Posts from September, 2011

Global Recession Spurs Competition in Arms Sales

Led by the United States, arms-exporting nations are competing ever more intensely to win lucrative sales contracts in a shrinking global marketplace, according to a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

“Worldwide weapons sales declined generally in 2010 in response to the constraints created by the tenuous state of the global economy,” the report said.  The value of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations declined from $49.8 billion in 2009 to over $30.7 billion in 2010.  At the same time, however, the value of all arms deliveries to developing nations was nearly $21.9 billion, which is “the highest total in these deliveries values since 2006.”  See “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003-2010″ by Richard F. Grimmett, Congressional Research Service, September 22, 2011.

Yet “as new arms sales have become more difficult to conclude since the global recession began, competition among sellers has become increasingly intense,” the report said.

“A number of weapons-exporting nations are focusing not only on the clients with whom they have held historic competitive advantages, due to well-established military-support relationships, but also on potential new clients in countries and regions where they have not been traditional arms suppliers.”

Meanwhile, “[D]eveloping nations have been leveraging their attractiveness as clients by demanding greater cost offsetting elements in their arms contracts, as well as transfer of more advanced technology and provisions for domestic production options,” the report said.

The United States dominates the global arms market both in sales agreements and in deliveries, according to the CRS report, which was first reported in the New York Times on September 24.

The annual CRS reports prepared by Mr. Grimmett are authoritative compilations of official data on arms transfers, based on privileged access by CRS to government records.  As such, they may have enduring reference value for researchers in the field (despite the fact that the reports do not include clandestine or covert transfers).   A collection of all CRS annual reports on conventional arms transfers dating back to 1982 is available on the Federation of American Scientists website here.  Additional background is available from the FAS Arms Sales Monitoring Project.

Brennan Center on “Curbing Needless Secrecy”

The Brennan Center for Justice will sponsor a panel discussion October 5 at the National Press Club in Washington DC on overclassification and “Curbing Needless Secrecy” to accompany the release of a new report on the subject.  Participants include former Rep. Christopher Shays, former ISOO director J. William Leonard, former NRO director and chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board Martin C. Faga, and Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center.

At CIA, Climate Change is a Secret

Updated below

When the Central Intelligence Agency established a Center on Climate Change and National Security in 2009, it drew fierce opposition from congressional Republicans who disputed the need for an intelligence initiative on this topic.  But now there is a different, and possibly better, reason to doubt the value of the Center:  It has adopted an extreme view of classification policy which holds that everything the Center does is a national security secret.

Last week, the CIA categorically denied (pdf) a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of any Center studies or reports concerning the impacts of global warming.

“We completed a thorough search for records responsive to your request and located material that we determined is currently and properly classified and must be denied in its entirety…,” wrote CIA’s Susan Viscuso to requester Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence historian affiliated with the National Security Archive.

With some effort, one can imagine records related to climate change that would be properly classified.  Such records might, for example, include information that was derived from classified collection methods or sources that could be compromised by their disclosure.  Or perhaps such records might present analysis reflecting imminent threats to national security that would be exacerbated rather than corrected by publicizing them.

But that’s not what CIA said.  Rather, it said that all of the Center’s work is classified and there is not even a single study, or a single passage in a single study, that could be released without damage to national security.  That’s a familiar song, and it became tiresome long ago.

But in this case, it is more than an annoyance.  The CIA response indicates a fundamental lack of discernment that calls into question the integrity of the Center on Climate Change, if not the Agency as a whole.  If the CIA really thinks (or pretends to think) that every document produced by the Center constitutes a potential threat to national security, who can expect the Center to say anything intelligent or useful about climate change?  Security robots cannot help us navigate the environmental challenges ahead.  Better to allocate the scarce resources to others who can.

Meanwhile, access by scientists to classified military intelligence data on the environment has actually been improving lately, reports Geoff Brumfiel in the latest edition of Nature (“Military surveillance data: Shared intelligence,” 21 September 2011, sub. req’d).  Among other things, the Clinton-Gore era group of cleared scientists known as MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis) was reconvened in 2008 at congressional request.

