Questions of secrecy and accountability have figured prominently in the most important intelligence controversies of the last several years. While U.S. intelligence agencies have done an astonishingly poor job of protecting the nation's secrets from foreign adversaries, they have been more successful in blocking access by American citizens to the most basic categories of intelligence information.
Secrecy and Accountability in U.S. Intelligence
Director, Project on Government Secrecy
Federation of American Scientists
October 9, 1996
Classification practices adopted decades ago to thwart a seemingly omnipotent Soviet threat remain in effect, despite epochal changes in the global security environment. Congressional oversight has often limited itself to expressions of indignation after the scandal du jour, while reinforcing obsolete security practices that would help make the next scandal more likely. Unexamined secrecy policies have even inhibited communication of intelligence within the government itself. Meanwhile, public tolerance for government secrecy is diminishing, and inherited classification practices are being challenged by an erosion in security discipline and by increasingly capable information technologies in the public domain.
There has always been a degree of secrecy in U.S. government, particularly in intelligence matters, and it has always presented a conflict with American ideals that remains unresolved.
But today, the level of secrecy in U.S. intelligence is a symptom of increasing obsolescence as well as an obstacle to reform. This paper provides an overview of the structure of government secrecy, examines current intelligence secrecy policies, critiques congressional oversight of intelligence, and proposes some corrective steps for the future.
Three Categories of Secrecy
"There have been some 'bad secrets' concerning intelligence; their exposure by our academic, journalist, and political critics certainly is an essential part of the workings of our Constitution. There have been some 'non-secrets' which did not need to be secret; I have undertaken a program of bringing these into the open. But I think that responsible Americans realize that our country must protect some 'good secrets'." --DCI William Colby, 19741Among the many types of information that are classified by the government in the name of national security, it is possible to distinguish three general categories: genuine national security secrecy, political secrecy, and bureaucratic secrecy.
Genuine national security secrecy pertains to that body of information which, if disclosed, could actually damage national security in some identifiable way. Of course, this begs the crucial questions of what "national security" is, what constitutes "damage" and how the meaning of these terms may change over time. Without attempting to conclusively define national security-- a worthy subject for a separate examination-- common sense suggests that this category would include things like design details for weapons of mass destruction and other advanced military technologies, as well as those types of information that must remain secret in order for authorized diplomatic and intelligence functions to be performed. The sensitivity of this kind of information is the reason we have a secrecy system in the first place, and when it is working properly this system positively serves the public interest.
The second category is political secrecy, which refers to the deliberate and conscious abuse of classification authority for political advantage, irrespective of any threat to the national security. This is the smallest of the three categories but it is also the most dangerous to the political health of the nation. Perhaps the most extreme example of political secrecy in intelligence historically was the classification of CIA behavior modification experiments on unknowing human subjects, as in the MKULTRA program. To guarantee the permanent secrecy of this activity, most MKULTRA records were destroyed in the early 1970s, although the CIA continues to classify many such records today.2 But this category also includes more petty abuses like the classification of the intelligence budget, which serves to limit official public discussion of intelligence priorities and performance, but does nothing to enhance the security of Americans.
The third category is what may be called bureaucratic secrecy. This has to do with the tendency of all organizations to limit the information that they release to outsiders so as to control perceptions of the organization, as classically described by Max Weber. Bureaucratic secrecy appears to be the predominant factor in current classification practice, accounting for the majority of the billions of pages of classified records throughout the government.
Last year, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency specifically denied a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists for intelligence budget information dating back to 1947. Whatever the term "damage to national security" might mean, no sane person would argue that fifty year old budget numbers could damage national security today.3 Nor is there any political advantage to be gained by insisting on the classification of old intelligence budgets, particularly since they have already been declassified in large part by other agencies without the CIA's knowledge or consent.
