Posts from March, 2010

Homeland Security Intelligence

An updated description of the intelligence function of the Department of Homeland Security was produced last week by the Congressional Research Service.  See “The Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Enterprise: Operational Overview and Oversight Challenges for Congress” (pdf), March 19, 2010.

“Homeland Security Intelligence: Its Relevance and Limitations” was the topic of a March 18, 2009 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, the record of which was published last month.

GAO: White House Erred on Intelligence Oversight

The Obama Administration presented “several misstatements of law and fact” in its March 15 letter opposing legislation to enhance the role of the Government Accountability Office in intelligence oversight, the head of the GAO said in a letter to congressional intelligence committees yesterday.

The GAO letter (pdf) said that neither the Senate nor the House version of the FY2010 intelligence authorization act would fundamentally alter the status quo with respect to the GAO, as the White House letter (pdf) had indicated, but would simply bolster the oversight authority that the GAO already has, enabling it to overcome the obstacles placed in its way by the executive branch.

“The proposed legislative provisions in essence reaffirm GAO’s existing authority in order to address the lack of cooperation GAO has received from certain elements of the IC [intelligence community] in carrying out work at the specific request of the intelligence committees, and other committees of jurisdiction as defined by the rules of the Senate and House,” wrote Acting Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro in a March 18 letter obtained by Secrecy News.

“GAO acknowledges and does not seek to displace the special relationship between the congressional intelligence committees and the IC,” he wrote.

“However, GAO does not agree with the Administration’s view, originating in a 1988 opinion of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, that the creation of the congressional intelligence oversight structure implicitly exempted reviews of intelligence activities from the scope of GAO’s existing audit authority.”

The executive branch’s interpretation of the law “has resulted in GAO frequently being unable to obtain the access or cooperation necessary to provide useful information to Congress on matters involving the IC,” Mr. Dodaro wrote.

“Even where the matters under evaluation are well outside the scope of traditional intelligence activities… GAO has encountered resistance.”

“While intelligence oversight poses unique challenges, GAO can play an important role in such oversight, and that role is well within our authority and capability,” he wrote.

GAO has no independent stake in intelligence oversight and has plenty of other work to do anyway.  The question is whether Congress wants to take advantage of the investigative and analytical resources that GAO has to offer in order to improve intelligence oversight.  If it does, then the pending legislation would help to clear away the barriers imposed by the executive branch.

“Should either the Senate or House version of the GAO provision at issue become law,” Mr. Dodaro wrote, “I believe that the reaffirmation of GAO’s authorities would help better position GAO to do the type of work that has been requested of us in the past and to respond to the interests of Congress in this realm in the future.”

OSC Views Cuban Media Coverage of Military

Cuban President Raul Castro “more commonly presents himself as a civilian rather than military leader,” observes a new assessment from the DNI Open Source Center.  More generally, “Current [Cuban] senior military officers maintain a largely ceremonial presence in state media, where the military receives limited but overwhelmingly favorable coverage.”

The OSC report has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News. See “Cuba — Military’s Profile in State Media Limited, Positive” (pdf), Open Source Center, February 26, 2010.

Admin Threatens Veto Over GAO Role in Intel Oversight

One of the simplest, most effective ways to strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence would be for Congress to make increased use of specially cleared investigators from the Government Accountability Office.  This is such a straightforward step towards improving oversight that it was even championed by CIA Director Leon Panetta when he was a Congressman.

But the Obama Administration told Congress on Monday that new language to reinforce the GAO’s role in intelligence oversight was among several provisions in the pending FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act that were objectionable to the White House and that might prompt a presidential veto of the bill.

“Three categories of provisions are so serious that the President’s senior advisers would recommend that the veto the bill if they are included in a bill presented for his signature,” wrote Peter Orszag of the White House Office of Management and Budget in a March 15 letter (pdf).  He cited a requirement to increase congressional notification of covert actions beyond the “Gang of 8″; the proposed GAO language; and a proposed reduction in the budget authorization for the Office of the DNI.  The letter also expressed lesser opposition to numerous other provisions.

The dispute over an increased role for GAO in intelligence oversight is particularly illustrative of the disparate and conflicting interests of the legislative and executive branches.  Should Congress use all the tools at its disposal to improve its oversight of intelligence?  Or is the status quo good enough?  The White House letter implied that the current arrangement is already optimal and that any revision would be destabilizing.

“By allowing GAO to conduct intelligence oversight, these provisions would fundamentally change the statutory framework for oversight of the IC [intelligence community] through the intelligence oversight committees and alter the long-standing relationship and information flow between the IC and intelligence committee members and staff,” Mr. Orszag wrote.

