Posts from September, 2010

DARPA Seeks Technology to Support Declassification

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has issued a new solicitation to industry and academia in an attempt “to discover new technologies to support declassification.”  Researchers are invited (pdf) to submit ideas for innovative approaches to declassification that will support the National Declassification Center in achieving its goals.

Can technology actually make a difference in declassification?  It seems clear that it can, at least within certain limits.

One thing that technology cannot do is to render a decision about exactly what should be classified or declassified.  That is a policy question which is dependent on a complex, rapidly changing factual environment (e.g. what related information is already available in the public domain) as well as a largely subjective threat assessment (e.g. what damage might conceivably result from disclosure and what benefits might ensue).  Such a decision does not easily lend itself to a technological formula.

Besides that, the executive order that governs the national security classification system is permissive, not mandatory;  it allows the classification of eligible information, but does not require it.  So any algorithm that dictates the continued classification of a certain category of information is likely to be wrong at least sometimes.

However, the declassification process is composed of several discrete steps, many or all of which could be facilitated by new technologies.  These steps include the collection and assembly of records for review, the circulation of records to reviewers as needed, the actual review and redaction process, and the distribution of the declassified records, among others — each of which might be streamlined and expedited by new technological measures.

So, for example, if it were possible to routinely incorporate the digitization of records into the declassification process, and to make the digitized records available online so that readers would not have to come to the National Archives or to the Presidential Libraries just to view them, that action alone would multiply the utility of the declassification process many times over.

But perhaps the strongest contribution that technology could make involves the future declassification of records that are being classified today.  Classified records that are being created now could be tagged in such a way as to expedite their ultimate declassification.  In fact, the goal should be to eliminate the need for declassification processing altogether, or as far as possible.  Instead, most classified records should literally be self-declassifying.  Their classification controls should expire and be automatically canceled.  In principle, this ought to be readily achievable.

The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a public session on the potential role of new technology in declassification on Thursday, September 23 at the National Archives.  The agenda is here (pdf).

The new DARPA solicitation was reported in “Darpa Wants You To Build An Anti-Secrecy App” by Spencer Ackerman in Wired Danger Room, September 14.

A Look Back at “Classification Management”

The theory and practice of national security classification policy in the late cold war years are exemplified and explored in back issues of Classification Management, the journal of the National Classification Management Society (NCMS), which is the professional society of classification officers and other security professionals.  Several back issues of the journal are now available online.

“Security Classification is the black sheep of the Information Science family,” wrote C.C. Carnes in the first issue (pdf) of Classification Management in 1965 (p.15).  “Everyone else is trying to expedite the flow of information.  People working in the field of Security Classification are trying to impede, control, and limit the flow of information.  However, we should not be blamed for this apparent perversity.  It serves a purpose.”

That purpose is discussed in depth and detail and with notable candor.

“LIMDIS controls came into existence largely to replace bogus security markings such as SNTK, MK, and CNTK,” explained Raymond P. Schmidt of the Navy (NCMS Viewpoints 1992 [pdf], at p. 34).

While much of the security policy content of the journals is now obsolete, they retain  historical, sociological and perhaps even anthropological interest.

The first couple of issues of the journal comprised “virtually the entire body of published information on the professional aspects of classification management” at that time, wrote NCMS President (and ACDA official) Richard L. Durham in 1966 (Vol. 2, p. 4).

A wide array of security policy issues were addressed over the years in Classification Management, including the dissemination of scientific and technological information, the conduct of classified research and development on university campuses, patent secrecy, and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

In the 1972 edition, a panel of reporters and government officials discussed the impact and meaning of the Pentagon Papers for classification management and freedom of the press (Vol. 8, pp. 64-75).

In 1990, Steven Garfinkel, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, memorably discussed “not the highlights, not the triumphs, but some of the low points” of his career as ISOO director up to that point.  “This is my tenth anniversary speech.  Ushers, please bar the doors.” (Vol. 26, pp.6-9).

