ODNI Rethinks Secrecy and Openness in Intelligence

By leaking classified intelligence documents, Edward Snowden transformed public awareness of the scale and scope of U.S. intelligence surveillance programs. But his actions are proving to be no less consequential for national security secrecy policy.

“These leaks have forced the Intelligence Community to rethink our approach to transparency and secrecy,” said Robert S. Litt, General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He spoke at a March 18 Freedom of Information Day program sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law.

Mr. Litt made it clear that he did not approve of the Snowden leaks, which he said were unlawful and had “seriously damaged our national security.” Yet he stressed that the leaks have also prompted a reconsideration of previously accepted patterns of secrecy.

“We have had to reassess how we strike the balance between the need to keep secret the sensitive sources, methods and targets of our intelligence activities, and the goal of transparency with the American people about the rules and policies governing those activities.”

“One lesson that I have drawn from the recent events… is that we would likely have suffered less damage from the leaks had we been more forthcoming about some of our activities, and particularly about the policies and decisions behind those activities,” Mr. Litt said.  (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the same point to Eli Lake of the Daily Beast last month.)

“Going forward, I believe that the Intelligence Community is going to need to be much more forward-leaning in what we tell the American people about what we do,” Mr. Litt said. “We need to scrutinize more closely what truly needs to be classified in order to protect what needs to be protected. And we need to move beyond the mindset of merely reacting to formal requests that we make information public, to a mindset of proactively making available as much information as we can, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods.”

“Greater disclosure to the public is necessary to restore the American people’s trust that intelligence activities are not only lawful and important to protecting our national security, but that they are appropriate and proportional in light of the privacy interests at stake. In the long run, our ability to protect the public requires that we have the public’s support,” Mr. Litt said.

While Mr. Litt’s remarks conveyed an overall message of beneficence, responsiveness, and good citizenship, they also had some peculiar features.

It is disconcerting to realize that the reassessment of classification policy described by Mr. Litt was not prompted by the diligent exercise of congressional oversight or by judicial review or by ordinary advocacy. Rather it was explicitly inspired by the Snowden leaks, which Mr. Litt described as “criminal.” The upshot is that leaks emerge as a uniquely powerful tool for shaping intelligence classification policy, while conventional checks and balances appear all but irrelevant by comparison.

Moreover, the purpose of the newfound push for greater transparency seems to be instrumental, not principled. In other words, it is driven by tactical considerations, not by statutory requirements or any other objective norm.

“I strongly believe that the best way to prevent the damage that leakers can cause is by increased transparency on our part,” Mr. Litt said. “Transparency can both lessen the incentive for disaffected employees to disclose our activities improperly, and provide the public appropriate context to evaluate leaks when they occur.”

That implies that what is needed is only as much transparency as it takes to achieve these imprecise and transient goals. It is a unilateral move that can be unilaterally reversed.

And then there is the fact that Mr. Litt’s rethinking of classification policy implies no new institutional reforms or externally-imposed constraints. Instead, the very same people who have classified too much up to now are suddenly expected to change course and to disclose more. It is not immediately clear how or why that would happen.

“There is no question that overclassification of information is a genuine problem,” Mr. Litt said. “So how do we deal with the problem of overclassification? I think that there are three principal steps we can take.”

“The first is to change the culture. We need high-level management emphasis on the problem of overclassification,” he said. To his credit, Mr. Litt has helped provide such emphasis.

“Second, we need to continue our efforts at proactive transparency– at reviewing information that we have historically protected to see whether, in fact, the overall public interest would better be served by releasing the information.” Significantly, however, he refrained from providing specific performance goals or benchmarks by which future progress could be measured.

“Finally, I think that those in the agencies who are responsible for responding to FOIA requests, and who are representing the government in FOIA litigation, need to look critically at all potentially responsive documents that are classified,” Mr. Litt said. “We should focus not on whether we can protect information, but whether we should.”

