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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 69
July 1997

A Guide to Intelligence Programs

In the recent Congressional debates on whether to declassify the intelligence budget total, the claim was repeatedly made that "disclosure of the total budget might well be the first step leading to a demand to disclose individual agency budgets, and inevitably to disclose specific programs," as one Senator put it. This claim, and the entire Congressional debate, had a distinct air of unreality not only because disclosure of the budget total would be harmless, but because a huge number of specific intelligence programs have already been quietly disclosed.

Descriptions of hundreds of such programs are collected for the first time in the FAS Intelligence Program Guide, prepared by John Pike. The Guide, available online at http://www.fas.org/irp/program/, also includes links to resources spanning the entire intelligence production cycle, from tasking and collection to processing and dissemination. All of the information-- which concerns intelligence hardware systems, not intelligence activities-- is from unclassified sources.

The availability of such detailed intelligence program information is not due to any newfound commitment to "openness." Rather, according to Mr. Pike, "it reflects a profound change in the way the intelligence community-- or at least large stretches of it-- are doing business."

For one thing, he said, the increased reliance on Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) technology over the last three years "has opened up large sections of the intelligence cycle that previously were utterly obscured." Adoption of COTS technology-- commercial technology developed in the private sector-- was mandated because of the growing awareness that innovation in the private sector, especially in information technology, was outstripping innovation in the classified military and intelligence environment. Disclosure of certain intelligence programs and objectives inevitably accompanied the new interactions with contractors, in the bidding process and elsewhere.

"The relentless pace of technical innovation in commercial information systems is inexorably leading to far greater openness in the intelligence community than some in Congress seem prepared to admit," said Mr. Pike.

A second important development, he noted, is the emergence of post-Cold War intelligence agencies such as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office. In stark contrast to the intelligence agencies that were established during the Cold War, these new organizations were created without the presumption that all of their work was classified. Instead, they have adopted the relatively more discriminating practice common in much of the military, in which the most sensitive information is classified but less sensitive information remains unclassified in order to facilitate its use.

So, for example, while "the National Reconnaissance Office can barely bring itself to admit that it is involved with spy satellites," observed Mr. Pike, "the drone reconnaissance aircraft of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office are described in exquisite detail on the DARO homepage."

"This has resulted in an interesting paradox," he said, in which the nominal purpose of classification-- the protection of information that an enemy could use to his advantage-- is turned on its head. Thus, the drone aircraft, which "are directly vulnerable to enemy action or countermeasures and, given their relatively low cost, could in principle be copied by an adversary"-- are unclassified. In contrast, the NRO spacecraft, which are far less vulnerable to enemy countermeasures, and far too expensive for any enemy to replicate-- remain totally classified.

Finally, many intelligence agencies and their contractors are placing descriptions of their hardware systems online, which greatly simplifies the collection of information and permits a fairly comprehensive view of intelligence programs.

"We are 90% confident that we have 90% completeness with 90% accuracy," said Mr. Pike of the new Intelligence Program Guide. "But we recognize that with each of these figures of merit, it is always the last 10% that is the hard part, so we surely have some loose ends that will take some time to tidy up." Comments and corrections are welcome.

Declassification and Human Rights in Honduras

Responding to pressure from members of Congress as well as human rights and public interest groups, President Clinton announced in a June 13 letter that the CIA will declassify documents pertaining to human rights abuses in Honduras in the 1980s. The CIA provided training to Honduran military units that have been implicated in gross human rights violations during that period.

The declassification of records on human rights matters is notable because it deviates from what is still the norm of open-ended classification. Particularly when it comes to intelligence matters, secrecy has been deemed a higher value than a faithful account of history (e.g., the continuing travails of the Foreign Relations of the United States series) or the pursuit of justice (e.g., the scuttling of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act last year), not to mention relative abstractions like government accountability. Secrecy has even trumped military effectiveness, as in the withholding of intelligence on Iraqi chemical weapons from U.S. military commanders. So the campaign to compel disclosure of records on human rights is remarkable and instructive in its apparent success.

On May 13, 51 members of Congress had written to the President urging disclosure of the records in the interests of justice. "Declassification and release of these documents to the Government of Honduras is necessary to strengthen democracy in that country," the Congressmen wrote. "Those who have operated with impunity in the past are resisting efforts to promote the climate and structures that will guarantee basic rights and freedoms for all Honduran citizens. By declassifying our files, we can bring an end to this situation and clear the way to prosecuting those individuals who are guilty of human rights violations."

The effort to gain access to U.S. records on Honduras originated as far back as 1993 with a request from Dr. Leo Valladares, the Honduran National Commissioner of Human Rights, according to a chronology prepared by Susan Peacock of the National Security Archive. Except for some significant releases from the State Department, it has been largely unproductive.

The June 13 Clinton letter seemed to represent a break in the logjam. "What's significant about this letter is that it sets up specific time frames for declassification," said Ms. Peacock. The President indicated that CIA records on five individuals who "disappeared" in Honduras would be released by mid-July. Records on human rights issues connected with General Gustavo Alvarez, the head of the Honduran armed forces from 1980 to 1984, are expected to be released "by early September." And CIA records concerning Battalion 3-16, a notorious anti-insurgency unit that functioned as a death squad, are to be released by mid-November.