The National Classification Management Society kindly granted permission to post several back issues of Classification Management and NCMS Viewpoints on the Federation of American Scientists website here.

New FRUS Volume Shows Declass Strengths, Weaknesses

A new volume of the State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on the war in Vietnam, published this month, embodies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the government document declassification program.

The new FRUS volume presents an exceptionally vivid and interesting account of the Nixon Administration’s conduct of the war, beginning with the aftermath of the invasion of Cambodia.  It also “documents President Nixon’s penchant for secret operations and covert warfare.”  Several such secret operations “are documented in some detail to demonstrate the role of covert actions in support of overt political and military operations.”  See “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970-January 1972,” published September 8, 2010.

While the 1100 page volume (pdf) provides rich testimony to the value of the declassification process, it also highlights its surprising limitations.

For one thing, the process is painfully slow.  Declassification review of this volume took four years, the Preface states, from 2006 to 2010.  At that glacial rate, the State Department will never fulfill its statutory obligation to publish the record of U.S. foreign policy no later than 30 years after the fact.

What’s worse is that U.S. government agencies continue to use an obsolete template for making declassification decisions.  So while various covert actions are “documented in some detail,” the amount of money spent on those same covert actions is scrupulously redacted at more than a dozen points with the parenthetical notation “dollar amount not declassified” — as if the publication of these budget figures could possibly have any bearing on national security today.

Adding to the evident confusion, the dollar figures for covert action were nevertheless published in one of the documents (document 202 at page 617), which notes that “Funds in the amount of $235,000 for FY 1971 and $228,000 for FY 1972 were approved [for certain covert actions].”

Was this a declassification “error”?  A publishing oversight?  It’s not clear.

Susan Weetman, the General Editor of the FRUS series, said that the publication decisions on covert actions were determined by the so-called “High Level Panel” (HLP) which is comprised of senior representatives of the State Department, CIA and National Security Council.

“While the release of some dollar amounts and the excision of others may appear inconsistent, it has been the policy of the HLP to approve the declassification of the overall budget figure for a covert action (occasionally broken out by fiscal year), but not release the specifics of how the money was spent,” Ms. Weetman told Secrecy News.

In the present case, however, there is an unusual amount of detail about “how the money was spent.”  It’s just the dollar figures that (in most cases) have been withheld.

The release of this FRUS volume, along with another volume on Vietnam published September 16, was timed to coincide with an upcoming State Department Office of the Historian conference on “The American Experience in Southeast Asia, 1946-1975″.

One of the recurring themes in the Vietnam covert action volume is the prevalence of leaks of classified information, and the need to take drastic action to combat them.

“You will see leaks all over town in the next few weeks on this issue,” Henry Kissinger told a group of Congressmen at a March 23, 1971 meeting “because the intelligence community is like a hysterical group of Talmudic scholars doing an exegesis of abstruse passages.  If any of you are on an intelligence subcommittee, you might find this a good reason to cut the budget for the intelligence agencies,” Kissinger suggested (at page 466).

Former Los Alamos Physicist Charged with Selling Nuke Info

A former Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist, Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, and his wife, Marjorie Mascheroni, were charged with conspiracy to communicate classified nuclear weapons information with the intent to injure the United States and conspiracy to develop an illict atomic bomb after they allegedly offered to provide assistance to a supposed Venezuelan nuclear weapons program.

“The conduct alleged in this indictment is serious and should serve as a warning to anyone who would consider compromising our nation’s nuclear secrets for profit,” said Assistant Attorney General Kris in a September 17 news release.

The underlying story is so twisted and psychologically fraught that it may never be completely clarified.  Mascheroni has been a fervent advocate of his own concept of inertial confinement fusion, while relentlessly criticizing the existing ICF program as misconceived and destined to fail.  He has tangled repeatedly with security officials over clearance and disclosure issues, but he has also found some influential supporters, including former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, who provided him with legal representation on a pro bono basis.