This is an interesting formulation. Most FOIA officers do not have authority to declassify records, and the adversarial nature of the FOIA process is rarely conducive to self-critical analysis of established agency policies even by more senior officials. But sometimes it is.

In 1997, the Federation of American Scientists filed suit against the CIA for release of the intelligence budget total for that year. The CIA ultimately decided that it could not defend its position of classifying the figure, according to an internal draft statement that was prepared for DCI George Tenet and released by the Clinton Library just last week.

“In order to defend this lawsuit,” the Tenet statement read, “I, as head of the Intelligence Community, would have had to sign a declaration to the court that release of the figure in question could cause serious damage to the national security. I found that, in good conscience, I could not attest to that statement.”

But such judgments are fluid and can be fleeting. Two years later, in response to another lawsuit for the 1999 budget figure, Director Tenet had no trouble declaring under oath that “Disclosure of… the total appropriation reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security in several ways.”

So spontaneous gestures of openness and transparency, as welcome as they may be, are imperfect substitutes for systemic change and external accountability.

News organizations have now released some 1,300 pages of classified records leaked by Edward Snowden, according to a tally by cryptome.org.  In response, US intelligence agencies have declassified and disclosed approximately twice that many.

“Our commitment to increased transparency will continue,” Mr. Litt said.

Climate Change Legislation, and More from CRS

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

Climate Change Legislation in the 113th Congress, March 12, 2014

Cars, Trucks, and Climate: EPA Regulation of Greenhouse Gases from Mobile Sources, March 13, 2014

Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, March 10, 2014

Keystone XL: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessments in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), March 7, 2014

Nuclear Energy: Overview of Congressional Issues, March 14, 2014

The First Responder Network (FirstNet) and Next-Generation Communications for Public Safety: Issues for Congress, March 12, 2014

Department of Homeland Security Appropriations: FY2014 Overview and Summary, March 11, 2014

NASA Appropriations and Authorizations: A Fact Sheet, March 11, 2014

Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress, March 14, 2014

The Military Commissions Act of 2009 (MCA 2009): Overview and Legal Issues, March 7, 2014

CIA’s Refusal to Release Softcopy Records Challenged in Court

Even when the Central Intelligence Agency possesses a releasable document in a softcopy format, the Agency typically refuses to release the softcopy version in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, and insists on providing a hardcopy version of the document instead.

A federal judge said last week that that may be a violation of law.

The issue arose in a FOIA lawsuit seeking electronic copies of 419 articles from the in-house CIA journal Studies in Intelligence. The lawsuit was brought by Jeffrey Scudder, an information technology specialist who has worked in the intelligence community for 23 years.

Mr. Scudder told the court that he has detailed knowledge of CIA information systems and capabilities. In his FOIA requests, he was able to inform the CIA FOIA staff “as to where within the [CIA] computer systems the electronically stored documents [that he is requesting] are located.”

However, CIA refused to release the documents in the requested electronic format. Instead, the Agency proposed to print them out and to release them only in hard copy, ostensibly for security reasons. But this practice may be inconsistent with the requirements of the FOIA.

“Congress anticipated that recalcitrant agencies would resist being responsive to requesters’ format choices,” wrote Judge Beryl A. Howell of the DC District Court last week, and so Congress required agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate requesters’ preferences.

“Where, as here, an agency asserts nearly twenty years after the passage of the E-FOIA Amendments that it cannot provide any electronic formats because of a lengthy process the agency has created, a court is required by the FOIA to evaluate that process to determine if it meets the statutorily mandated ‘reasonable efforts’ standard.”

“The defendant [CIA] avers that if it were ordered to honor the plaintiff’s [FOIA] request [for soft copy records], it would have to print the existing electronic documents to paper and then rescan them into electronic documents so that they may be reproduced and released on removable media,” Judge Howell summarized.

In fact, she wrote in her March 12 opinion, “Under this Rube-Goldbergian process, the same document, even if unclassified, must be printed from the defendant’s classified system in paper form at least twice…, and rescanned into the same classified system at least twice….”