If one believed that the long-standing relationship between the IC and the intelligence committee members and staff was altogether satisfactory, this might be a compelling argument.  But if one concluded that the existing structure has been woefully inadequate, then other options would merit consideration.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and others have repeatedly argued that the GAO could usefully supplement the intelligence oversight process without detracting anything.  “It is Congress’s responsibility to ensure that the IC carries out its critical functions effectively and consistent with congressional authorization. For too long, GAO’s expertise and ability to engage in constructive oversight of the IC have been underutilized,” Sen. Akaka said last year.

In 2008, Sen. Akaka chaired a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing (at which I testified [pdf]) on the feasibility and utility of GAO intelligence oversight.  “Congress must redouble its efforts–that is what we are trying to do–to ensure that U.S. intelligence activities are conducted efficiently, effectively, and with due respect for the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans, and I will work to see that it does,” Sen. Akaka said then.

Amazingly, an earlier version of the proposal for an expanded GAO role in intelligence oversight was introduced in 1987 by then-Rep. Leon Panetta, who is now the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to Rep. Panetta’s proposed “CIA Accountability Act of 1987″ (pdf) (H.R. 3603 in the 100th Congress), “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Comptroller General [who directs the GAO] shall audit the financial transactions and shall evaluate the programs and activities of the Central Intelligence Agency” either at his own initiative or at the request of the congressional intelligence committees.

Today, DCIA Panetta is presumably among those senior advisers who would advise a veto of the proposal he once advocated.

At the January 22, 2009 confirmation hearing (pdf) of Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Blair also acknowledged a role for GAO in intelligence oversight.

Sen. Ron Wyden asked him: “If the GAO is conducting a study at the direction of one of the intelligence committees using properly cleared staff, will you give them the access they need to do their work?”

Adm. Blair replied: “Senator, I’m aware that the direction of GAO studies and the terms of them are generally subject to talk between the two branches of government for a variety of reasons, and subject to having those discussions, ultimately I believe the GAO has a job to do and I will help them do that job.”

But the Obama Administration now says it will not help the GAO do their job if that means an enhancement of their legal authority to do it.

Arguably, the Administration is acting rationally in attempting to minimize independent oversight of its intelligence activities.  Who would voluntarily seek out an independent auditor to look over his shoulder?  But that leaves it up to Congress to pursue its own institutional self-interest with equal or greater determination, and to take maximum advantage of the intelligence oversight tools that it has available, including appropriate use of the GAO.

“We’ve already agreed to drop a significant number of the provisions identified as concerns [in the Orszag letter],” a congressional official told Secrecy News.  He declined to say whether the GAO oversight language was among the now-abandoned provisions.

Various Resources

A government website ( that is intended to provide transparency on government contracts and awards currently presents incomplete, inconsistent and sometimes invalid data, the Government Accountability Office said last week.  See “Electronic Government: Implementation of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006″ (pdf), GAO-10-365, March 2010.

“Improving Transparency and Accessibility of Federal Contracting Databases” (pdf) was the subject of a September 29, 2009 hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (published last month).

“Homeland Security Intelligence: Its Relevance and Limitations” was discussed at a March 2009 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee (also published last month).

“Widespread violent crimes in the United States posed threats to the lives, properties and personal security of its people,” the Chinese government declared in a new report on the “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2009.” The Chinese government report, a compilation of sad facts, dubious assumptions and assorted exaggerations, was published on March 12 as a rejoinder and a rebuke to the U.S. State Department which published its latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on March 11.  “The [U.S.] reports are full of accusations of the human rights situation in more than 190 countries and regions including China, but turn a blind eye to, or dodge and even cover up rampant human rights abuses on its own territory,” the new Chinese report said.

DOD Report Forecasts Future Military Environment

The U.S. Joint Forces Command has updated its assessment of emerging geopolitical and technological trends and estimated their potential impact on future military operations in the new Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2010 report (pdf).

“We will find ourselves caught off guard by changes in the political, economic, technological, strategic, and operational environments,” the report states. “We will find ourselves surprised by the creativity and capability of our adversaries. Our goal is not to eliminate surprise – that is impossible. Our goal is, by a careful consideration of the future, to suggest the attributes of a joint force capable of adjusting with minimum difficulty when the surprise inevitably comes.”

The JOE 2010 report is not overly sophisticated.  It is full of clumsily formulated truisms.  (“Modern wars are fought in more than simply the physical elements of the battlefield.”)  It recycles tired maxims from Sun Tzu.  It misspells Hitler’s first name.

But it also presents a number of stimulating assertions and provocative observations.  For example:

Growing financial deficits “will likely mean far fewer dollars available to spend on defense… Indeed, the Department of Defense may shrink to less than ten percent of the total Federal budget…. If the U.S. enters a financial regime in which defense is to be cut by a third or more, Joint Force planners must carefully explore new areas of risk as force posture and procurement budgets shrink.”