"We have every intention of meeting those [deadlines]," said CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. He noted that the anticipated release dates had been provided to the White House by the CIA itself.

A CIA Inspector General report that reviews CIA activities in Honduras "is in the final stages of completion," said Mr. Crispell on July 2. The report will be provided in classified form to the congressional oversight committees this month. The preparation of an unclassified version of the report for public release is "under consideration," Mr. Crispell said, but no decision has been made.

A copy of the June 13 Clinton letter is available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/clinton/honduras.html. Information on the Honduras National Commission on Human Rights may be found at http://www.us.net/cip/cdh/index.html.

Access to Previously Released CIA Documents

In an encouraging new development, over half a million pages of CIA records previously released under the Freedom of Information Act should become easily available to interested members of the public by the end of the year, the CIA announced last month in a new rule on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.

An electronic database of more than 500,000 pages of officially released CIA documents will be made publicly available through the Internet. "We are in the process of converting our database of 'officially released records' from a microfiche-based system into an electronic image-based system," wrote Lee S. Strickland, CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator, in a June 20 letter to S&GB. "We are also developing a way to place this database on our public Internet Worldwide Website by November of this year as required by the new FOIA amendments."

Declassification Appeals Panel Yields New Releases

The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), established by executive order 12958, functioned with notable success in its first year. Demonstrating the utility of granting declassification authority to an independent body outside of the originating agency, the Panel released thousands of pages of documents that agencies had wanted to withhold as classified information.

Of the 34 "mandatory review" cases presented to the Panel in 1996-97, the ISCAP voted to declassify 27 documents in full, to declassify portions of six others, and to affirm classification for only one document, according to a recent ISCAP annual report . One of the documents released was a report entitled "Current Foreign Aeronautical Developments," which "describes in great detail the military airplanes and missiles being developed by other nations" --as of 1947.

Though it only dealt with a small sample of documents, the ISCAP's record of deciding against government agencies in the majority of cases seems to provide evidence that agency declassification criteria are obsolete. It further suggests that declassification practices cannot survive independent scrutiny even within the government.

Steven Garfinkel, director of the Information Security Oversight Office and ISCAP executive secretary, rejected that interpretation, however, asserting that the decisions were all close calls that could have gone either way. "Any one of these cases, if the government wanted to defend it in court, the government would have won," he said.

The six member ISCAP is composed of officials from the Defense Department, NSC, State Department, CIA and National Archives, and is chaired by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roslyn A. Mazer. The Panel receives appeals of requests that were denied under the "mandatory review" provisions of the executive order, but does not handle Freedom of Information Act denials, which must be appealed through the judicial system.

Leaving CIA, Visiting Iran

"Eclectic [intelligence] officers with languages and foreign passions, who love the world they prey on, have all but disappeared. Langley's suburban spies have won the bureaucratic wars. Mediocre information easily gets upgraded to state secrets in poorly written intelligence cables."

This now familiar lament is presented by Edward Shirley in a new book entitled Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 1997). Shirley (a pseudonym) served as a case officer in CIA's Directorate of Operations from 1985 until the early 1990s when he resigned out of disgust, not with CIA's wicked ways but with its incompetence.

The book recounts Shirley's clandestine visit to Iran in 1994 after he left CIA. Smuggled across the Turkey-Iran border by a hired trucker, he was determined to share some of the dangers to which he had subjected his agents and, somewhat preposterously, "to make it to the center of the Iranian mind."

Though interesting and readable, Know Thine Enemy offers less "intelligence" about Iran than V.S. Naipaul's recent essay in The New Yorker. And while his illegal week-long visit was no doubt cathartic for the author, its drama seems a bit contrived at a time when Americans are again beginning to visit Iran in organized tours.

The book is most valuable for its reflections on the makings of a successful intelligence case officer, and for its broadsides against the CIA Directorate of Operations, which is described as a "wasteland" and "a Mecca for know- nothing men."

"When historians finally get into the Directorate of Operations' archives and assess the clandestine service's contribution to winning the Cold War, they'll not be kind," says Shirley. "The vast majority of its intelligence was humdrum or inaccurate-- the product of double agents, or mediocre ones."

Shirley offers no prescriptions for reform, and holds out little hope for change at the CIA. "Congressmen are far easier to recruit than Persians," he writes. "Most congressmen still believe it's easier and more patriotic to legislate millions for the Directorate of Operations and hope that something good is being done, somewhere."


  • "Consumers of intelligence include not only the warfighters and policymakers, but also the Congress and the American public," according to the recent Senate report on the FY1998 intelligence authorization bill. Recognition of the American public as an intelligence consumer is a potentially revolutionary idea (considered at length in S&GB 62). "We're not equipped to do that," CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence John Gannon told S&GB recently. A Senate staffer hastened to add that "We're only talking about unclassified information." Even so, this could be the nucleus of a profound reconception of U.S. intelligence.

  • The National Security Agency "still does not effectively monitor the [highly classified] Special Access Programs it operates or supports," according to a 1996 report by the Department of Defense Inspector General. The report offers perhaps the most detailed official assessment of NSA practices and procedures ever published. Originally marked For Official Use Only, the report was recently released to S&GB under the FOIA. It is available at http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/oig_ir_96-03.htm.

    Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

    The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the CS Fund, the New York Times Foundation, the Greenville Foundation, the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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