Posts from May, 2011

Pentagon Papers to be Officially Released

Updated below

Forty years after they were famously leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, the Pentagon Papers will be officially released next month at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

The National Archives announced this week that it “has identified, inventoried, and prepared for public access the Vietnam Task Force study, United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967, informally known as ‘the Pentagon Papers’.” As a result, 3.7 cubic feet of previously restricted textual materials will be made officially available at the Nixon Library on June 13, the Archives said in a May 10 Federal Register notice.

While any release of historical records is welcome, the official “disclosure” of the Pentagon Papers is in fact a sign of disarray in the government secrecy system.  The fact that portions of the half-century old Papers remained classified until this year is a reminder that classification today is often completely untethered from genuine national security concerns.

On March 28, 2011 the National Declassification Center announced “the great news that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has declassified the information of interest to them” in the Papers, clearing the way for next month’s public release.

Update: See Eleven Words in Pentagon Papers to Remain Classified.

Report on Kabul Bank Corruption Is Classified, Taken Offline

An eye-opening report on corruption in the Afghan Central Bank that was issued last March by the Inspector General of the U.S. Agency for International Development was recently removed from the USAID web site after the Agency decided to classify some of its published contents.

The now-classified IG report focused on the failure to discover a widespread pattern of fraudulent loans at the Kabul Bank which led to the diversion of $850 million, the near collapse in 2009 of the bank, and an ensuing national crisis. Employees of the Deloitte accounting firm, who were serving as advisers to the bank under contract to USAID, could and should have alerted the U.S. government to early signs of fraud, the Inspector General found, but they did not.  (Instead, the U.S. government learned of the bank corruption thanks to a February 22, 2010 story in the Washington Post.)

But in the past week or so, the March 16, 2011 USAID Inspector General report (pdf) was abruptly withdrawn from the Agency’s website.

Why?  Because USAID retroactively classified certain information in the report.

“At the time our report was issued, it was written utilizing information from non-classified sources,” said James C. Charlifue, the chief of staff of the USAID Office of Inspector General.  “After our report had been issued, USAID subsequently classified two documents that were cited in our report.  This action resulted in the report becoming classified and we removed it from the web site,” he told Secrecy News.

Depending on the precise circumstances, the classification of information that has already been officially released into the public domain is either discouraged or prohibited, not to mention futile.  According to executive order 13526 (section 1.7c), declassified information that has already been released can only be reclassified with the written approval of the agency head.  Unclassified information that has been formally released and is no longer under U.S. government control is supposed to be beyond the reach of the classification system altogether.

A spokesman for USAID did not respond to requests for comment on the decision to classify the information.

In the present case, the suppressed IG report remains independently available in its original form.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Review of USAID/Afghanistan’s Bank Supervision Assistance Activities and the Kabul Bank Crisis,” USAID Office of Inspector General report, March 16, 2011.

Much of the substance of the report was previously reported in “U.S. Advisers Saw Early Signs of Trouble at Afghan Bank” by Ernesto Londono and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, March 15, 2011; and “U.S. Agency Ends Accounting Firm’s Afghan Contract” by Alissa J. Rubin and James Risen, New York Times, March 17, 2011.

Now that the original report has been formally classified and withdrawn, “We plan on publishing a non-classified version of the report,” said Mr. Charlifue of the USAID Office of Inspector General, “which we will place on our web site.”

ODNI Describes Emerging Tools for Data Fusion, Analysis

Several intelligence community initiatives to develop improved tools for data search, analysis and fusion were described in the latest report to Congress (pdf) from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on data mining.

A new program called DataSphere is intended “to aid in the discovery of unknown terrorism relationships and the identification of previously undetected terrorist and terrorism information” through analysis of communication networks and travel patterns.

A continuing program called Catalyst seems to be a glorified search engine that “will enable data fusion/analytic programs to share disparate repositories with each other, to disambiguate and cross-correlate the different agencies’ holdings, and to discover and visualize relationship/network links, geospatial patterns, temporal patterns and related correlations.”

Although these and other initiatives do not yet constitute or engage in “data mining,” they were described in the new report “in the interest of transparency,” ODNI said.  See “2010 Data Mining Report,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, April 2011.