Not only that, but CIA would charge the requester extra for its trouble. “As a result of this process, the defendant [CIA] asserts that the cost of electronic production to the plaintiff would be higher than that of producing the records in paper format, since the defendant would incur all of the costs associated with the paper production as well as the additional costs of re-scanning the printed responsive records, and the cost of any removable media provided to the plaintiff.”

But all of that is ridiculous, said Mr. Scudder, who contended that CIA is attempting to “frustrate [the] core purpose [of the FOIA] through administrative gimmicks designed to impose unreasonable financial burdens upon requesters.”

“The only reason CIA does not produce electronic versions of documents responsive to FOIA requests is that they choose not to do so,” said attorney Mark S. Zaid, who represents Mr. Scudder. “There is no technical reason to prevent it.”

Crucially, Judge Howell determined that “A FOIA request for records in an existing format should not be frustrated due to the agency’s decision to adopt a production process that nonetheless renders release in that format highly burdensome.”

Judge Howell found that CIA’s understanding of its legal obligations and of the role of the Court was “incorrect” in various respects, and she concluded that several of its factual assertions were materially disputed.

“The plaintiff [Mr. Scudder] has, for example, alleged that he has personally used the defendant’s classified system to create a PDF file, something the defendant has stated is impossible,” Judge Howell noted.

In view of the unresolved factual disputes, and considering that “both parties allege bad faith on the part of the other,” Judge Howell refused to grant summary judgment to either side.

Instead, she granted Mr. Scudder’s motion for discovery, and the case will proceed to trial.

While the substance of the case concerns CIA’s information and FOIA practices, the Department of Justice that made its own independent decision to defend CIA’s handling of the Scudder FOIA request.  The skeptical comments voiced by Judge Howell may be understood as an implicit criticism of that Justice Department decision.

This week is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government values. As it happens, however, the federal government is closed today due to snow.

U.S. Military Given Secret “Execute Order” on Cyber Operations

Last June, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a classified “execute order” to authorize and initiate a military operation.

The nature, scope and duration of the military operation could not immediately be determined — even the title of the order is classified — but it evidently pertains to the conduct of military cyberspace activities.

The existence of the previously undisclosed execute order was revealed last week in a new Air Force Instruction.

“Classified processes governing C2 [command and control] of AF [Air Force] offensive and defensive cyberspace operations conducted by AF Cyber Mission Forces are addressed in a classified CJCS [Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] Execute Order (title classified) issued on 21 Jun 13,” said Air Force Instruction 10-1701, entitled “Command and Control (C2) for Cyberspace Operations,” dated 5 March 2014.

An execute order goes beyond planning or preparation for conflict, and represents the commencement of a military operation.

The formal definition of an execute order (or EXORD) is “an order issued by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the direction of the Secretary of Defense, to implement a decision by the President to initiate military operations,” according to the official Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (JP 1-02).

“Execution begins when the President decides to use a military option to resolve a crisis,” according to Joint Publication 5-0 on Joint Operation Planning. “Only the President or SecDef can authorize the CJCS to issue an execute order (EXORD).

“Execution continues until the operation is terminated or the mission is accomplished.”

“The CJCS-published EXORD defines the unnamed day on which operations commence or are scheduled to commence (D-day) and the specific time an operation begins (H-hour) and directs execution of the OPORD [operation order].”

“The CJCS’s EXORD is a record communication that authorizes execution of the COA [course of action] approved by the President or SecDef and detailed in the supported commander’s OPORD,” explained JP 5-0.

In response to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the nominee for Commander, US Cyber Command (and Director, NSA), said that “Geographic combatant commanders already have authority to direct and execute certain Defensive Cyberspace Operations (DCO) within their own networks.”

Judging from the new Air Force Instruction, however, the June 2013 execute order extends to offensive cyberspace operations as well.

All or most execute orders naturally start out as classified documents. But sooner or later, they are declassified.

A March 2011 execute order for Libya Contingency Operations can be seen here.

