological implications that may be leveraged to influence foreign targets.”  But PSYOP cannot substitute for an incoherent policy or rescue a poorly executed plan.

See “Psychological Operations,” Joint Publication 3-13.2, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 7, 2010.