According to the indictment (pdf), Mascheroni only thought of selling nuclear secrets (to an FBI agent he thought was a Venezuelan official) because he became increasingly frustrated with the United States government’s unresponsiveness to his claims and concerns.  The alleged turning point, the indictment says, came in 2007, when he attempted unsuccessfully to instigate a congressional hearing on “DOE-UC mismanagement of the nuclear stockpile, weapons programs, and national security.”  A copy of his 50-page proposal to Congress, of characteristic length and turgidity, is here (pdf).

“If those guys, the American government, doesn’t give me this,” he supposedly said, referring to the desired congressional hearing, “you know, I, I, the American government is going to be my enemy really.”

“The public is reminded that an indictment contains allegations only and that every defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty,” the Justice Department properly noted in its news release on the case.

A 1995 Los Alamos report “edited by Marjorie Mascheroni” on environmental contamination at Los Alamos involving high-energy explosives is available here (pdf).

Home Foreclosures and Security Clearances

The crisis affecting the U.S. economy has made a discernible mark on security clearance disputes, according to a new study of clearance revocation cases.

“Since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, debt resulting from job losses and home foreclosures has had a devastating effect on people holding national security clearances. That, more than any other factor today, is causing the revocation or denial of security clearances, resulting in the loss of good paying jobs, and putting skilled workers further and further behind in their effort to dig out of debt.”

The new study (pdf), by attorney Sheldon I. Cohen, examined cases before the Department of Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA), which is the only one of the eleven clearance adjudicating bodies to publish its decisions. [Correction: The Department of Energy also publishes its clearance adjudication decisions.] The author found a growing trend, though the actual number of cases involved remains fairly small.

“From 2000 to 2002, there was one reported case at DOHA dealing with foreclosure. Between 2003 and 2006, there averaged three cases per year. In 2007 and 2008, the number of cases dealing with foreclosures jumped to nine each year. In 2009, there were twenty-four such cases, and in the first five months of 2010, which looks like a record year, there have been nine foreclosure cases thus far.  While DOHA is the only adjudicative body for clearances that publishes its decisions [note correction above], there is no reason to believe that any of the other ten federal Adjudication Authorities come to different results.”

See “Debt and Home Foreclosures: Their Effect on National Security Clearances” by Sheldon I. Cohen, September 2010.

Pentagon Delays Publication of New Book

Updated below

The Department of Defense says that a forthcoming book about the war in Afghanistan contains classified information, and that it should not be put on the market in its current form.  Instead, the Pentagon is considering whether to purchase and destroy the entire first printing of the book, “Operation Dark Heart” by Anthony A. Shaffer, while a revised edition is prepared.  The controversy was first reported by the New York Times in “Pentagon Plan: Buying Books to Keep Secrets” by Scott Shane, September 10.

Shaffer, the book’s author, is a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer and Army lieutenant colonel.  He submitted the manuscript to the Army for prepublication review and received permission to proceed earlier this year.  The book was printed and prepared for release at the end of August by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press.

But prior to the publication date, a copy of the manuscript was obtained by DIA and other intelligence agencies, all of whom raised new objections to its publication.

“DIA’s preliminary classification review of this manuscript has identified significant classified information, the release of which I have determined could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to national security,” wrote DIA Director Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. in an August 6 memo.

“I have also been informed that United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have determined that the manuscript contains classified information concerning their activities.  In the case of NSA, this includes information classified at the TOP SECRET level,” Gen. Burgess wrote.  He directed that Lt. Col. Shaffer be “ordered to take all necessary action to direct his publisher to withhold publication of the book” pending a new security review.

But the Pentagon now faces a policy conundrum due to the fact that numerous review copies of the book are already circulating in the public domain.  (We picked up a couple of them last week.)  What this means is that any effort to selectively censor the manuscript at this late date would actually tend to highlight and validate those portions of the text that agencies believe are sensitive, not to conceal them.