A January 1991 execute order for Operation Desert Storm, incongruously signed “Warm Regards, Colin Powell,” is here.

A rare reference to another currently classified execute order appeared in a paper published in Joint Force Quarterly (issue 69, April 2013, p. 53): “In compliance with the guidelines outlined in the Global Response Force Execute Order, JCSE [Joint Communications Support Element] maintains an alert-postured force that can deploy and have its communications packages fully operational within hours of notification for an emerging requirement.” That execute order dates from September 2012, and is classified Secret.

The Senate Armed Services Committee asked Adm. Rogers whether there was a need for greater transparency concerning “the nature of cyber warfare, and the balance between offensive and defensive capabilities.”

Adm. Rogers replied: “I believe the recent disclosures of a large portion of our intelligence and military operational history may provide us with [an] opportunity to engage both the American public and our international partners in discussion of the balance of offense and defense, the nature of cyber warfare, norms of accepted and unacceptable behavior in cyberspace, and so forth.”

“As cyberspace matures as a warfighting domain, I believe our classification policies will also evolve to support growing domestic and international partnerships and relationships,” Adm. Rogers wrote.

Some Legislators Seek More Intelligence Budget Disclosure

Now that annual disclosure of the intelligence budget total has become routine, some legislators are seeking more transparency on intelligence spending.

As anticipated, the requested U.S. intelligence budget for Fiscal Year 2015 that was submitted to Congress this week fell below the current year’s level and continued a decline from the post-9/11 high that it reached in FY 2010.

The “base” funding request for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) for FY 2015 was $45.6 billion, while the base funding request for the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) was $13.3 billion. (“Base” funding does not include funding for “overseas contingency operations,” which is to be requested later in the year.)

By comparison, the base funding request for the NIP in FY 2014 was $48.2 billion, and the base funding request for the MIP was $14.6 billion. Additional data on intelligence budget appropriations can be found here.

An unclassified summary of the FY 2015 National Intelligence Program budget request (that was included in the overall budget request) implied that the publication of the request was a voluntary act of transparency.

“Reflecting the Administration’s commitment to transparency and open government, the Budget continues the practice begun in the 2012 Budget of disclosing the President’s aggregate funding request for the NIP,” the summary said.

In fact, however, the publication of the NIP budget request is required by law, since it was included in the FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Public Law 111-259, section 601). An ODNI news release on the budget request correctly cited the legal requirement to publicly disclose the budget request figure.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding legal requirement for the Department of Defense to publish the budget request for the Military Intelligence Program. But DoD has done so voluntarily since 2012, a move that represents a genuine reduction in official secrecy by the Obama Administration.

Even so, dozens of Congressmen say that there is still too much secrecy in intelligence spending. The Intelligence Budget Transparency Act of 2014 (HR 3855), introduced by Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-WY), would require disclosure of the total budget of each of the individual 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

“Writing checks without any idea of where the money is going is bad policy,” said Rep. Lummis in a January 14, 2014 release. “Disclosing the top-line budgets of each of our intelligence agencies promotes basic accountability among the agencies charged with protecting Americans without compromising our national security interests.”

“The top-line intelligence budgets for America’s 16 intelligence agencies are unknown to the American taxpayer and largely unknown to the Members of Congress who represent them,” added Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s led to dubious policies, wasted money and questionable effectiveness. Requiring the public disclosure of top-line intelligence spending is an essential first step in assuring that our taxpayers and our national security interests are well served.”

Interestingly, the bill’s 59 congressional co-sponsors include a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Republican legislators have not previously been known to favor disclosure of individual agency intelligence budgets, with the exception of the late Sen. Arlen Specter, a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who once advocated release of the NRO budget total.

A February 12 letter to President Obama asking him to release the individual agency budget figures was signed by 62 members of Congress.

Many of the classified portions of the new Department of Defense budget request were tabulated in “Read the Pentagon’s $59 Billion ‘Black Budget’” by Brandy Zadrozny, The Daily Beast, March 6.