Posts from October, 2010

EFF Announces Pioneer Awards

I’m very grateful to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for naming me as one of the four recipients of its 2010 Pioneer Awards, which are intended “to recognize leaders on the electronic frontier who are extending freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology.”

EFF is not only a prominent voice of online freedom, but is itself a pioneer in confronting unlawful domestic surveillance, the use of the state secrets privilege by the Bush and Obama Administrations to foreclose litigation, and other difficult issues.  So it’s an honor to be recognized by this outstanding organization.

The EFF Pioneer Awards ceremony will be held November 8 in San Francisco and is open to the public.  For ticket information and other background see here.

Confronting Overclassification

The problem of overclassification — in which inappropriate restrictions are imposed on the disclosure of information in the name of national security — is at the root of many current disputes over access to government information, including controversies over leaks, FOIA litigation, prepublication review, and others areas of contention.

This has been true for many years, but there is still hardly any systematic method for confronting and correcting overclassification.

In a new article at, I take a critical look at the current policy landscape, including the newly enacted Reducing Over-classification Act and the pending Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.  See “Telling Secrets,” October 15.

A Double Standard in Leak Inquiries?

It seems that some disclosures of classified information can lead a person to poverty, ignominy and a jail sentence, while others provide a royal road to fame and fortune.  Some leaks are relentlessly investigated, while others are tolerated or encouraged.

This apparent inconsistency, as notably illustrated once again in the phenomenon of author Bob Woodward, was examined by Michael Isikoff in “‘Double standard’ in White House leak inquiries?”, NBC News, October 18.

In the wake of an earlier Woodward book in 2007, Rep. Henry Waxman noted a similar discrepancy in the Bush Administration’s response to leaks.

“The administration seems to be inconsistent in their approach in these cases, and it’s troubling,” Rep. Waxman said at a March 16, 2007 hearing. “They raise very serious questions about whether White House policies on sensitive information are driven by political considerations. If it’s a critic [who discloses classified information] they are going to investigate, they’re going to really stop it. When it comes to people in-house, people they like, people they trust, well, the investigation hasn’t even started with regard to those people.”

CIA Sues Author in Prepublication Review Dispute

The Central Intelligence Agency has filed a lawsuit against one of its own former employees after he published a book on intelligence without first getting the CIA’s prior approval, the Washington Times reported today.

A book called “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture” was written by a former CIA clandestine services officer under the pen name Ishmael Jones.  It was published earlier this year, the government says, “in defiance of the CIA’s Publications Review Board’s disapproval and instructions not to publish.”  See “CIA sues ex-agent for book’s breach of ‘secrecy’” by Bill Gertz, Washington Times, October 19, 2010.

The CIA’s complaint (pdf) against Jones, filed in July, says that he violated the terms of the non-disclosure agreement that he signed as a condition of his employment and that, as a result, he is in breach of contract.

As a first order of business, the CIA sought (pdf) and gained the Court’s approval (pdf) to proceed against Jones using his pseudonym since, the Agency argued, disclosing his real name could compromise national security.

“For CIA officers to effectively and securely collect foreign intelligence and conduct clandestine foreign intelligence activities around the world, they cannot openly admit that they work for the CIA,” the government brief explained.

But “if defendant’s true name and affiliation with the CIA were officially acknowledged, foreign governments, enterprising journalists, and amateur spy-hunters would be able to discover and publicly disclose the cover methods defendant used to conceal his true status as a CIA officer,” the brief said.

The class of persons who constitute “amateur spy-hunters” was not further identified.

DoD Sees No Intelligence Compromise from Wikileaks Docs

The unauthorized release of tens of thousands of classified U.S. military records from the war in Afghanistan last July on the Wikileaks website did not result in the disclosure of sensitive intelligence sources, according to a mid-August assessment by the Department of Defense that has just been made public.

“The review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure,” wrote Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in an August 16 letter (pdf) to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin.

This is consistent with the fact that the Afghan war documents disclosed by Wikileaks were classified at the collateral Secret level and were not compartmented intelligence records.  Intelligence source identities and related information would normally not appear in Secret documents.

