Posts from September, 2013

To Fix U.S. Intelligence, Shrink It?

Criticism of U.S. intelligence takes many forms:  Intelligence agencies are too secretive, or they are too leaky.  They over-collect, or they under-perform.  Or all of these, and more besides.

Many of the criticisms can be reduced to a single argument: The U.S. intelligence community has become too large to be properly managed.

Interestingly, this is a view that is held by some within U.S. intelligence itself, according to a new dissertation by a CIA sociologist who studied and worked at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

“I actually fear that the IC is too big,” a CIA analyst at the NCTC told sociologist Bridget Nolan. “It’s crossed the point where it’s [producing] healthy competitive analysis. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re in each other’s way. We’re hindering the mission.”

“Something that’s worth considering,” another CIA analyst said, “is completely counterintuitive, which is to make the CT [counterterrorism] community smaller, not larger. I think there are far more people at CIA HQ now than when we defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. What the hell?”

As for the NCTC itself, yet another analyst said, “If it were to continue existing, it should be about one-tenth its current size.”

A reduction in the size of the intelligence community might be a sovereign remedy for many of the problems currently afflicting U.S. intelligence analysis, Dr. Nolan suggests.

“For the analysts, this would address the hindrances that come along with a bloated bureaucracy,” including an avalanche of superfluous communications. “It would also help with what they perceived to be excessive redundancy, as opposed to a lower level of redundancy which was deemed necessary for safety and accuracy reasons.”

(Though not discussed by Dr. Nolan, a similar case could be made that the security clearance system has become too big, and that its enormous size tends to magnify its intrinsic defects. There are always going to be flaws in quality control in background investigations, along with human error, and bad judgment calls. But when there are nearly five million cleared personnel, each of which needs to be reviewed and renewed every five to ten years, then those unavoidable flaws start to become serious problems. If the security cleared population were around one million instead of five million, then it would be far more manageable, more effective, and less expensive than it is.)

Dr. Nolan’s dissertation focuses on the sociology of information sharing at the NCTC, where she worked as a CIA analyst in 2010-11.  See “Information Sharing and Collaboration in the United States Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study of the National Counterterrorism Center” by Bridget Rose Nolan, PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

A more prevalent view holds that not only is the U.S. intelligence community not “too big,” as Dr. Nolan’s interviewees asserted, it is not big enough. “The current inventory of intelligence personnel is insufficient to fill all the positions that the services (in the MIP) and ODNI (in the NIP) recognize as valid requirements,” according to a new report on “Workforce Planning in the Intelligence Community” from the RAND Corporation.

Nolan’s work gives voice to intelligence analysts who are overwhelmed by information, flustered by competitive pressures from their home agencies, and weighed down by dubious security policies.

“The daily life of a counterterrorism analyst tends to be chaotic and features a paradox between a deluge of complicated information on the one hand and a perceived lack of proper access to information on the other.”

In a manner reminiscent of Erving Goffman’s work on “interaction ritual,” Nolan provides fresh insight into the characteristic behaviors of intelligence analysts in their work environment.

For example, she reports that ordinary conversations between NCTC analysts often involve a kind of competitive one-upsmanship, “in which intelligence officers ‘out-correct’ and ‘out-logic’ each other in the course of routine conversation to the point where any increased accuracy in what has been said no longer seems meaningful.”

“It may take place when a listener interrupts a speaker to make the speaker’s sentence more precise. It can also happen when a listener demands a logical explanation for a routine action that would require no explanation outside the field of intelligence…. Many analysts routinely engage each other this way, such that it becomes difficult to say anything definitively without being challenged–often at the expense of the true purpose of the interaction.”

Dr. Nolan contends that the process of acculturation into a particular intelligence agency almost inevitably creates obstacles to interagency cooperation.  “The very qualities that make any individual intelligence agency strong are the same qualities that make information sharing and collaboration with other agencies difficult.”

“CIA creates loyalty by teaching its employees that they are the best and the brightest, and that their analytic and collection capabilities are second to none, but they do this in part by emphasizing the weaknesses of the other intelligence agencies…. Creating a strong in-group usually requires the designation of clear out-groups as well, often with accompanying negative sentiments and stereotypes, and these well-institutionalized notions cannot be overcome overnight.”

