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Issue Number 49 June 1995

CIA Holds Landmark Symposium on CORONA

The CIA set an impressive standard for public disclosure and discussion of a pivotal but little-known intelligence program with its recent symposium on CORONA, the spy satellite program that ran from 1960 to 1972. The symposium, entitled "Piercing the Curtain: CORONA and the Revolution in Intelligence," took place on May 23- 24 at George Washington University, which co-sponsored the event.

The CIA assembled many of the original CORONA program participants for the occasion, and released several hundred pages of previously classified documents and numerous spy satellite photos. For once, the CIA had a good story to tell and told it well.

The significance of the CORONA program can hardly be overstated. First of all, it was a technological trailblazer. "Questions that we take for granted today had yet to be answered," observed Robert A. McDonald of the National War College in an overview of the program. "If you successfully launched a camera into orbit, would it work? If you took pictures from a satellite, could they see through the earth's atmosphere? Could you launch, control, and recover a spacecraft?" After a daunting dozen consecutive failures, these questions were eventually answered in the affirmative.

Even more important was CORONA's decisive contribution to intelligence on the Soviet threat. As a result of its very first successful mission, which produced more imagery than all 24 U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts were able to determine conclusively that the USSR did not possess an overwhelming number of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The postulated "missile gap" did not exist.

"Without the kind of intelligence which the CORONA program provided, the U.S. budget for the defense of our own territory, and for military assistance to our allies, would doubtless have been increased by billions," according to a declassified 1973 history of the program. Worse, "We might have misguidedly been pressured into a World War III."

DCI John Deutch described the symposium on CORONA as "part of a larger effort to educate the public about the role of intelligence in U.S. history.... Telling the story of CORONA is the easy part of the openness policy. The story is positive, and the rapid pace of technological change has made the decision to declassify imagery from these obsolete systems much easier. It is important, however, for the Intelligence Community to be just as open about the stories that are not so positive. We are determined to do that."

"CORONA: America's First Satellite Program," a 360 page volume of declassified CORONA documents prepared by the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, will eventually be available for purchase from the National Technical Information Service at (703)487-4650.

In one discordant note, the CIA took the trouble to delete the total budget for the CORONA program from the documents it declassified, even though the program ended 23 years ago. According to one intelligence community official, the rationale for keeping the CORONA budget classified today is that hostile forces could somehow deduce the cost of current spy satellite programs from CORONA's cost. The Enemy would then be that much closer to duplicating or defeating the US overhead reconnaissance program (or perhaps cutting its budget).

This approach to classification, with its numerous non- sequiturs, is a major factor in the rampant overclassification that afflicts the U.S. intelligence community.

In any case, few people have much respect left for the CIA's judgment in this area. Former CIA deputy director John McMahon, in his presentation to the CORONA symposium, simply came out and said it: The total cost of the CORONA program was $850 million.

Consequences of Intelligence Budget Disclosure

Because classified intelligence budget information was inadvertently published last year in an official government document (see S&GB 41; New York Times, 11/5/94, p. 54), it is now possible to inquire empirically into the consequences of intelligence budget disclosure.

The unauthorized disclosure was the subject of a question for the record from the Senate Intelligence Committee to the CIA in a recently published hearing ("Worldwide Intelligence Review," January 10, 1995, pp.136-7):

"Late last year, the House Appropriations Committee ... disclosed the size of the FY 1995 budget request for the CIA, for the Defense Department's portion of the National Foreign Intelligence Program, and for tactical intelligence programs. In your opinion, did this disclosure of intelligence funding harm US national security? If so, how?"

This astute question was intended to take the budget disclosure issue beyond the familiar pro- and anti-secrecy polemics. Since the dastardly deed has now been done, the Senate seemed to say, let's find out who was right about the threat posed by disclosure and draw the appropriate conclusions for future policy.

Significantly, the CIA failed to identify any specific adverse consequences from the accidental disclosure, much less any actual "damage to national security."

R. James Woolsey, in one of his final actions as DCI, did write that "I remain concerned about the inadvertent disclosure," and he added several paragraphs of boilerplate about the "slippery slope" [i.e. the supposed inevitability of further disclosures], increasingly devious adversaries, and so forth. But he conspicuously failed to demonstrate-- or even to assert-- that last year's disclosure had caused any harm whatsoever.

Theoretically, the CIA will have to come up with a better pretext for budget secrecy under the new classification system which takes effect next October. The new system permits classification only when the classifier "is able to identify or describe the damage" that would result from disclosure. Classification of the intelligence budget thus provides a convenient test of whether or not this requirement will be applied in good faith.

In practice, the lack of a national security justification for continued budget secrecy is likely to prove irrelevant, since old-fashioned rationalism seems to have less and less impact on the policy making process. The modern day sophist will never concede that "Gee, Socrates, you have a point there." If anything, disobedient facts only tend to elicit a more shrill opposition.