A Federation of American Scientists proposal to expand public access to unclassified open source intelligence products (“Open Up Open Source Intelligence,” Secrecy News, August 24) did not find favor with the White House.  Nothing like it was included in the new U.S. National Action Plan (pdf) for the Open Government Partnership, which mostly elaborates and restates previous commitments.

Update: The National Intelligence Council has published a collection of commissioned papers on “The Impact of Climate Change to 2030″ which do not, however, “reflect official U.S. Government positions.”

Updated CRS Reports on Secrecy

Reports on secrecy-related topics from the Congressional Research Service that are newly updated (but otherwise not new) include these (all pdf).

Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information, September 8, 2011

Protection of Classified Information by Congress: Practices and Proposals, August 31, 2011

The State Secrets Privilege: Preventing the Disclosure of Sensitive National Security Information During Civil Litigation, August 16, 2011

Newly updated CRS reports on other topics include these.

Intelligence Issues for Congress, September 14, 2011

The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations, August 30, 2011

U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians, August 29, 2011


Number of Security Clearances Soars

The number of persons who held security clearances for access to classified information last year exceeded 4.2 million — far more than previously estimated — according to a new intelligence community report to Congress (pdf).

The report, which was required by the FY2010 intelligence authorization act, provides the first precise tally of clearances held by federal employees and contractors that has ever been produced.  The total figure as of last October 1 was 4,266,091 cleared persons. See “Report on Security Clearance Determinations for Fiscal Year 2010,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, September 2011.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office had told Congress that about 2.4 million people held clearances “excluding some of those with clearances who work in areas of national intelligence.”  (“More Than 2.4 Million Hold Security Clearances,” Secrecy News, July 29, 2009).  But even with a generous allowance for hundreds of thousands of additional intelligence personnel, that estimate somehow missed more than a million clearances.

Likewise, one of the many startling findings in the 2010 Washington Post series (and 2011 book) “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, was that “An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.”

But remarkably, that too was a significant underestimate, according to the new report.  In actual fact, as of October 2010 there were 1,419,051 federal employees and contractors holding Top Secret clearances.

As high as the newly determined total number of clearances is, it may not be the highest number ever.  In the last decade of the cold war, a comparable or greater number of persons seems to have had security clearances.  In those years the size of the uniformed military was much larger than today, and a large fraction of its members were routinely granted clearances.  Thus, as of 1983, there were approximately 4.2 million clearances, according to 1985 testimony (pdf) from the GAO.  But that was an estimate, not a measurement, and the actual number might have been higher (or lower).  By 1993, the post-cold war number had declined to around 3.2 million clearances, according to another GAO report (pdf) from 1995.

The unexpectedly large number of security clearances today can presumably be attributed to several related factors:  the surge in military and intelligence spending over the past decade, increased government reliance on cleared contractors, and intensive classification activity that continues today.

NRO Declassifies Secret Spy Satellite History

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the National Reconnaissance Office declassified and released thousands of pages of historical records documenting the development and operation of its GAMBIT and HEXAGON satellite programs.  At first glance, many of the documents appear to be interesting and substantial additions to the historical record on the subject.  (The associated satellite imagery does not yet seem to be available.)

For more than a decade, the most detailed illustrations of the KH-9 HEXAGON available to the public were a series of widely replicated line drawings prepared by Charles P. Vick in the 1990s (when he was at the Federation of American Scientists, as a matter of fact).  Now that the KH-9 has been formally declassified and put on public display, as it was last Saturday, it is possible to appreciate what a remarkably perceptive job Mr. Vick did in portraying the satellite’s structure and operation.

For other accounts of the NRO anniversary releases see “KH-9 Hexagon Spy Satellite Makes a Rare Public Outing” by Keith Cowing, September 17, and “Big Black Throws a Party” by Dwayne Day, The Space Review, September 19.

An Ambivalent White House Report on Open Government

The White House reiterated its support for open government in a new report issued Friday afternoon.  But curiously, the 33-page document on “The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government” (pdf) downplays or overlooks many of the Administration’s principal achievements  in reducing inappropriate secrecy.  At the same time, it fails to acknowledge the major defects of the openness program to date.  And so it presents a muddled picture of the state of open government, while providing a poor guide to future policy.