On the other hand, Secretary Gates wrote, “the documents do contain the names of cooperative Afghan nationals and the Department takes very seriously the Taliban threats recently discussed in the press.  We assess this risk as likely to cause significant harm or damage to the national security interests of the United States and are examining mitigation options.”

The Taliban threats mentioned by Secretary Gates include a statement by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who said on July 29 that the Taliban were studying the Wikileaks documents in order to identify and punish Afghan collaborators.  “We will investigate through our own secret service whether the people mentioned are really spies working for the U.S. If they are U.S. spies, then we know how to punish them,” the Taliban spokesman said.

“People named in those documents have a reasonable belief that they are going to get killed,” said author and New Yorker writer Steve Coll, who has reported extensively from the region.  See “Taliban Study WikiLeaks to Hunt Informants” by Robert Mackey, New York Times The Lede, July 30.  However, there is no evidence to date that the Taliban has carried out any such threats against individuals who were named in the Wikileaks documents.

The release of the August 16 Gates memo was reported on October 15 by the Associated Press and Bloomberg News.

Revisiting the Decision to Go to War in Iraq

It is to be expected that national intelligence services will sometimes fail to identify and discover a threat to the nation in a timely fashion.  But when intelligence warns of a threat that isn’t really there, and then nations go to war to meet the phantom threat — that is a serious, confounding and deeply disturbing problem.

But in a nutshell, that is the story of the war in Iraq, in which the U.S. and its allies attacked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because of the supposedly imminent threat posed by Saddam’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction — a threat that proved illusory.

A new book published in the United Kingdom called “Failing Intelligence” provides a remarkable account of the British experience of how intelligence on the Iraqi WMD program was shaped and packaged to support the decision to go to war in Iraq.  The book’s author, Brian Jones, was the chief specialist in weapons of mass destruction on the UK Defence Intelligence Staff.  He was also a skeptic of the stronger claims made about the existence of Iraqi WMD stockpiles.  The book documents his mostly unsuccessful attempts to register that skepticism, to moderate the extreme claims made by government officials, and later to hold those officials accountable for their actions.

He provides a detailed first-hand account of how his efforts were consistently deflected in the rush to war, and how intelligence declined into propaganda.  It’s a grim but instructive case study in the overlapping failure of intelligence gathering, intelligence production, and intelligence oversight.

The National Security Archive has recently published three richly informative collections of declassified U.S. and British government documents on the lead-up to the Iraq war (including several key documents cited or relied upon by Brian Jones).

“The more deeply the processes of creating the government reports on the alleged Iraqi threat are reconstructed — on both sides of the Atlantic — the more their products are revealed as explicitly aimed at building a basis for war,” wrote John Prados of the National Security Archive and journalist Christopher Ames in an analysis of the documents.

“In the light of a decision process in which no serious consideration was given to any course other than war, the question of whether American and British leaders set out to wage aggressive war has to be squarely faced,” they wrote.

DNI Disbands the Intelligence Science Board

The Intelligence Science Board (ISB), which was established in 2002 to provide independent scientific advice to the Director of National Intelligence, has been disbanded by the new DNI, James R. Clapper Jr., as part of a process of reorganizing and streamlining the ODNI organization.

“My understanding is that the Director will be disbanding all 20 of his advisory boards, which includes the ISB,” one participant in Intelligence Science Board studies told Secrecy News.

DNI Clapper “did a zero base review of all outside advisory boards as part of an efficiency review,” an ODNI official said.  “The new strategy is to have one Senior Advisory Group and then convene Task Forces on specific issues as needed.”  The Task Forces in turn “may have expiration dates.”  The membership of the new umbrella Advisory Group is now in formation, the official said.

The overall contribution of the Intelligence Science Board is difficult for an outsider to assess, since little of its work has been made public.  But the Board’s 2006 report on “Educing Information” (pdf), which authoritatively explained that there was no empirical justification for the use of coercive interrogation (or torture), remains a milestone in the field.  It demonstrated independent judgment as well as immediate policy relevance.

