Posts from June, 2011

NRO Releases Parts of 2011 Budget Justification Book

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the U.S. intelligence agency that builds and operates intelligence satellites, has just released unclassified portions (pdf) of its Congressional Budget Justification Book for Fiscal Year 2011.  The large bulk of the document remains classified and unreleased, but the newly disclosed portions reveal a few scraps of new information.

“The NRO brings unique capabilities to bear in support of national security objectives by… acquiring and operating the most capable set of satellite intelligence collection platforms ever built,” the NRO told Congress.

“In times of heightened tension, crisis, or even humanitarian or natural disasters, the value of NRO systems is even greater,” the budget document said.  “NRO systems are not only the first responders of choice for the DoD, IC [intelligence community], or policy decision makers, but also they are often the only source of information.”

However, the NRO complained that its “financial flexibility has been lost due to a steady proliferation of budget control lines, more restrictive reprogramming limits, and greater external involvement in resource decisions” (p.2).  The NRO has a massive annual budget that is probably on the order of $10 billion.

The 2011 NRO budget document introduced some new unclassified code names and programs such as “Ardent Gunslinger” (a “three tiered replacement next generation CORE backbone replacing existing ATM [asynchronous transfer mode] network”) (p. 451) and “Puppet Master” (a “replacement to the Future Architecture for Command and Telemetry Services”) (p. 455), among other curious bits and pieces.

“The NRO acquires and operates satellites that provide constant global access to critical information otherwise unavailable to the President, his cabinet, other national leaders and numerous customers in the Defense and Intelligence communities.  These satellites provide services in three broad categories:  GEOINT [geospatial intelligence], SIGINT [signals intelligence], and Communications (COMM).”

The FY 2011 NRO budget book was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists.  As recently as 2006, the NRO had argued that its budget documents constituted “operational files” that are exempt from search and review under the FOIA.  We challenged that claim in a FOIA lawsuit and, remarkably enough, the court ruled (pdf) in our favor and against the agency.  Since that 2006 ruling by Judge Reggie B. Walton, the NRO has agreed to provide redacted versions of its budget book.  So have all other U.S. intelligence agencies except the National Security Agency, which uses a broad statutory exemption to withhold even unclassified agency information from public disclosure.

Obama Declassifies Portion of 1968 President’s Daily Brief

In a small but momentous shift in national security secrecy policy, President Obama personally ordered the declassification last month of a short paragraph regarding the Soviet space program that appeared in the President’s Daily Brief dated November 26, 1968.  The move came in response to a researcher’s request that had been blocked by the Central Intelligence Agency for more than a decade.

The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is a compilation of intelligence that is presented to the President each day. It has long been considered sacrosanct by intelligence officials and has been effectively beyond the reach of Freedom of Information Act requesters and other researchers.

“The PDB is a unique intelligence product prepared specifically for the President of the United States to provide him with the most important current intelligence on critical issues relating to the national security of the United States,” a CIA official wrote (pdf) in 2006.

“In the PDB, the intelligence community assembles the most sensitive intelligence information and the best analytic judgments in a complete, accurate, and timely package intended to inform the President and his most senior advisors as they make and implement the nation’s defense and foreign policies…. The PDB is the most sensitive intelligence report produced by [the U.S. intelligence community].”

Based on that assessment, intelligence officials have successfully resisted and rebuffed FOIA requests, lawsuits and other public attempts to gain access to PDBs.

In the late 1990s, researcher Peter Pesavento identified several PDBs located at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library concerning the Soviet space program that were of interest to him and he filed a mandatory declassification review (MDR) request for their release.  When his requests were denied by the CIA, he appealed the matter to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), an executive branch body that considers appeals of MDR requests that have been denied.  Remarkably, in 2003 the ISCAP granted Mr. Pesavento’s appeal with respect to the one paragraph of the five-page PDB that discussed Soviet space (and even so one of the three sentences in the paragraph was partially redacted).

But then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet vetoed the ISCAP disclosure decision, making use of the new veto authority that had been granted to the DCI in President Bush’s 2003 executive order on classification to block release of the PDB.  Two members of the ISCAP appealed to the President to overturn the Tenet veto in 2003, but no action was taken on the appeal, until now.

“Please be advised that the President has directed the declassification and release of portions of the President’s Daily Brief of November 26, 1968, that had been declassified by the Panel in its decision of September 2, 2003,” wrote William A. Cira, executive secretary of the ISCAP in a May 26, 2011 letter (pdf) to Mr. Pesavento.

The declassified PDB paragraph, which will be released by Mr. Pesavento in a forthcoming article, is not very interesting to a non-specialist.  It predicts that “the Soviets will not attempt a flight around the moon in December [1968]” but will probably wait until early 1969.

What makes the new disclosure significant is that it represents a decisive break from the intense and unyielding secrecy that with few exceptions has surrounded this class of documents.

In 2004, under pressure from the 9/11 Commission, President Bush released the famous PDB passage entitled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” (pdf).  But even in that case, DCI Tenet declared in his written declassification decision that the 2004 release to the 9/11 Commission “shall not be deemed to constitute any precedent concerning any future declassification or release of any other PDB.”

By contrast, President Obama’s declassification decision in this case does create a precedent that is all but certain to initiate a cascade of further releases of historical PDBs, beginning with several others on Soviet space that were also requested by Mr. Pesavento.

“In the coming months the Panel [ISCAP] will be adjudicating several similar President’s Daily Brief appeals from you that the Panel has held in abeyance pending a decision on this issue,” wrote Mr. Cira of ISCAP last month.

The declassification decision also gives new substance to two provisions in the Obama executive order on national security classification that were in danger of becoming mere rhetorical flourishes.

“[N]o information may be excluded from declassification… based solely on the type of document or record in which it is found,” the President directed in executive order 13526, section 3.1g.  That provision was presumed to apply to PDBs, and now we finally know that it does.

Also, the order stated in section 1.5d, “No information may remain classified indefinitely.”  Though this principle may seem like common sense, it has all too rarely been applied in practice.

A handful of other PDB texts have become public informally or inadvertently and have been published by the National Security Archive.

Selected Acquisition Report on Littoral Combat Ship

A status report on the Navy’s development of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as of late last year is given in a Selected Acquisition Report (pdf) that was sent to Congress in April.

The word “littoral” means near the shore.  The LCS is intended to counter small boat threats, mine laying vessels and coastal submarine threats.

Additional background on the LCS is available in a Congressional Research Service report entitled “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background, Issues and Options for Congress” (pdf).

A Look at Federal Geospatial Information (CRS)

Policy issues surrounding the use of geospatial information are examined in two new reports from the Congressional Research Service.

“Geospatial information is data referenced to a place–a set of geographic coordinates–which can often be gathered, manipulated, and displayed in real time. A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer data system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced information.”

“The federal government and policy makers increasingly use geospatial information and tools like GIS for producing floodplain maps, conducting the census, mapping foreclosures, congressional redistricting, and responding to natural hazards such as wildfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis. For policy makers, this type of analysis can greatly assist in clarifying complex problems that may involve local, state, and federal government, and affect businesses, residential areas, and federal installations.”

See “Geospatial Information and Geographic Information Systems (GIS): An Overview for Congress” (pdf), May 18, 2011,  and “Issues and Challenges for Federal Geospatial Information” (pdf), May 18, 2011.