“At the President’s direction, federal agencies have promoted greater transparency, participation, and collaboration through a number of major initiatives,” the new report says. “The results of those efforts are measurable, and they are substantial. Agencies have disclosed more information in response to FOIA requests; developed and begun to implement comprehensive Open Government plans; made thousands of government data sets publically available; promoted partnerships and leveraged private innovation to improve citizens’ lives; increased federal spending transparency; and declassified information and limited the proliferation of classified information.”

Most of that is true, in varying degrees.  (However, there is no evidence that the proliferation of classified information has in fact been limited; the opposite is the case.)

And yet despite the abundance of itemized detail in the new report, it misses or misrepresents crucial aspects of what has been accomplished and what has not.

Particularly within the domain of national security secrecy, the report leaves out the Obama Administration’s boldest departures from past secrecy policies, suggesting that the White House itself is ambivalent or perhaps remorseful about them.  For example, the report does not mention these groundbreaking measures:

In April 2009, the President broke with prior policy and declassified four Office of Legal Counsel opinions on interrogation and torture that had been tightly held by the previous Administration.  (“OLC Torture Memos Declassified,” Secrecy News, April 17, 2009).  This act finally exposed the purported legal basis for some of the government’s most controversial actions of recent years, and for a while it seemed to promise a new attitude toward the use of secrecy.

In May 2010, the Obama Administration declassified the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time ever.  (“Size of Nuclear Stockpile to be Disclosed,” May 3, 2010).  This is a category of information the disclosure of which had been sought without success for more than half a century, and its release created the potential for greater transparency and accountability in nuclear weapons policy.

In May 2011, the President personally ordered the declassification of an excerpt of a 1968 edition of the President’s Daily Brief — over the objections of intelligence agencies.  (“Obama Declassifies Portion of 1968 President’s Daily Brief,” June 3, 2011).  This act alone lent new substance to the otherwise rhetorical statement that “no information may remain classified indefinitely” and prompted a revision of entrenched prejudices concerning secret intelligence records.

For the first time ever, the Administration this year declassified and disclosed the size of the intelligence budget request for the coming year.  (“A New Milestone in Intelligence Budget Disclosure,” February 15, 2011).  In 1998, the Director of Central Intelligence declared under penalty of perjury that disclosure of such information would cause damage to national security.  But in the Obama Administration, that Cold War perspective has finally been abandoned even by the most senior intelligence officials.

These are among the most important changes in national security secrecy that have been accomplished in the Obama Administration.  So it is puzzling and disturbing that in its own “review of the progress the Administration has made” in promoting greater openness, the new report does not mention any of them.  For whatever reason, the White House does not seem to want to take “credit” for these actions, or to remind readers of them.

If the report minimizes the most positive achievements of secrecy reform to date, it also declines to acknowledge the serious failures of the President’s openness initiative.

Thus, it does not mention that during the first full year of the Obama Administration, the number of new national security secrets (or “original classification decisions”) actually increased by 22.6 percent, according to the latest annual report of the Information Security Oversight Office.  (“Transforming Classification, or Not,” May 18, 2011).  Because it does not include such significant adverse data, the White House report more closely approximates a public relations exercise than a candid account of the current status of openness.

The report alludes to new requirements in the President’s 2009 executive order 13256 that dictate “clarified, and stricter, standards for classifying information.”  But it does not mention that the Department of Defense, the largest classifying agency, failed to meet the President’s deadline for issuing implementing guidance for the new executive order.  The upshot is that many of those new requirements are not being fulfilled in practice, more than a year after the President’s order came into effect.  (“Secrecy Reform Stymied by the Pentagon,” February 24, 2011).  By not admitting such problems, the report also misses the opportunity to identify solutions to them.

Nor does the term “state secrets privilege” appear in the new report, although the Administration’s use of the privilege has been an impenetrable barrier to the resolution of many festering disputes on torture, rendition and surveillance.  Can one even speak of open government when individuals who have been victims of torture like Maher Arar and Khaled el-Masri are barred by secrecy from presenting evidence in a court of law or seeking some other lawful remedy?

The White House report demonstrates that the Obama Administration not only wants to be perceived as open, but that it actually has a commitment to open government.  In addition to the precedent-setting breakthroughs noted above, many of the openness initiatives discussed in the report, such as the access to agency information provided through the website, are commendable and worthwhile.