An ODNI spokesman said the move to eliminate the Board should not be seen as a rejection of science advice, but as a step toward a smaller standing bureaucracy and increased efficiency.

“One of the things I’m doing is… essentially restructuring the Office of the Director of National Intelligence” said DNI Clapper at an October 6 speech (pdf) to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

A Look Back at the Soviet Army

“The Soviet Army is the best prepared force in the world to conduct both offensive and defensive NBC [nuclear, biological and chemical] operations,” according to a 1984 U.S. Army manual (large pdf) that is newly available online.

The three-part manual, based on Soviet military literature and other open sources, provides a dauntingly detailed account of almost every aspect of Soviet military structure and operations.

So, for example: “The Soviets recognize three basic types of smoke screens: blinding, camouflaging, and decoy. Each type is classified as being frontal, oblique, or flank in nature, depending on the placement of the screen.”

Perhaps of equal or greater importance, the manual implicitly documents the U.S. Army’s perception of the Soviet military late in the Cold War.

“In the Soviet view, the correlation of forces has been shifting in favor of the socialist camp since the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology requires the correlation to shift continuously in favor of socialism. The correlation of forces may be advanced by both violent and nonviolent means. When it is advanced by violent means, the military component of the correlation is the dominant factor.”

The first volume of the manual, originally “for official Government use only,” has not previously been published online.  See “The Soviet Army: Operations and Tactics,” Field Manual 100-2-1, July 16, 1984 (203 pages, large pdf).

The second volume is “The Soviet Army: Specialized Warfare and Rear Area Support,” FM 100-2-2, July 16, 1984 (100 pages, pdf).

The third volume is “The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization, and Equipment,” FM 100-2-3, June 1991 (456 pages, large pdf).

In February 1957, the Army produced an extremely detailed “Glossary of Soviet Military and Related Abbreviations” (pdf), Army Technical Manual TM 30-546.

Secrecy and Deception in a Detainee Ruling

After a court issued a ruling last spring that a Yemeni detainee held in U.S. custody should be released, the opinion was briefly published in the case docket and then abruptly withdrawn for classification review.  When it reappeared, reporter Dafna Linzer discovered, it was not only redacted but had been significantly altered.

“The alterations are extensive,” she found. “Sentences were rewritten.  Footnotes that described disputes and discrepancies in the government’s case were deleted.  Even the date and circumstances of [the detainee's] arrest were changed.”

Yet in what seems like an insult to the integrity of the judicial process, no indication was given that the original opinion had been modified — not just censored — as a consequence of the classification review.  ProPublica obtained both versions of the ruling and published a comparison of them, highlighting the missing or altered passages.  See “In Gitmo Opinion, Two Versions of Reality” by Dafna Linzer, ProPublica (co-published with The National Law Journal), October 8.

The History of MI-6, Authorized and Unauthorized

Two histories of the early decades of MI-6, the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence service, have recently been published.  “MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949″ by Keith Jeffery is the authorized version, prepared with the cooperation of the Service.  “Six: A History of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service” by Michael Smith is the unauthorized version.

Close students of intelligence history will want to read both volumes, which neatly represent the respective virtues of authorized and unauthorized history.  As the authorized historian, Jeffery enjoyed privileged access to classified Service archives that no other writer is likely to obtain for years to come.  But he was also subject to official restrictions on what he was permitted to publish. So, for example, he could not identify any agents who had not already been publicly identified nor could he tell their stories if doing so would result in their identification.

“Six,” the unauthorized history by veteran intelligence reporter Michael Smith, ranges more widely (though it ends a decade earlier in 1939), taps into foreign archives and private, non-governmental collections, and is subject to no such prior restrictions on disclosure.

The tales of the Service’s early years, now nearly a century old, are vividly told by author Smith, whose book is full of striking observations and asides.  Trainspotting in World War I and the early confrontation with Soviet intelligence, among other topics, are treated in this volume, which ends at the dawn of World War II.  “Six” has not yet been published in the U.S. but is available from in the UK.