Posts from December, 2010

Intelligence and Border Security, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new products from the Congressional Research Service include the following (all pdf).

“Securing America’s Borders: The Role of the Intelligence Community,” December 7, 2010.

“Hamas: Background and Issues for Congress,” December 2, 2010.

“U.S.-Australia Civilian Nuclear Cooperation: Issues for Congress,” December 1, 2010.

“Intelligence Estimates: How Useful to Congress?,” November 24, 2010.

Blocking Access to Wikileaks May Harm CRS, Analysts Say

The Library of Congress confirmed on Friday that it had blocked access from all Library computers to the Wikileaks web site in order to prevent unauthorized downloading of classified records such as those in the large cache of diplomatic cables that Wikileaks began to publish on November 28.

Since the Congressional Research Service is a component of the Library, this means that CRS researchers will be unable to access or to cite the leaked materials in their research reports to Congress.  Several current and former CRS analysts expressed perplexity and dismay about the move, and they said it could undermine the institution’s research activities.

“It’s a difficult situation,” said one CRS analyst. “The information was released illegally, and it’s not right for government agencies to be aiding and abetting this illegal dissemination.  But the information is out there.  Presumably, any Library of Congress researcher who wants to access the information that Wikileaks illegally released will simply use their home computers or cellphones to do so.  Will they be able to refer directly to the information in their writings for the Library?  Apparently not, unless a secondary source, like a newspaper, happens to have already cited it.”

“I can understand LOC blocking the public’s access to Wikileaks,” a former CRS analyst said.  “It would have no control over someone from the public using classified information for impermissible or improper purposes.  [But] the connection between LOC and CRS has always been somewhat fuzzy because Congress intended CRS to have a certain amount of autonomy.  There should be room for CRS to adopt a different policy, particularly for specialists who have security clearances, know how to protect classified information, and can be entrusted to use Wikileaks appropriately.  To me, it is a wrong course to simply close the door tightly without searching for a compromise needed to continue providing Congress with high-level professional analysis.”

In fact, if CRS is “Congress’s brain,” then the new access restrictions could mean a partial lobotomy.

“I don’t know that you can make a credible argument that CRS reports are the gold standard of analytical reporting, as is often claimed, when its analysts are denied access to information that historians and public policy types call a treasure trove of data,” another former CRS employee said.

“I understand the rationale behind the policy decision to preclude government agencies from making the information available via their sites as a matter of pure principle.  On the other hand (as CRS is famous for saying), in some cases it would clearly diminish the weight of some of the analysis CRS does on policy issues, particularly on foreign affairs and military strategy where it is widely known that key information that would help inform thoughtful and comprehensive analysis was released on Wikileaks.”

“As an example, when [CRS Middle East analyst] Ken Katzman writes on U.S. policy towards Iran I don’t know how he could meet the high professional standards for completeness and accuracy he routinely meets if he can’t refer to the information in the [leaked] diplomatic notes that express the thoughts of key leaders in the region on the need to strike Iran’s nuclear program.  The same with North Korea; how do you provide Congress complete and accurate analysis to inform their decision making that ignores the [leaked] information on China’s increasing frustration with Pyongyang?  The examples could go on and on.”

“I’m sure public policy analysts from other organizations are going to use the [Wikileaks] information and their reports may prove more valuable to decision makers than CRS reports,” the former CRS employee said.

Another former analyst questioned the legal basis for the Library of Congress’s action.

“In its press release, LOC seems to be saying that it is following OMB advice regarding the obligation of federal agencies and federal employees to protect classified information and to otherwise protect the integrity of government information technology systems.  But LOC is statutorily chartered as the library of the House and the Senate.  It is a legislative branch agency.  I don’t recall either chamber directing the blocking of access to Wikileaks for/or by its committees, offices, agencies, or Members.”

Interestingly, the OMB guidance did not require federal agencies to block access to Wikileaks, only to warn employees against downloading classified information.  So by imposing such blocks, the Library of Congress has actually exceeded the instructions of OMB.

The Library did not reply to an inquiry from Secrecy News over the weekend concerning the impact of its restricted access policy on CRS.  If a reply is forthcoming, it will be posted here.

National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change

On December 3, I participated in an interesting, somewhat testy discussion about Wikileaks on the show Democracy Now along with Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, who is a passionate defender of the project.  The ultimate victory of Wikileaks (or something like it) is guaranteed, Mr. Greenwald suggested, so any criticism of it is basically irrelevant.

“We can debate WikiLeaks all we want,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because the technology that exists is inevitably going to subvert these institutions’ secrecy regimes. It’s too easy to take massive amounts of secret [material] and dump it on the internet….  And I think that what we’re talking about is inevitable, whether people like Steven Aftergood or Joe Lieberman or others like it or not.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  It is true that Wikileaks offers the most direct public access to the diplomatic cables and other records that it has published, most of which could not be obtained any time soon through normal channels.  But instead of subverting secrecy regimes, Wikileaks appears to be strengthening them, as new restrictions on information sharing are added and security measures are tightened.  (Technology can be used to bolster secrecy as well as subvert it.)

In fact, Wikileaks may deliberately be attempting, in a quasi-Marxist way, to subvert secrecy by provoking governments to strengthen it.  But please try this in your own country first.