Domestic Intelligence Surveillance Grew in 2010

By every available measure, the level of domestic intelligence surveillance activity in 2010 increased from the year before, according to a new Justice Department report to Congress on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“During calendar year 2010, the Government made 1,579 applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (hereinafter ‘FISC’) for authority to conduct electronic surveillance and/or physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes,” according to the new report (pdf).  This compares to a reported 1,376 applications in 2009.  (In 2008, however, the reported figure — 2,082 — was quite a bit higher.)

In 2010, the government made 96 applications for access to business records (and “tangible things”) for foreign intelligence purposes, up from 21 applications in 2009.

And in 2010, the FBI made 24,287 “national security letter” requests for information pertaining to 14,212 different U.S. persons, a substantial increase from the 2009 level of 14,788 NSL requests concerning 6,114 U.S. persons.  (In 2008, the number of NSL requests was 24,744, pertaining to 7,225 persons.)

While the 2010 figures are below the record high levels of a few years ago, they are considerably higher than they were, say, a decade ago.  There is no indication that intelligence oversight activity and capacity have grown at the same rate.

A copy of the latest report to Congress, dated April 29, was released under the Freedom of Information Act.

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service addressed “Amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Set to Expire May 27, 2011″ (pdf). FISA Amendments in the USA Patriot Act were discussed at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on “Reauthorization of the Patriot Act” (pdf) on March 9, 2011, the record of which has just been published. Related issues were discussed in another House Judiciary Committee hearing on “Permanent Provisions of the Patriot Act” (pdf) on March 30, 2011.

Bin Laden’s Death: Implications and Considerations (CRS)

The broad implications of the death of Osama bin Laden were discussed in a new report from the Congressional Research Service.  The report does not contain any new factual information or much in the way of new analysis.  Rather, it presents an account of the policy questions arising from bin Laden’s death that may warrant congressional attention.  See “Osama bin Laden’s Death: Implications and Considerations” (pdf), May 5, 2011.

House Intel Bill Mandates Insider Threat Detection

The House Intelligence Committee this week called on the Director of National Intelligence to establish an automated insider threat detection program to deter and detect unauthorized access to, or use of, classified intelligence networks.

“Incidents like the unauthorized disclosure of classified  information by Wikileaks… show us that despite the tremendous progress made since 9/11 in information sharing, we still need to have systems in place that can detect unauthorized activities by those who would do our country harm from the inside,” the Committee said in its May 3 report on the FY 2011 Intelligence Authorization Act.

Curiously, the Committee conveyed no great urgency concerning its proposal.  It said the DNI did not have to demonstrate an initial operating capability for insider threat detection until October 1, 2012.  Full operating capability would not be required until October 1, 2013.

In fact, however, executive branch officials are not waiting for congressional guidance to improve the security of classified networks.  There is already a focused effort to develop “a new administrative structure” for the management of classified electronic records, an Administration official told Secrecy News.  “I can’t say anything about it,” he said, implying that there was something significant to say.

Wanted: Better Access to CRS Reports

In a news story today about the imminent arrival of the federal government’s debt limit (“Debt Ceiling Has Some Give, Until Roof Falls In” by Binyamin Appelbaum), the New York Times cited a Congressional Research Service report that was performed “in February” concerning the impact of the debt limit.

But that report has been updated and superseded, though one might not know it due to congressional secrecy policy, which precludes direct public access to CRS publications.  The current version is “Reaching the Debt Limit: Background and Potential Effects on Government Operations” (pdf), April 27, 2011.

I will be participating in a panel discussion on “The Future of CRS,” including prospects for improving public access to non-confidential CRS reports, on Monday, May 9 at 2 pm in 2203 Rayburn House Office Building.  It is sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation.

Annual Secrecy Costs Now Exceed $10 Billion

The rise in national security secrecy in the first year of the Obama Administration was matched by a sharp increase in the financial costs of the classification system, according to a new report to the President (pdf).

The estimated costs of the national security classification system grew by 15% last year to reach $10.17 billion, according to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).  It was the first time that annual secrecy costs in government were reported to exceed $10 billion.

An additional $1.25 billion was incurred within industry to protect classified information, for a grand total of $11.42 in classification-related costs, also a new record high.

The cost estimates, based on the classification-related activities of 41 executive branch agencies, were reported to the President by ISOO on April 29 and released yesterday.  They include the estimated costs of personnel security (clearances), physical security, information systems security, as well as classification management and training — all of which increased last year.

