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Issue Number 56
March 1996


In a better world, U.S. intelligence would be considered as noble as the freedoms it is supposed to protect. But in our world, "noble" is not the first attribute of intelligence that springs to mind. Try bloated, sclerotic, self-serving, inept, or maybe just irrelevant. Why is this? And what can be done about it?

The recent spate of reports (see below) on intelligence reform does not help very much to understand these questions. In fact, the most important questions about the future of intelligence are obscured by extensive discussion of organizational structure and management, which are important but secondary. The reports stress efficiency, but efficiency to what end?

Since the official studies of intelligence reform were closed to public input-- there were plenty of "wise men" involved but no wiseguys-- it is not surprising that their treatment of larger public interests was limited. After more than a year of intensive deliberation, the answers to the most fundamental questions about intelligence remain elusive:

  • What is the public interest in intelligence? Exactly what is the public entitled to expect in return for its massive annual investment in intelligence? Within the limits of legitimate classification, what new metrics for success or failure can be established to ensure effective performance and to generate public confidence in intelligence policy?

  • What is a proper level of expenditure for intelligence? Today's intelligence budget is 80% larger in constant dollars than it was when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. A reduction in spending to pre-cold war levels would be unrealistic, but in the absence of any substantive argument to the contrary, a return to the cold war levels of 1980 seems entirely reasonable.

  • What good is intelligence anyway? All of the reports stop short of systematically investigating and validating the specific contribution of intelligence to national security. Which intelligence programs are making an identifiable difference in addressing national security threats? Which ones are on bureaucratic auto-pilot or actually counterproductive? This is not too much to ask.

  • How can the process of intelligence oversight be fixed? The failures and missteps of U.S. intelligence agencies are a reflection on the oversight process almost as much as on the agencies themselves. Indeed, the creation of an independent Commission was an implicit recognition that Congressional oversight is inadequate to its task. The failure to practice credible oversight promotes an adversarial public attitude to intelligence.

    The most impressive of the new reports is Preparing for the 21st Century: An Appraisal of U.S. Intelligence by the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community. It contains a number of valuable nuggets within an ocean of mushy prose that leaves key questions unasked and unanswered.

    Citing Speaker Gingrich's call for covert action to overthrow the government of Iran, S&GB asked the Commission whether or not overthrowing foreign governments is an appropriate "role and capability" of U.S. intelligence. Vice Chairman Warren Rudman replied that among the seventeen Commissioners there were "probably eighteen different opinions" about that. But instead of elucidating those eighteen opinions, which would have served a useful purpose, the Commission merely declared that some kind of covert action capability should be maintained as an option. In other words, this "finding" like many others in the report serves no purpose but to reinforce the status quo (whatever that is).

    The Commission did call for disclosure of the intelligence budget total, while indicating that "disclosure of additional detail should not be permitted." However, S&GB discovered, the report inadvertently disclosed a wealth of new information about intelligence agency budgets (Washington Post, 3/12/96, p. A11). A detailed analysis of the new budget disclosures by John Pike of FAS may be viewed at http://www.fas.org/pub/gen/fas/irp/commission/budget.htm. The Commission report is available at http://www.access.gpo.gov/int or at our one-stop shop http://www.fas.org/irp.

    The function of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report is to define the boundaries of respected expert opinion. But the recent CFR report Making Intelligence Smarter: The Future of U.S. Intelligence suggests that expert opinion on intelligence has little to offer the rest of us. Many of the report's conclusions are obiter dicta that are declared rather than argued. Thus, "a large budgetary 'peace dividend' in the intelligence area is unlikely," the report says. You would never know that the National Reconnaissance Office had built up a budget surplus exceeding 10% of the total national intelligence budget. "Current [congressional] practice on covert action appears sound," says the CFR. But to a non-expert, recent congressional efforts to compel an aggressive new covert action program against Iran appear anything but sound [see S&GB 55].

    And of course the CFR report gained infamy and generated unnecessary controversy by implying that the CIA should expand its use of cover to include journalists, clergy, and Peace Corps volunteers (Wash Post, 1/30/96, p. A13). On March 7, the Iranian press called for the expulsion of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour on grounds that she is "a CIA pawn" and stated that "the U.S. Congress [sic] has admitted" that "American journalists pursue covert operations for the CIA." A copy of the CFR report has been posted with permission at http://www.fas.org/irp/cfr.html.

    The third major report on intelligence reform was offered by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Larry Combest under the title IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century. It presents the most dramatic proposals for structural reform, but is short on evaluation of intelligence roles and missions for the 21st or any other century. It also contains the single most unfortunate sentence in any of the three reports: "[Congressional] oversight comprises two roles: investigator and advocate." It is clear from the context that Mr. Combest is not referring to advocacy on behalf of the public, a function that is urgently required. Rather, he wants the oversight committees to serve as advocates and cheerleaders for the intelligence community. While Mr. Combest deserves points for honesty, an advocacy role is fundamentally incompatible with credible oversight and is in fact the reduction to the absurd of the oversight mission. The IC21 release may be obtained at http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs.html#ic21.


    Even the highest quality intelligence may be useless if it clashes with the prejudices of the consumer. On matters of intense ideological or political conviction, many officials will not want to be bothered with facts or conflicting interpretations. This is a fundamental conceptual problem (the flipside of the "politicization of intelligence" issue) that was ignored by the recent studies of intelligence reform.