It was ordinary political advocacy, not leaks, that produced reversals of longstanding U.S. government secrecy policies this year on nuclear stockpile secrecy and intelligence budget secrecy.  It was also political advocacy, not leaks, that led to the declassification of more than a billion pages of classified records since 1995.  Obviously, much more remains to be done, and the tools available to transparency advocates are not as powerful as one would wish.  Leaks that serve the public interest have their honored place;  more would be welcome.  Advocacy may fail, and often does.  Nothing is inevitable, as far as I know.  But so far it is still politics, not the subversion or repudiation of politics, that has produced the greater impact on U.S. secrecy policy.  (The calculation may well be different in other countries.)

The susceptibility of secrecy policy to political action was discussed in a paper I wrote on “National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change” (pdf). It will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2010 issue of the journal Social Research that is devoted to the topic of “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy.”

Sifting Through the Fallout from Wikileaks

The ongoing release of U.S. diplomatic communications by the Wikileaks organization is “embarrassing” and “awkward,” said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates yesterday, but its consequences for U.S. foreign policy are likely to be “fairly modest.”

“I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on.  I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets… Other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.”

Coming from the Secretary of Defense, that measured statement should help to deflate some of the more extreme reactions to the Wikileaks action.

The Obama Administration should “use all legal means necessary to shut down Wikileaks before it can do more damage by releasing additional cables,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman on November 28.

Wikileaks leader Julian Assange should be designated an enemy combatant, suggested Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on the House floor yesterday.  Then he could be “moved over to a place offshore of the United States outside of the jurisdiction of the Federal courts…, and adjudicated under a military tribunal in a fashion that was designed by this Congress and directed by this Congress. That’s what I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do.”

Such fantastic notions probably cannot survive the judgment of the U.S. Secretary of Defense that what is at stake is “embarrassment” and “awkwardness,” not the defense of the realm.

That does not mean that the policy consequences of the latest Wikileaks release will be insignificant.  Information sharing within the government is already being curtailed, and avenues of public disclosure may be adversely affected by the Wikileaks controversy. In a November 28 email message to reporters, the Pentagon spelled out several security measures that have already been implemented to restrict and monitor the dissemination of classification information in DoD networks.

“Bottom line: It is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels,” wrote Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget ordered (pdf) each agency that handles classified information to perform a security review of its procedures and to reinforce the traditional “need to know” requirements that strictly limit individual access to classified information.

“Any failure by agencies to safeguard classified information pursuant to relevant laws, including but not limited to Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information (December 29, 2009), is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” the OMB memo stated.

The possibility of prosecuting Wikileaks as a criminal enterprise is reportedly under consideration, and has been publicly urged by some members of Congress and others.  The feasibility of such a prosecution is uncertain, and nothing quite like it has been attempted before.  The most “promising” legal avenue of attack against Wikileaks would seem to be a charge of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act (under 18 USC 793g), based on the allegation that Wikileaks encouraged and collaborated with others in violating the terms of the Act.  But these are dangerous legal waters, fraught with undesirable consequences for other publishers of controversial information.

Kim Philby on Truth in Diplomatic Cables

As confidential U.S. diplomatic documents continue to enter the public domain, it is worth remembering that not everything that is written down in a government document, even (or especially) in a classified document, is necessarily true.  “Truth telling” involves a bit more than trafficking in official records.  Any historian or archival researcher knows that.  So did the Soviet agent Kim Philby, who addressed the issue in his 1968 book “My Silent War” (p. 255):

“It is difficult, though by no means impossible, for a journalist to obtain access to original documents.  But these are often a snare and a delusion.  Just because a document is a document, it has a glamour which tempts the reader to give it more weight than it deserves. This document from the United States Embassy in Amman, for example. Is it a first draft, a second draft or the finished memorandum? Was it written by an official of standing, or by some dogsbody with a bright idea? Was it written with serious intent or just to enhance the writer’s reputation? Even if it is unmistakably a direct instruction to the United States Ambassador from the Secretary of State dated last Tuesday, is it still valid today?  In short, documentary intelligence, to be really valuable, must come as a steady stream, embellished with an awful lot of explanatory annotation. An hour’s serious discussion with a trustworthy informant is often more valuable than any number of original documents.”

“Of course, it is best to have both,” he added.

Nuclear Physicist Sam Cohen

Nuclear physicist Sam Cohen died Sunday at age 89, the Washington Post reported in an obituary today. Cohen, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, conceived, designed and advocated development of the neutron bomb, a high-radiation anti-personnel weapon.

He cordially despised the Federation of American Scientists, which didn’t stop him from writing and calling us regularly to discuss his bodily ailments, the history of nuclear weapons, classification policy, and whether or not former Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary was the devil’s spawn.

In 2000, Sam Cohen authored and self-published a book called “Shame.” It is an almost unbearably candid memoir of the author’s abusive childhood, which left him deeply scarred, and a description of how his views of nuclear weapons emerged as a result.  It is a neglected classic.  We reviewed it here.  Rest in peace.

Airport Passenger Screening, and More from CRS

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

“Changes in Airport Passenger Screening Technologies and Procedures: Frequently Asked Questions,” November 23, 2010.

“North Korea’s 2009 Nuclear Test: Containment, Monitoring, Implications,” November 24, 2010.

“Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments,” November 16, 2010.

“North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation,” November 10, 2010.

“Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI),” November 5, 2010.