The disclosures (on newsgroups such as alt.politics.org.cia) represent a qualitatively new development of the Internet as a vehicle of public expression, and a new type of challenge to government security policies, which have been slow to meet public expectations of reform.
It is generally agreed that there is an excessive level of secrecy surrounding many intelligence facilities. The Joint Security Commission reported in early 1994 that although "there are many valid reasons for the special cover measures used by some military and intelligence organizations, ... the use of cover to conceal the existence of a government facility... is broader than necessary and significantly increases costs.... Special protection generally should focus on the most sensitive uses of a facility, rather than the fact of its existence." The Commission recommended that cover should be rescinded except where there is "a documented covert intelligence or operational mission." (Redefining Security, pp. 19-20).
More than a year and a half later, no identifiable progress has been made toward implementing this common-sense recommendation.
Significantly, the recent disclosures did not result from a leak of classified information, but from a bottom-up effort by interested citizens which provided general public access to information which had previously been local folklore. The "group mind" on the Internet devised an effective search strategy, which led to the identification of the Westbranch Drive site (apparently a component of the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology). This in turn led to the identification of several other facilities, scouted out mainly by John Pike of FAS.
While many commenters on the Internet newsgroups applauded the disclosures as an appropriate response to excessive secrecy and contributed their own information and insights, others warned that identifying concealed intelligence facilities was a reckless and presumptuous act that could lead to no good. The ensuing debate about the proper role of secrecy and the need to demystify the intelligence community was livelier and more substantive than most recent Congressional hearings on intelligence.
In response to an S&GB query, the CIA declined to comment on the specific disclosures but noted generally on October 27 that "The shooting murders of two CIA employees in January 1993 reinforced CIA's long-standing practice of acknowledging only our headquarters building in McLean, Virginia as a CIA facility.... With the increase in domestic terrorist attacks, our serious concern for the physical safety and well-being of our employees motivates us to continue our practice of not acknowledging facilities other than the headquarters compound. Of course, the Congressional intelligence and appropriations committees are privy to comprehensive and detailed information about the location, purpose, occupancy, and cost of CIA facilities as part of their oversight functions."
Archived selections from the relevant Internet newsgroup traffic can be viewed on the World Wide Web at http://www.fas.org/hypermail/cia/
In report language on the 1996 energy and water appropriations bill (H. Rep. 104-293), conferees claimed that automatic declassification of national security information would inevitably lead to the uncontrolled release of Restricted Data, i.e. nuclear weapons design information that is protected under the Atomic Energy Act.
In reality, the executive order already provides a specific exemption for Restricted Data in order to prevent any such inadvertent release, along with a generous 5 year implementation period to seek out exempted documents.
Nevertheless, prompted by the Department of Energy, the congressional conferees said they "do not see how such an exemption can be effectively implemented since the national security information records slated for automatic release have a high probability of containing some Restricted Data intermixed with the national security information."
This is nonsense, according to Steven Garfinkel of the Information Security Oversight Office. "There is no justification for the idea that hidden Restricted Data is spread throughout these files. Hundreds of millions of pages of national security information have been declassified over the last 25 years, including bulk declassified, and there has been no indication of any proliferation problem attributable to their release," Garfinkel said October 30. Moreover, DOE never made any suggestion to the contrary during the two year development of the new Order, he noted.
The conferees called on the President to revise the executive order so as to exempt all files that "potentially" contain Restricted Data. This notion of "potential" Restricted Data amounts to a new classification category that has no clear boundaries. If accepted by the President, it could render automatic declassification practically impossible, leading right back to the Reagan era of open-ended secrecy.
The other outstanding threat to the new Order was the House Intelligence Committee's attempt to restrict funding for declassification. But at the end of October, the authorization bill containing this provision was stalled, due to a bizarre move by Rep. Newt Gingrich to insert funding for a "covert" program to overthrow the government of Iran. (Congressional Quarterly, 10/28/95, p. 3320).
"The United States currently has the most open intelligence services in world history," the CIA advised S&GB on October 27. But it is simultaneously true that the U.S. has the most secretive intelligence and national security bureaucracy in the world. Because it spends vastly more money on secret programs than any other nation, and has done so over a fifty year period, the U.S. has accumulated an inventory of secrets whose scope and volume can hardly be imagined.
The demise of the Soviet Union, Edward Teller has observed, "puts the United States in the uncomfortable position of holding the record in secrecy. It is urgent that we do something about this situation." (Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1992, p. 6).
It is doubly urgent because foreign countries look to the United States to define the limits of what is possible in achieving open, accountable government. In some instances, American policies provide a source of moral authority to dissidents who are seeking to open up their own governments. In other cases, U.S. secrecy policies serve as a template for foreign governments who are creating their own security structures. Last month, for example, the head of a new South African Parliament committee on intelligence oversight said that one of his committee's first tasks will be to study the system of oversight that is applied in the U.S. (FBIS-AFR-95-204, 10/23/95, pp. 8- 10).
The limits of U.S. leadership in secrecy reform can be sensed in foreign news stories like "Government secrecy hampers a legal battle waged by nuclear reactor staff against the employer they say gave them cancer" from the Israeli biweekly The Jerusalem Report (11/2/95, pp. 20-21). It is hard to read this story without recalling the lawsuit concerning the secret facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, where the government insists that all evidence of possible environmental crimes is a state secret. On September 29, President Clinton issued a Presidential Determination declaring that "it is in the paramount interest of the United States" to exempt the site from disclosure of any information the Air Force says is classified. (Federal Register, 10/10/95, p. 52823). The Air Force in turn says that it cannot acknowledge the presence of jet fuel, paint or car batteries at the site without "risking American lives."
The impressive Report also makes a number of interesting observations about the role of the CIA in human experimentation programs including the following:
The 925 page Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (stock number 061-000-00-848-9) can be purchased for $44 from the Government Printing Office at (202)512- 1800.
"I'd like to take time out to commend the organization that provides us with the background music that we listen to each day as we go about our tasks. The quality of the music has improved tremendously since I came on board 7 years ago. I am a Beatles fan, but I remember hearing 'Penny Lane' 20 times a day-- every day (well maybe not 20, but it sure felt like it!) and that was more than anyone should have to suffer. Now, we have a variety of good music-- everything from Jonathan Butler to Bonnie Raitt to The Judds. In my opinion, it is a small thing that made a positive impact on employee productivity. Once again, I'd like to say thank you to our 'NSA DJ' for adding a bit of sweetness to our days."
Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a 50 year old public interest organization of natural and social scientists concerned with issues of science and society. The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the HKH Foundation and the CS Fund.
For further information, send email to Steven Aftergood at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to the Federation of American Scientists, 307 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington, DC 20002.