Secrecy News From All Over

The Director of National Intelligence yesterday declassified and released hundreds of pages of records concerning collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, illuminating the origins of bulk collection of email metadata, as well as interactions with the FISA Court and Congress.

“We will make the information public that we can make public, and we will be more transparent about this than has ever been the case in history,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney at an October 28 news briefing.  “That is already true.  We have released more information about what the NSA [does] than has ever been released before.”

By themselves, the latest disclosures (provided in response to FOIA litigation brought by ACLU and EFF) are unlikely to resolve ongoing disputes about NSA intelligence gathering. The legitimacy of bulk collection of email and telephone metadata may ultimately be more of a value judgment rather than a factual or legal one. At a minimum, perhaps the new documents will provide a more substantial basis for informed debate.

But there is disagreement even about that.

“Some would like to believe these disclosures have started a debate about the propriety and efficacy of NSA surveillance programs but, in fact, to a substantial degree, recent unauthorized disclosures have ended the debate because, once disclosed, the programs at issue become substantially less effective,” according to a November 12 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The nation will suffer as a result.”

The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold an open meeting at the National Archives on Thursday, November 21. The Board proposes to focus on prioritizing topics and events for declassification. The intended emphasis is on declassification of historical records, but it need not be limited to that.

Although willful abuse of classification authority is not unheard of, there seems to be no case in which it has ever been penalized. “I am extremely concerned that the integrity of the classification system continues to be severely undermined by the complete absence of accountability in instances such as this clear abuse of classification authority,” wrote J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, in an October 18 letter. He was responding to the controversial classification of evidence concerning the defilement of human remains in Afghanistan.  See Marine Corps fight escalates over handling of case involving troops urinating on corpses, Washington Post, November 15;  and Marine Corps Commandant Accused of Improper Classification, Secrecy News, July 30.

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