In particular, analysts say, CIA [which has its own Counterterrorism Center] disdains the National Counterterrorism Center and limits NCTC access to CIA information.  “Essentially, CIA purposefully puts NCTC at an analytic disadvantage, and then faults NCTC for it.”

“NCTC’s attempts to create a new culture” of information sharing, Nolan concluded, “are not enough to overcome the much stronger socialization processes at the home agencies.”

On the other hand, “the emergence of NCTC may have taken some (but not all) of the sting away from the notoriously frosty CIA-FBI relationship.”  According to one analyst interviewed by Nolan, “CIA and FBI have become closer because they have a mutual hatred for NCTC.”

(In my own limited experience as a visitor to NCTC, I found what seemed to be a competent group of analysts, including a notably high proportion of young women in positions of authority.  This demographic aspect of NCTC was not covered by Nolan’s study.)

Nolan discusses the role of jargon and secrecy in intelligence agency culture. This material is mostly familiar or unsurprising, though there is a striking account of the cut-throat use of secrecy by some analysts “to purposefully exclude [other] analysts from drafting or co-authoring a paper that would otherwise be theirs.”  In one case, “I was suddenly no longer able to even look at the paper that I’d written! She [a fellow analyst] compartmented me out of it and just went on ahead herself.”  As one analyst put it, “information sharing is when YOU give ME your data.”

Among other factors, “the ways in which analysts undermine each other have created a system in which self-interest is frequently at odds with group-interest, thereby impeding sharing and collaboration.”

Nolan devotes a chapter to the rarely-considered topic of humor in intelligence. Ordinarily, she says, “displays of emotion are discouraged, but laughter is the great exception to this rule.”

“Humor is such a big part of the sociology of the IC that any accurate portrayal of this workplace must include it…. At the end of the day, humor is everywhere in the Intelligence Community, from the lowliest analyst to the President’s top advisers.”

“Employees use humor to initiate neophytes into the fold, to acknowledge and reinforce status differences, to release the tension they feel from the overwhelming nature of their tasks, and to subvert the tiresome challenges coordination [of written reports] presents.”

In truth, few of the samples of intelligence humor presented here are very funny.  At a 2010 holiday party, analysts from the NCTC Al Qaeda and Sunni Extremism Group “took the Aerosmith line ‘Dude looks like a lady’ and rewrote it to say, ‘The suspect — whom we assess to be male — resembles a female.”

Overall, Nolan presents a frank account of life in an intelligence agency of a sort that is otherwise mostly unavailable to the public.  She identifies obstacles to the prescribed practice of information sharing, and presents a persuasive critique of the NCTC mission statement.  She proposes practical steps — beyond a possible reduction in the size of the IC — for improving performance as well as quality of life in the intelligence community.

True to form, the Central Intelligence Agency sought to block publication of Dr. Nolan’s dissertation, even though it did not contain classified information.  Among other concerns, CIA said that it “may not be understood by the public.”  So she resigned from the Agency, leaving her free to publish it.  See “Covering the undercovers” by Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 2013.

National Counterterrorism Center Policy Number 1 is entitled “Information Sharing Rules of the Road.” A copy is available here.

The 2013 annual report to Congress from the ODNI Information Sharing Environment discusses recent progress in information sharing and some remaining challenges.

Pentagon Operations During a Government Shutdown, and More from CRS

If Congress fails to appropriate funds for the new fiscal year beginning October 1, then most of the government will be obliged to shut down and cease operations.

However, based on past practice, some national security-related activities would be exempted from the shutdown. A newly updated report from the Congressional Research Service anticipates that “many Department of Defense activities would continue, though other activities would halt.” CRS sorts through many of the relevant issues in Government Shutdown: Operations of the Department of Defense During a Lapse in Appropriations, September 26, 2013.

Update: On September 27, the Department of Defense held a press briefing on DoD planning for a possible government shutdown.

Other new and newly updated CRS reports that Congress has sought to withhold from online public distribution include the following.

Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects, September 25, 2013

Federal Funding Gaps: A Brief Overview, September 23, 2013

The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, September 25, 2013

Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables, September 24, 2013

Current Debates over Exchange Rates: Overview and Issues for Congress, September 26, 2013

Health Insurance Exchanges: Health Insurance “Navigators” and In-Person Assistance, September 25, 2013

Monuments and Memorials in the District of Columbia: Analysis and Options for Proposed Exemptions to the Commemorative Works Act, September 24, 2013

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation: Background and Legislative Issues, September 25, 2013

Tajikistan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests, September 25, 2013

Kenya: Current Issues and U.S. Policy, September 23, 2013

Issues in Homeland Security Policy for the 113th Congress, September 23, 2013

Funding and Financing Highways and Public Transportation, September 23, 2013

The Army’s Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV): Background and Issues for Congress, September 24, 2013

Federalism, State Sovereignty and the Constitution: Basis and Limits of Congressional Power, September 23, 2013

Court Curbs CIA Use of a FOIA Exemption

The Central Intelligence Agency tried to make “inappropriate” use of an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information that was not subject to the exemption, a federal court ruled last month.

In a significant interpretation of the Central Intelligence Agency Act, Judge Beryl A. Howell narrowed the permissible scope of records that CIA may withhold under Section 403g of the Act.  That section allows CIA to exempt from release information concerning “the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by” the Agency.

But in a 163 page opinion in response to a lawsuit brought by the non-profit National Security Counselors, Judge Howell ruled on August 15 that CIA was interpreting this provision in a manner that was “inappropriately broad” (discussed at pp. 99-122).

Instead of just withholding information about CIA organization and personnel, she concluded, the Agency was also wrongly attempting to withhold “information that relates to” CIA organization and personnel– which is almost everything the Agency does.

“The Court holds that the CIA may not invoke [50 USC] 403g to withhold information merely because that information may be used by CIA personnel to carry out their responsibilities or functions,” Judge Howell wrote. “The CIA Act does not protect all information about CIA functions generally… The CIA may only invoke 50 USC 403g to withhold information under the FOIA if it would reveal the specific categories of personnel-related information enumerated in the statute.”

If that seems like a common-sense conclusion, it is also a rare judicial setback for the CIA, and a reversal of the more familiar expansion of national security secrecy authority.

“This really is something pretty remarkable,” said Harry Hammitt of Access Reports, which monitors FOIA policy. “Judge Howell has narrowed the interpretation of the statute dramatically.”

Reaching the Debt Limit, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has withheld from online public distribution include the following.

Cybersecurity: Authoritative Reports and Resources, September 20, 2013

Reaching the Debt Limit: Background and Potential Effects on Government Operations, September 19, 2013

Across-the-Board Rescissions in Appropriations Acts: Overview and Recent Practices, September 20, 2013

Private Health Plans Under the ACA: In Brief, September 19, 2013

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA): Resources for Frequently Asked Questions, September 19, 2013

Medicare Financing, September 19, 2013

The State of Campaign Finance Policy: Recent Developments and Issues for Congress, September 20, 2013

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993: History, Implementation, and Effects, September 18, 2013

U.S. Natural Gas Exports: New Opportunities, Uncertain Outcomes, September 17, 2013

America COMPETES Acts: FY2008-FY2013 Funding Tables, September 20, 2013

The DHS S&T Directorate: Selected Issues for Congress, September 17, 2013

U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress, September 18, 2013

Kenneth Wainstein Named to Public Interest Declassification Board

Kenneth L. Wainstein, the former head of the Justice Department National Security Division, was named to the Public Interest Declassification Board by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr. Wainstein is a smart guy and an honorable public servant. But he is not the first or second person most people might think of to help advance “public interest declassification.” In fact, the records that he classified as a Justice Department official or as President Bush’s Homeland Security Advisor might well be the object of such declassification.

But then the Public Interest Declassification Board itself, which advises the White House on declassification policy, is dominated by former government officials, including several intelligence agency leaders.  That has not prevented the Board from producing an important critique of declassification policy (Improving Declassification, 2008) and a more ambitious, somewhat less satisfactory report on classification policy (Transforming the Security Classification System, 2012).