This phenomenon is evident in another recently published hearing, "Public Disclosure of the Aggregate Intelligence Budget Figure," held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on February 22-23, 1994. (Congressional hearings may be purchased from the Government Printing Office at 202-512-1808.)

This hearing is singularly uninformative and, as the title suggests, has been substantially overtaken by events. But it is noteworthy for its nearly complete inventory of cliches about budget secrecy and for its often inflamed rhetoric. If they made a movie about the hearing, it could be called "Blow Hard With a Vengeance."

Setting the tone for the opponents of disclosure, Rep. Larry Combest declared ominously that "Disclosure of the aggregate intelligence budget will be the first step down the road to disaster for national security."

Furthermore, Rep. Combest argued, "A misinformed electorate is worse than an uninformed electorate. Providing the total intelligence budget alone is tantamount to misinforming the American people." (p. 3)

For good measure, Mr. Combest even questioned the basis for holding a hearing on the topic. "I don't think the American people care about this issue. I don't think it is the American people that are motivating and driving this hearing today...."

In fact, however, a majority of the American public believes that the government routinely classifies too much information, according to a 1994 Defense Department survey [see S&GB 48].

This raises an important question that is rarely addressed: What are the national security consequences of adhering to a classification policy which is no longer endorsed by a majority of the American public?

Openness and Public Trust

At a time when public cynicism and hostility towards government seem to have reached record levels of intensity, it is extraordinary that one agency-- the Department of Energy-- is actually rising in the public estimation, according to a recent survey. DOE attributes much of the improvement in its reputation to Secretary Hazel O'Leary's openness initiative.

"A survey conducted in the last quarter of 1994 by Washington State University shows that DOE efforts to decrease secrecy and increase public participation are paying off in greater trust and confidence among the people who deal most frequently with the agency." (DOE This Month, May 1995, p. 9)

Among its findings, the survey reported that:

Secretary O'Leary called the numbers "encouraging," but characteristically added that "We have a long way to go to develop the open, honest and productive relationship with the public that we want and need. I don't want anyone in the department thinking this improvement means we can relax. Instead it means we're on the right track, especially with our openness initiative, site advisory boards and public participation efforts."

Congress is actively considering eliminating the Department of Energy before the new trend can get totally out of hand.

Light Reading

While the government goes to great lengths to withhold various types of information from the public, it displays a remarkable absence of rigor in its controls over exports of military technology, despite their obvious national security sensitivity. Thus, a new General Accounting Office report finds that under current practices, the government "cannot ensure that export licenses for militarily significant stealth technology are properly reviewed and controlled." Yet classifying information about advanced military technology makes little sense as long as the bad guys can simply buy the technology itself. Report Number GAO/NSIAD-95-140 on "Concerns Over Stealth-Related Exports" and related testimony (Report Number GAO/T-NSIAD-95-148) may be requested free of charge from the GAO at (202)512-6000.

Another GAO report examines the pros and cons of assigning one agency to conduct all background investigations and adjudication functions for the 3 million people who hold security clearances (Report No. GAO/NSIAD-95-101). The report finds that while consolidation of these functions "may be feasible," most key agencies oppose the idea and prefer to retain their own authority for granting clearances. The report provides a helpful breakdown of government and contractor employee security clearances and costs by agency, except for the CIA which did not cooperate with the study.

Every failure of the intelligence community is also to some degree a failure of the intelligence oversight process. Yet the conduct and quality of Congressional oversight is rarely considered. "Congress Oversees the United States Intelligence Community: 1947-1994" by Frank J. Smist, Jr. (2nd edition, University of Tennessee Press, 393 pp.) is the best treatment of the subject. Completed before the Ames scandal broke, the book is strongest in its historical presentation of the creation of the Congressional Intelligence Committees. For those who forgot or never knew about the wild and woolly days of the Church and Pike Committees, the detailed account of their exploits makes compelling reading. In other respects, the book is seriously defective. It contains whopping errors (the Senate Armed Services Committee does not, as claimed on p. 313, "retain sole control of... 85 percent of the total intelligence budget"); it misses key parts even of the tiny literature on oversight that exists (e.g. Mary Sturtevant's revealing article in the summer 1992 American Intelligence Journal); and it is weak in offering critical analysis or an alternative vision for an invigorated oversight regime. Also, there is an entertaining but unseemly reliance on gossip. The author sees no ethical problem in maligning the character of government officials based entirely on single, anonymous sources. Thus, one prominent Senator is said by an unnamed CIA official to have "a serious drinking problem." And according to "a senior intelligence official," one member of the House Intelligence Committee "liked to bed women by promising them 'secrets'."

Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists. This publication may be freely reproduced.

For further information, contact Steven Aftergood at saftergood@igc.apc.org

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