Many factors contribute to the rise in secrecy costs, but one of them is widespread overclassification.  Ironically, the new ISOO report provides a vivid illustration of the overclassification problem.

ISOO did not disclose security cost estimates for the large intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office — because those costs are considered classified.

Secrecy News asked two security officials to articulate the damage to national security that could result from release of the security cost estimates for the intelligence agencies, but they were unable to do so.  They said only that the classification of this information was consistent with intelligence community guidance.  But this is a circular claim, not an explanation.  The information is classified because somebody said it’s classified, not because it could demonstrably or even plausibly damage national security.

This kind of reflexive secrecy, which is characteristic of much of contemporary classification policy, would be stripped away if the Administration’s pending Fundamental Classification Guidance Review were properly and successfully implemented.  That Review process is supposed to bring “the broadest possible range of perspectives” to bear on the question of exactly what information should be classified, according to an ISOO implementing directive (pdf).  But so far there is no visible indication that the process is bearing fruit, or even that the Administration is seriously committed to it.

Last week Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers took time away from more urgent matters to sign a new memorandum (pdf) concerning implementation of the President’s 2009 executive order on classification.  But the Vickers memorandum is incomplete, dealing only with “immediate” implementation issues, and it does not mention the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review at all.

The Information Security Oversight Office reported last month that the number of original classification decisions — or “new secrets” — that were generated by the Obama Administration in its first full year in office (FY 2010) was 224,734.  That was a 22.6 percent increase over the year before.

Special Operations Forces on the Rise

U.S. Special Operations Forces continue to experience rapid post-9/11 growth, with swelling ranks, rising budgets and a new set of missions.  Special operations forces were reportedly involved along with CIA personnel in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1.

“Special operations” are defined (pdf) as military operations that are “conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement. These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low visibility capabilities…. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets.”

Special Operations Forces operate “from the tropics to the Arctic regions, from under water to high elevations, and from peaceful areas to violent combat zones,” said Adm. Eric T. Olson, the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

“Although the precision counterterrorism missions certainly receive the most attention,” he told Congress in the 2011 SOCOM posture statement (pdf) last March, “SOF are conducting a wide range of activities in dozens of countries around the world on any given day.”

“On an average day, in excess of 12,000 Special Operations Forces (SOF) and SOF support personnel are deployed in more than 75 countries across the globe,” he said last year (pdf).

The number of special operations personnel has grown 3-5% each year for the last several years and is now approaching 60,000, about one-third of whom are qualified SOF operators.

Meanwhile, the SOCOM budget has increased sharply since 9/11 from $2.1 billion in 2001 to $9.8 billion in FY2011.  The FY2012 request is $10.5 billion, the Congressional Research Service noted (pdf).

New doctrine (pdf) published last month for Special Operations lists 11 “core activities” versus 9 in the previous edition (2003), reflecting the addition of “security force assistance” — aiding the development of foreign security forces — and counterinsurgency.  See “Special Operations,” Joint Publication 3-05, April 18, 2011.

In addition to its core tasks, US SOCOM is also assigned by law (10 USC 167j) to perform “such other activities as may be specified by the President or the Secretary of Defense.”  This is an open-ended category that is analogous to the statutory language used to authorize CIA covert actions, and it can be used to underwrite an almost unlimited variety of clandestine missions.  But while there is a well-defined mechanism for congressional oversight of covert action, no similar process for congressional notification and review appears to exist for clandestine SOF missions.

A U.S. SOCOM Factbook, dated November 2010, is available here (pdf).

Traditionally all male, Special Operations Forces are recognizing new roles for women, Adm. Olson said.  “Our attached female Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) allow us to reach key elements of the population in some environments which was not previously possible. This concept of attaching females to SOF units is effective and long overdue; we are urging the Services to recognize the capabilities of CSTs as essential military skills.”

Curiously, Adm. Olson cited the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA precursor organization, as an exemplar of innovation for SOCOM to follow, suggesting that more contemporary models were hard to find. “Our efforts to become more innovative include studying the best practices of other organizations. For example, we are inspired by the ability of the World War II’s Office of Strategic Services to rapidly recruit specialized talent, develop and acquire new technologies and conduct effective global operations within the period of its relatively brief existence.”