Therefore, as a practical security policy matter, it seems that the Pentagon’s best move would be to do nothing and to allow the book to be published without further interference.

*    *    *

“Operation Dark Heart” is a memoir, not a work of scholarship, policy analysis or journalism.  It describes the author’s personal experiences and perspectives in sometimes clunky, occasionally gripping prose.  It often seems formulaic or cliched, though it is quite readable and sometimes moving.  Overall, it seems unlikely to alter the prevailing understanding of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

It is hard to know what to make of the author.  As a clandestine operator he claims to have run one operation “deep into North Korea,” and another that penetrated the Iranian intelligence service.  He also says he once recruited a high ranking Soviet military officer while posing as a freelance journalist.  Maybe so.  His most frequent cultural points of reference are Star Wars and the action movies of Steven Seagal.

Within those parameters, he tells some pretty good stories about intelligence gathering, impromptu clandestine operations and bureaucratic wrangling with stuffy superiors.  Operation Dark Heart was the name of a plan to target and destroy several Taliban operational centers, in what the author believed might have been a decisive blow to the brewing insurgency in 2003.  But because the proposed targets lay across the border in Pakistan, the operation was scuttled, to Shaffer’s dismay and disgust.  He believes his intelligence career was then derailed as the result of his decision to brief the 9/11 Commission about the Able Danger data mining program, which he says had succeeded in identifying some of the 9/11 hijackers in advance.

Even in the present version of the book that is now in the public domain, the author seems alert to security issues.  He says that several names have been changed or concealed.  At several points in the narrative, he stops short of full disclosure, citing classification restrictions on what he can discuss (p. 147, 165, 180).

But at other points, he is quite chatty, in ways that might have alarmed some officials.  He describes the location of the CIA station in Kabul, along with the name and appearance of the CIA station chief (“he reminded me of Peter Cushing, the actor who played Governor Tarkin, commander of the Death Star in Star Wars”).  He briefly discusses the COPPER GREEN “enhanced interrogation” program (that was first reported by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker).  And he names quite a few unfamiliar names, not all of which have been changed.

At the rare intervals where his assertions can be independently confirmed, they check out.  At one point he introduces a certain person as “chief of NSA here in country” (page 150).  A search of that person’s name online turns up his resume that does indeed describe the individual as “Officer in Charge, Cryptologic Services Group (CSG), OEF, Bagram, Afghanistan” and “Senior SIGINT advisor to Commander, JTF-180.”

Last June St. Martin’s Press, the book’s publisher, distributed promotional material (pdf) to reviewers, including a list of “Key Background Points and New Revelations in Operation Dark Heart.”

* * *

While national security classification arguments naturally warrant serious consideration, the mere fact that a government official says certain information could damage national security if it were disclosed doesn’t necessarily make it so.  Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, the DIA director who is Mr. Shaffer’s current antagonist, has previously been known to make dubious claims about classification and about the secrecy needed to protect national security.

Last year, Gen. Burgess formally expressed the view that the size of the National Intelligence Program budget for 2006 was properly classified, even though the DNI had already declassified the intelligence budget figures for 2007 and 2008 and published them openly.  Yet in Burgess’ opinion, as he wrote in a January 14, 2009 letter (pdf), “the release of this [2006 budget] information would reveal sensitive intelligence sources and methods.”

General Burgess was wrong then.  Given the present circumstances, where all of the information in the Shaffer book is effectively in the public domain, it would seem reasonable for him to reconsider his position now.

Update: The Pentagon has insisted on imposing its restrictions on the manuscript, which is therefore being published in partially censored form. See this New York Times account.

Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, More from CRS

Noteworthy new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following (all pdf).

Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2002-2009, September 10, 2010.

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, August 20, 2010.

China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities — Background and Issues for Congress, August 26, 2010.

China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles: Policy Issues, August 16, 2010.

Southwest Border Violence: Issues in Identifying and Measuring Spillover Violence, August 24, 2010.