“The members of the PIDB look forward to working with Mr. Wainstein as they continue their efforts to support a transformation of the security classification system,” the Board said in a blog posting.

A deeper problem is that the Obama White House appears to be incapable of acting on the recommendations from the Board, even though it requested them.  Nearly a year has passed since the Board’s last report, and no response from the White House has been forthcoming.  It’s not even clear who would be expected to respond– the National Security Advisor? the Homeland Security Advisor? the Director of National Intelligence (who also serves as “Security Executive Agent”)?

In the absence of effective White House action, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and James E. Risch (R-ID) have introduced legislation that builds on the 2012 PIDB report “to facilitate and enhance the declassification of information that merits declassification” (S. 1464).

William Arkin’s “American Coup”

In its endless pursuit of national security, the United States has compromised core Constitutional values including civilian control of the military and states’ rights, writes William M. Arkin in his new book “American Coup” (Little, Brown, 2013).

Since 9/11, a growing fraction of the population been mobilized and credentialed in support of homeland security — whether as law enforcement, first responders, or those who simply “see something and say something.”

“What is military and what is civilian is increasingly obscured,” Arkin writes. “The state and local police forces are militarized and networked into one; states have their own intelligence establishments; the big cities make their own foreign policies.”

What concerns Arkin, and what his book helps to illuminate, is what he describes as a parallel apparatus of executive authority that has developed outside of Constitutional norms (and beyond public awareness) to respond to national emergencies– catastrophic acts of terrorism, nuclear disasters, threats to presidential survival, or other extraordinary events.

Some of this is familiar ground, and has been previously described under the rubric of Continuity of Government, or Continuity of Operations, dating back to the Eisenhower Administration. But it has expanded and been formalized, Arkin says, in a series of classified Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs) that assert all but unchecked executive power.  And while those administrative instruments are technically dormant most of the time, they exercise a baleful influence on the normal conduct of political life, he argues.

Despite its garish and off-putting title (and subtitle: “How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution”), “American Coup” is not a manifesto, nor a call to action.

What makes the book interesting and valuable, rather, is its close reading of official documents in search of clues to undisclosed power structures. Arkin is a careful student and a subtle analyst of military doctrine, a neglected genre rich with insights waiting to be discovered.  For some readers, the 100 pages of endnotes will be the most rewarding part of the book.

Arkin observes, for example, that an official U.S. Army history states that martial law has only been declared once in United States history. But an Army field manual reports that martial law has been imposed four times. The Justice Department said there had been two such cases.  All of these are in error, he concludes, and reflect inconsistent definitions of the term. Meanwhile, he reports that the Army issued a new official definition of martial law in 2010 “for the first time in years.”

Arkin is the co-author (with Dana Priest) of “Top Secret America,” and many other works of research into national security policy.

“American Coup” was written prior to the revelations by Edward Snowden of unsuspected bulk collection of American telephone records by the National Security Agency, and such practices are not specifically discussed in the book. But Arkin would likely argue that the Snowden revelations are a special case of a more general phenomenon, in which national security is invoked to justify secret actions that exceed the bounds of public consent.

Arkin does not propose any kind of policy response to the political problems he perceives.  In fact, beyond some marginal steps that might be taken, he says that “bigger changes are blocked” by the powers that be.  Those who believe otherwise will need to look elsewhere.

Rare Earth Elements in National Defense, and More from CRS

New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News include the following.

Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress, September 17, 2013

Chemical Weapons: A Summary Report of Characteristics and Effects, September 13, 2013

North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation, September 13, 2013

Federal Climate Change Funding from FY2008 to FY2014, September 13, 2013

Climate Change Legislation in the 113th Congress, September 16, 2013

Federal Permitting and Oversight of Export of Fossil Fuels, September 17, 2013

Expiration and Extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, September 16, 2013

Guam: U.S. Defense Deployments, September 12, 2013

Russian Political, Economic, and Security Issues and U.S. Interests, September 13, 2013

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Categorical Eligibility, September 17, 2013

Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program: Overview and Current Issues, September 13, 2013

Rebuilding Household Wealth: Implications for Economic Recovery, September 13, 2013

Consumers and Food Price Inflation, September 13, 2013

Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress, September 16, 2013

Snowden Leak Prompted “Considerable Public Interest,” Says FISA Court

The leak by Edward Snowden of a classified order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) helped to arouse significant public interest, said the Court itself in an opinion issued today. Further disclosures are now justified, the Court indicated.