But the report also shows that the Administration’s commitment lacks clarity, consistency, and self-confidence.  This makes it harder to build on the most notable and successful achievements of the past few years.

On Tuesday, September 20, President Obama will participate in the launch of the Open Government Partnership, a multi-national effort to foster open government practices around the world.

NRO Observes 50th Anniversary with Declassification

The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that develops and operates U.S. intelligence satellites, is observing the 50th anniversary of its establishment in 1961 with a burst of declassification activity.

Tomorrow, September 17, the newly declassified KH-9 HEXAGON satellite will go on public display — for one day only — in the parking lot of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.

The KH-9 HEXAGON was a photographic reconnaissance satellite that was first launched in 1971 and ceased operation in the mid-1980s.  At sixty feet long and ten feet in diameter, it is said to be the largest intelligence satellite ever launched by the U.S.

The GAMBIT satellite is also to be unveiled at a Saturday evening reception.  In addition, “almost all” of the voluminous historical intelligence imagery captured by the KH-9 is expected to be released.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is a hybrid organization consisting of some 3,000 personnel that is jointly staffed by members of the Armed Services, the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense civilians,” noted Rep. C.W. Bill Young yesterday. “Headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, the National Reconnaissance Office launches from Cape Canaveral, FL and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while maintaining ground station operations in Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Australia.”

After a series of expensive missteps in recent years, the National Reconnaissance Office now seems to be performing with growing consistency and reliability, having successfully launched six satellites in seven months over the past year.  (“NRO Has ‘Most Aggressive’ Launch Record in 25 Years,” Secrecy News, August 25, 2011).

It may be no coincidence that the NRO is the only intelligence agency whose expenditures are capable of being independently audited. For the last two years, the agency’s financial statements have been reviewed by an outside auditor.  And for the second time this year (pdf), the agency’s financial statements were found to “present fairly the financial position and the results of the organization’s operations in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles.”

By contrast, other U.S. intelligence agencies are not and cannot be audited.  They simply do not generate the type of data that would enable an independent reviewer to verify the integrity of agency expenditures.

It will not be feasible to audit the other large intelligence agencies for several more years, said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last Tuesday.  “Right now our stated objective, I think, is to be fully auditable by 2016,” he told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Rising Economic Powers, and More from CRS

For those who may not have been paying attention, “A small group of developing countries are transforming the global economic landscape,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a report last month.  “Led by China, India, and Brazil, these rising economic powers pose varied challenges and opportunities for U.S. economic interests and leadership of the global economy.”  See “Rising Economic Powers and the Global Economy: Trends and Issues for Congress” (pdf), August 22, 2011.

Other new reports from CRS that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Cost-Benefit and Other Analysis Requirements in the Rulemaking Process,” August 30, 2011

“Climate Change: Conceptual Approaches and Policy Tools,” August 29, 2011

“Financing Recovery After a Catastrophic Earthquake or Nuclear Power Incident,” August 25, 2011

“Addressing the Long-Run Budget Deficit: A Comparison of Approaches,” August 25, 2011

“Homeland Security Department: FY2012 Appropriations,” September 2, 2011

“Congressional Primer on Major Disasters and Emergencies,” August 31, 2011

Military Takes “Proactive” Stance Against WMD Threats

The U.S. military says it is taking a more assertive stance against the proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.

Newly updated tactical military doctrine “represents a major shift from the former, passive defense nature against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to a broader, active, and preventive approach toward a wider range of CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear] threats and hazards,” according to a new manual (pdf) on CBRN Operations.

The new posture constitutes “a significant doctrinal shift from ‘reactive’ to ‘proactive’ military capabilities.  These actions are being performed at the tactical level, perhaps, now more than ever,” the unclassified manual said.  See “Multi-Service Doctrine for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Operations,” U.S. Army Field Manual 3-11, July 2011.

The manual states that in accordance with international law, “The United States will never use chemical weapons.” Likewise, “The United States will never use biological weapons.”

However, “The United States may use nuclear weapons to terminate a conflict or war at the lowest acceptable level of hostilities.”  (That stark statement is not new, and appeared in prior doctrine published in 2003.)