Emergency Communications: Broadband and the Future of 911, August 25, 2010.

Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress, August 24, 2010.

Afghanistan: U.S. Foreign Assistance, August 12, 2010.

U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians, August 12, 2010.

The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer, August 18, 2010.

State Secrets vs. the Rule of Law

The inherent tension between the state secrets privilege and the rule of law reached the breaking point last week when an appeals court dismissed the claims of several persons who said they were illegally transported and tortured through a CIA “extraordinary rendition” program.  They would not be permitted to litigate their case, the court decided, because to do so would place “state secrets” at risk.

“This case presents a painful conflict between human rights and national security,” the 9th circuit court of appeals noted in its September 8 opinion (pdf) in Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, and by a 6-5 majority the judges determined that security considerations would take precedence.

“We have thoroughly and critically reviewed the government’s public and classified declarations and are convinced that at least some of the matters it seeks to protect from disclosure in this litigation are valid state secrets, ‘which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged’,” according to the majority opinion.

At the same time, the majority acknowledged, “Denial of a judicial forum based on the state secrets doctrine poses concerns at both individual and structural levels. For the individual plaintiffs in this action, our decision forecloses at least one set of judicial remedies, and deprives them of the opportunity to prove their alleged mistreatment and obtain damages. At a structural level, terminating the case eliminates further judicial review in this civil litigation, one important check on alleged abuse by government officials and putative contractors.”

For these reasons, “Dismissal at the pleading stage” as in this case “is a drastic result and should not be readily granted.”  Yet grant it the court did.

But the majority seemed conflicted and apologetic about its own ruling.  It ordered the government to pay the parties’ costs, and it devoted several speculative paragraphs to identifying potential “non-judicial remedies” that might be available to the plaintiffs.  Perhaps Congress could investigate the matter, the court weakly noted, or maybe pass legislation on behalf of the plaintiffs.

And just because the court ruled against the plaintiffs, the majority suggested, that “does not preclude the government from honoring the fundamental principles of justice” and providing reparations to the plaintiffs anyway.

But these suggestions range from “impractical” to “absurd,” five dissenting judges wrote.  “Permitting the executive to police its own errors and determine the remedy dispensed would not only deprive the judiciary of its role, but also deprive Plaintiffs of a fair assessment of their claims by a neutral arbiter.”

Attorney General Eric Holder’s September 23, 2009 policy statement on the state secrets privilege did hold out the possibility of seeking Inspector General review of allegations of misconduct whose adjudication was blocked by the use of the state secrets privilege:

“If the Attorney General concludes that it would be proper to defend invocation of the privilege in a case, and that invocation of the privilege would preclude adjudication of particular claims, but that the case raises credible allegations of government wrongdoing, the Department will refer those allegations to the Inspector General of the appropriate department or agency for further investigation….” (section 4C).

Given the court’s extended discussion of non-judicial remedies, this case would seem to be a fitting subject for an Inspector General investigation under the 2009 Justice Department policy.  But it could not immediately be learned if the Department has made such a referral to an agency Inspector General in this or any other state secrets case.

“The state secrets doctrine is a judicial construct without foundation in the Constitution, yet its application often trumps what we ordinarily consider to be due process of law,” the five dissenting judges wrote.  “This case now presents a classic illustration.”

The New Nobility: Russia’s Security State

“The Soviet police state tried to control every citizen in the country.  The new, more sophisticated Russian [security] system is far more selective than its Soviet-era counterpart;  it targets only those individuals who have political ambitions or strong public views.”  That’s what Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan discover in “The New Nobility,” their impressive new book on the resurgence of Russia’s security services in the post-Cold War era.

Soldatov and Borogan, Russian journalists who have produced some of the boldest reporting on the subject over the past decade, are also the creators and editors of, a pioneering web site devoted to public interest research on Russian intelligence policy and related matters.