“The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215,” wrote FISC Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV in an opinion today regarding an ACLU motion for release of prior Court opinions concerning Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

Judge Saylor directed that any opinions not already subject to litigation under the Freedom of Information Act should now be reviewed for declassification.

“[Further] Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate,” Judge Saylor added. “Publication would also assure citizens of the integrity of this Court’s proceedings.”

Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also acknowledged that the leaks, while damaging, had triggered an important debate.

“I think it’s clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, actually needed to happen,” DNI Clapper said. “If there’s a good side to this, maybe that’s it.” (“Clapper: Snowden case brings healthy debate; more disclosures to come” by Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times, September 12.)

But if the unauthorized disclosure of a FISA Court order generated debate that “needed to happen,” that means that the original classification of the order had precluded a necessary public debate. If so, it follows that a thorough reconsideration of classification policy and practice is due.

Securing Diplomatic Facilities, and More from CRS

New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has withheld from online public access include the following.

Securing U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel Abroad: Legislative and Executive Branch Initiatives, September 12, 2013

Securing U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel Abroad: Background and Policy Issues, September 12, 2013

Possible U.S. Intervention in Syria: Issues for Congress, September 12, 2013

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress, September 12, 2013

Egypt in Crisis: Issues for Congress, September 12, 2013

Harbor Maintenance Finance and Funding, September 12, 2013

DHS Headquarters Consolidation Project: Issues for Congress, September 11, 2013

Policy Response to Intelligence Revelations Lags

The end of the government’s fiscal year 2013 is just weeks away, but an intelligence authorization bill for fiscal year 2014 is nowhere in sight.  In past years, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees typically reported intelligence bills in late spring or early summer for House-Senate conference and floor action later in the year.  But this year, nothing.

On its homepage, the Senate Intelligence Committee website cites the Committee’s report on the fiscal year 2012 intelligence bill under the heading “recent action.”  But that report was issued in August 2011.  (The Committee website also offers a current compilation of YouTube videos that appear to reflect the use of chemical weapons in Syria.)

Though 2013 has become the most momentous year for intelligence policy in a generation, the Senate Intelligence Committee has not held any public hearings since a March threat briefing, and none at all on surveillance policy.  Americans seeking insight into the meaning of current intelligence controversies must look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have each held stimulating hearings on intelligence surveillance, while the House Intelligence Committee offered a one-sided forum for government officials only.

Up to now, the machinery of intelligence policymaking has seemed poorly suited to coping with the Snowden-derived revelations that continue to emerge.

Confusingly, both the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) and the ad hoc Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies are delving into the privacy implications of intelligence surveillance, among other topics, and each has independently sought to engage interested members of the public.  But neither body has policymaking power or authority, and it is unclear how their findings and recommendations might eventually shape policy.

My initial comments to the Review Group are available here.

The Director of National Intelligence yesterday released several newly declassified opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in response to FOIA lawsuits from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU.  The voluminous materials shed new light on interactions between the FISA Court and the intelligence community, including what one Court opinion described as a “history of serious and widespread compliance problems.”

Yesterday, Chief Justice John Roberts appointed Judge William C. Bryson to succeed Judge Morris Arnold as the Presiding Judge of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, following Judge Arnold’s retirement on August 31.  Judge José A. Cabranes was appointed to the Court of Review on August 9, 2013.  The appointment of a third judge to the Court is pending.

The Court of Review, which hears government appeals of unfavorable opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, only rarely has occasion to meet.  It could not immediately be learned when the Court was last presented with a case.  The Rules of the Court of Review may be found in FISCR Order No. 1, January 22, 1980.