    This phenomenon became a matter of practical concern recently when House National Security Committee Chairman Floyd D. Spence rejected the conclusion of a 1995 CIA National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that "the threat to the United States posed by long-range ballistic missiles is lower than previously believed."

    In a bold move with enormous potential consequences for intelligence oversight, Chairman Spence asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) on February 28 to review "the assumptions, conclusions, methodology, evidence, and treatment of alternative views" in the CIA Estimate and to compare it with previous Estimates and with the unclassified literature on this topic.

    Whether Chairman Spence's particular concerns are legitimate or not, the possibility of utilizing the GAO for intelligence oversight is quite attractive since it could supplement the severely limited investigative activities of the congressional oversight (or, should we now say, advocacy) committees.

    For precisely the same reason, the CIA is expected to resist any meaningful GAO investigation. Whenever GAO auditors have been asked in the past to investigate CIA practices and procedures, "they've been squelched," a former GAO official told S&GB, despite the fact that the auditors hold SCI clearances.

    "Typically," the former official said, "CIA will tell GAO: 'You can't have any documents, but we'll give you a briefing. That shows we're cooperating'. Of course, to auditors, that's next to worthless since you can't corroborate the assertions throughout the paper trail."

    Nevertheless, he said, "If Spence gets behind it, maybe it'll happen."


    The Department of Energy, under Secretary Hazel O'Leary's leadership, continued to advance the cause of open, accountable government with a February 6 press conference presenting an unprecedented disclosure of the U.S. plutonium inventory, a preliminary draft of the Fundamental Classification Policy Review, draft regulations requiring systematic declassification review, and more.

    Under cover as a journalist, S&GB posed the first two questions at the press conference. First, will DOE meet the 1996 declassification milestone set by executive order 12958 and declassify 15% of its 25 year old records? Somewhat cryptically, Secretary O'Leary replied that "My preference is to deliver 15%, perhaps not in the areas directed by the executive order, but to deliver 15% nonetheless. I think I've done what needs to be done to provide the fiscal wherewithal."

    In fact, DOE's 1996 declassification budget is tightly constrained, with merely $1 million having been reprogrammed for this purpose. Systematic review of Restricted Data records (which are not subject to the executive order) is likely to suffer as a result.

    The draft Fundamental Classification Review contains a number of interesting features, and would lead to complete or partial declassification of 36 of the 88 topical areas now classified by DOE. It also contains some annoying features including a proposal to allow reclassification of certain types of information. Further details are available from S&GB or via Opennet on the DOE homepage at http://www.doe.gov.

    Even information that is declassified may be inaccessible to the public due to anachronistic export controls. S&GB's second question to Secretary O'Leary-- "So, like, what's the deal with export controls?"-- helped catalyze a new review of DOE export control policy, according to a Department official.


  • The National Reconnaissance Office posted a fine new official homepage on the Internet on March 12 at http://www.nro.odci.gov. The unofficial, newly updated FAS model homepage for the NRO is at http://www.fas.org/irp/nro/index.html.

  • Richard L. Garwin, a revered FAS member and recent Vice Chairman, received the Central Intelligence Agency's R.V. Jones Intelligence Award in a CIA headquarters ceremony on March 13 for "genius-level technical contributions" to the intelligence community and the U.S. Government over more than three decades.

  • Environmental oversight of classified programs is "limited," according to March 12 GAO testimony (GAO/T-RCED-96-99). Several agencies, including the CIA, the NSA, and the DIA do not even provide environmental documentation to the Environmental Protection Agency as required by law. The GAO testimony may be viewed at http://www.fas.org/sgp/gao.html.

  • One of the few recent journalistic treatments of the "intelligence industrial complex," an article entitled "Orbit of Influence" by Robert Dreyfuss, appears in the March-April issue of The American Prospect.

  • The foundation of the security clearance process is the National Agency Check (NAC) which is supposed to determine if an applicant for a clearance has a criminal record. But the NAC "no longer provides the comprehensive picture the Community has come to expect," said Ed Appel of the National Security Council, because of "a serious breakdown" in reporting by state and local law enforcement officials to the FBI.

    A "White Paper on Information Assurance" addressing the threat to the National Information Infrastructure prepared by the Security Policy Board is available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/.

  • In Israel, national security is never an abstraction or somebody else's problem. So it is remarkable to find a disproportionate quantity of first-rate investigative national security journalism in the Israeli press. On February 29, ace reporter Aluf Benn began a new column in Ha'aretz entitled "Open Secret" which is "dedicated to publishing 'secret' facts from open sources and tackling government secrecy in general." The first column addressed government wiretapping and the administration of the Dimona nuclear complex.

  • "You're kinda popular here in Zagreb nowadays," wrote Tino Andjic, after his profile of S&GB appeared in the independent Croatian newspaper Globus on February 9. We had earlier suggested that Globus readers might have one or two things to worry about that are even more important than the defects of U.S. secrecy policies. But Mr. Andjic insisted that Croatians are "fascinated" by secrecy. "We have some of that over here too, you know."

    Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund and the CS Fund. This publication may be freely reproduced.

    For further information, contact Steven Aftergood at saftergood@igc.apc.org, or write to the Federation of American Scientists, 307 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002.

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