In “The New Nobility,” they present many of the decisive episodes in the recent history of the FSB, the primary Russian security service, from the 2002 Moscow theater siege, to the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the war in Chechnya, and more.  Overall they present a picture of a security service of increasing power and influence, uneven competence — but virtually no accountability to parliament or the public.

“The Soviet KGB was all-powerful,” Soldatov and Borogan write, “but it was also under the control of the political structure: The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division.  In contrast, the FSB is a remarkably independent entity, free of party control and parliamentary oversight….”

The book is based on the authors’ original reporting, which itself is a demonstration of unusual courage and commitment.  A reader soon loses track of the number of times their computers are seized by authorities, how often their papers’ web servers are confiscated, and how many times they are summoned for interrogation or even charged with crimes based on their reporting.  Yet they persist.

Their book is full of remarkable observations.  For example:

  •     In 2006, the FSB organized a competition “for the best literary and artistic works about state security operatives.”
  •     The history of Moscow’s Lefortovo prison has never been documented.  “Even the prison’s design [in the shape of the letter K] remains a mystery.”
  •     The Russian security services in Chechnya have made extensive use of the tactic known as “counter-capture,” which involves seizing the relatives of suspected terrorists in order to induce them to surrender.

Fundamentally, the authors contend, Russia’s FSB has gone astray by acting as an agent of state authority instead of representing the rule of law.  “In today’s Russia,… the security services appear to have concluded that their interests, and those of the state they are guarding, remain above the law.”  An American reader may ponder the similarities and differences presented by U.S. security services.

“The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB” by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan is being published this month by Public Affairs Books.

“To those following the increasingly hostile environment for journalists in Russia, Soldatov’s career is a curiosity,” according to an internal profile of him prepared by the DNI Open Source Center in 2008.  “Despite being questioned and charged by the FSB on several occasions, Soldatov has continued to cover hot-button issues such as corruption, security service defectors, and the increasing role of the special services in limiting free speech in Russia.”

The New York Times featured in “A Web Site That Came in From the Cold to Unveil Russian Secrets” by Sally McGrane, December 14, 2000.

The New York Times has also published Above the Law, a continuing series of stories by Clifford J. Levy on “corruption and abuse of power in Russia two decades after the end of Communism.”

Pentagon Seeks “Coordination” of Media Activities

The Department of Defense last week increased its efforts to require that Department contacts with the media be monitored and approved by DoD public affairs officials.

“I am asking the heads of the Military Services, the Joint Staff and the Combatant Commands to reinforce to all of their employees to work closely and effectively with their public affairs offices to ensure full situational awareness,” wrote Douglas B. Wilson, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in a September 2 memorandum (pdf).

The latest Pentagon move follows up on a July 2 memo (pdf) from Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who stated that the DoD Office of Public Affairs “is the sole release authority for official DoD information to news media in Washington, and … all media activities must be coordinated through appropriate public affairs channels.  This policy is all too often ignored,” he complained.

“We have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized, or uninformed…,” Secretary Gates wrote.

Both memoranda assert prohibitions on unauthorized disclosures of classified information as well as on unclassified but sensitive or predecisional information.

As a practical matter, the degree of control over DoD contacts with the media sought by the Pentagon may be impossible to achieve.  The Department is too large (with millions of employees), too decentralized (with thousands of locations) and, perhaps, too open (with hundreds of reporters holding building permits at the Pentagon alone) to allow rigorous monitoring or “coordination” of more than a fraction of all external contacts and communications.

And though it may not be convenient for Pentagon officials to say so, almost everyone understands that freedom of the press means something more, and something different, than reproducing authorized government releases.  Unauthorized disclosures — even incomplete or partially inaccurate ones — often serve a valuable public policy function, at least when they do not trespass on legitimate secrets, because they enable reporters and others to develop an independent account of events and to generate a more complete public record.  When the short-term institutional interests of the Pentagon or other U.S. government agencies lead them to overclassify or otherwise impede public access to information, unauthorized and “uncoordinated” disclosures help to fill the void.