“Future Joint Force commanders will find conflict over water endemic to their world, whether as the spark or the underlying cause of conflicts among various racial, tribal, or political groups, …with armed groups controlling or warring over remaining water, while the specter of disease resulting from unsanitary conditions would hover in the background.”

“The challenges that Chinese leadership confronts at present are enormous, and an unsuccessful China is perhaps more worrisome than a prosperous one. China is confronting major internal problems that could have an impact on its strategic course. The country will face increasing demographic pressures as its population ages. Due to its ‘one child’ policy, China may grow old before it grows rich. Furthermore, a cultural preference for male heirs will create a surplus male population nearing 30 million by 2020.”

“The open and free flow of information favored by the West will allow adversaries an unprecedented ability to gather intelligence. Other nations without the legal and cultural restraints found in the U.S. may excel at capturing, assessing, or even manipulating this information for military purposes as an aid to waging the ‘Battle of Narratives.’ Indeed, adversaries have already taken advantage of computer networks and the power of information technology not only to plan and execute savage acts of terrorism, but also to influence directly the perceptions and will of the U.S. Government and the American population.”

“It is by no means certain that the United States and its allies will maintain their overall lead in technological development over the next 25 years. America’s secondary educational system is declining in a relative sense when compared to leading technological competitors, e.g., India and China.”

The previous edition (pdf) of the JOE report in 2008 generated unwanted controversy when it explicitly identified North Korea and Israel as nuclear weapons states, and warned of a threat to the stability of Mexico from criminal gangs and drug cartels.  Regrettably, perhaps, most of those rough edges have been smoothed out in the latest report.

Moletronics, Insonification, and More from JASON

Nearly two dozen reports from the JASON defense advisory panel have just been added to the archive of JASON reports on the Federation of American Scientists website.

New additions (all pdf) include a 2004 report on “DNA Barcodes and Watermarks,” a 2001 report on “Moletronics” or molecular electronics, and a 1998 report on “Insonification for Area Denial” (where “insonification” means the projection of focused sound waves).  Scanned copies of older JASON reports have been OCR’d to render them word searchable.

A partial, chronological list of unclassified JASON titles from 1963 to 2009 (pdf) was prepared by Allen Thomson, who also helped gather the latest additions to the online collection.

The JASON panel is regularly tasked to investigate challenging, complex issues that are on the horizon if not the forefront of defense science.  But many of the panel’s reports are sufficiently well written that they are at least partially intelligible to non-specialists.  No new JASON reports have been approved for public release since October 2009.

White House Promotes Prizes for Open Government

Executive branch agencies should “increase the use of prizes and challenges as tools for promoting open government,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a memorandum to agency heads (pdf) this week.

“It is Administration policy to strongly encourage agencies to utilize prizes and challenges as tools for advancing open government, innovation, and the agency’s mission,” OMB said.

The memorandum, as promised in the December 2009 White House Open Government Directive (pdf), is intended to provide “a framework for how agencies can use challenges, prizes, and other incentive-backed strategies to find innovative or cost-effective solutions to improving open government.”

The substance of the desired improvements was not spelled out in the latest memo, but the earlier Directive said that “The three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government.”  None of these principles is instinctive or can be taken for granted, and the prize program is an evidently sincere effort to help overcome bureaucratic resistance to greater openness.

“A prize should not be an end in itself, but one means within a broader strategy for spurring private innovation and change,” the new OMB memo said.

Army: FOIA Requesters Are “Not an Adversary”

Slowly and unevenly, the Obama Administration’s open government message is filtering down to the agency level.

We have entered “a new era of open government,” Army officials informed a government audience recently.  There will be “increased emphasis on the Freedom of Information Act… Agency FOIA programs must be improved… Commanders need to direct all agency personnel to place a higher priority on timely assistance to FOIA personnel.”

The FOIA requester “is not an adversary,” the Army FOIA Management Conference was told, according to November 2009 briefing slides (pdf) that were released last month.

In reality, many FOIA proceedings are quite adversarial.  But perhaps the Army meant that both FOIA requesters and FOIA responders are part of the same process, and therefore ought to cooperate as far as possible.  It’s a wholesome message to send.

Congressional Oversight, and More from CRS

New Congressional Research Service reports obtained by Secrecy News that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Visa Security Policy: Roles of the Departments of State and Homeland Security,” March 8, 2010.

“Legislative Options After Citizens United v. FEC: Constitutional and Legal Issues,” March 8, 2010.

“FY2011 Budget Documents: Internet and GPO Availability,” March 8, 2010.

“House Committee Markups: Manual of Procedures and Procedural Strategies,” February 25, 2010.

“Congressional Oversight: An Overview,” February 22, 2010.