There is inevitably a subjective factor in the assignment of a particular unit of information into one of the three categories of secrecy. The borders of the three categories may sometimes be blurred in practice. Furthermore, information that falls in one category at one moment will often belong in another category at some later date. Responsible classification management-- i.e., the elimination of all but genuine national security secrecy-- therefore depends to a large degree on the good judgment and the good will of the managers. Failing that, it depends on the steadfast advocacy of congressional overseers. And when that fails, responsibility reverts to the public.
The mixture of legitimate secrecy, self-serving abuse of classification authority, and bureaucratic insularity has been with us in more or less its present form for nearly 50 years. But it appears to be reaching a crisis point whose outcome will help determine the security policies of the early 21st century.
Where Are We Today?
"I think there is no question that we classify too much. It is a bureaucratic tendency that needs to be fought..." --former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft4Secrecy in U.S. intelligence is a largely mindless reflex. The operative principle is not simply "When in doubt, classify"-- it is just "classify." Almost everything about intelligence is classified unless some high official takes the initiative to declassify it. The extraction of information from U.S. intelligence agencies through official mechanisms like the Freedom of Information Act is usually a fruitless exercise for a member of the public.5
The CIA has seized upon the statutory requirement to protect "sources and methods" to classify anything and everything it chooses. Thus, as noted, CIA still claims that declassification of its 1947 budget would compromise "sources and methods," vacating this term of any meaningful content.6
The intelligence community's orientation towards secrecy is most bluntly described in a 1950 National Security Council directive, which advised that "any publicity, factual or fictional, concerning intelligence is potentially detrimental to the effectiveness of an intelligence activity and to the national security."7 The directive instructed all relevant departments and agencies to prevent the disclosure of any information about intelligence, except when specifically authorized.
Today, of course, publicity about intelligence, factual and fictional, is rampant. Many hundreds of official intelligence publications, some extremely valuable, are available for sale to the public. All U.S. intelligence agencies have world wide web sites on the Internet, with gradually increasing content. Various discretely targeted declassification efforts have led to the release of hundreds of national intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of CORONA satellite images from the 1960s, the VENONA decrypts of intercepted Soviet cable traffic, and more.8 And the CIA has pledged to "declassify up to 60 million pages [of classified records] by April 2000" in compliance with President Clinton's executive order 12958.9
But as desirable as it may be to finally have greater access to the record of Soviet atomic espionage against the U.S. fifty years ago, say, or the official CIA map of Uganda, the American public is still denied official knowledge of the most basic dimensions of U.S. intelligence, notably the size and composition of the intelligence budget. In other respects, intelligence-related secrecy is actually increasing.10 As for CIA pledges of "openness," their credibility has steadily diminished as almost every DCI since the tenure of William Colby has advocated greater openness and increased declassification, with results that invariably fall short of what is promised.11
One way to characterize the failure of intelligence disclosure policy would be to say that it has failed to come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The original rationale for the indiscriminate secrecy of U.S. intelligence was the challenge of a superpower adversary in a high state of military readiness with an aggressive, large and capable intelligence service aiming at international subversion and global domination. In this context, disclosure of the smallest tidbit of information was perceived to be a potential liability and perhaps an incremental threat.
With the elimination of the Soviet challenge, it is still necessary to point out, there is now no remotely comparable threat to U.S. security.12 And from an information disclosure point of view, the threat from international terrorists, drug traffickers, Iran, Iraq, Libya or North Korea is in contrast all but negligible. For one thing, most of these adversaries (unlike the Soviet Union) lack the industrial infrastructure to take advantage of our most sensitive technological secrets.
Other types of formerly sensitive information are likewise benign in the absence of a superpower threat. Thus, not long ago, pending military operations would have been considered the most sensitive of classified activities, bar none. But in an extraordinary departure from past practice, details of the recent cruise missile strike against Iraq were reported in advance of the operation itself.13 This was not a security violation, but rather a reflection of altered national security circumstances. It simply didn't make a difference whether or not Iraq knew that a U.S. attack was coming.
But the current realities of national security, and their implications for disclosure policy, have still not penetrated the mindset of U.S. intelligence (which is not a favorable commentary on an intelligence agency).
The disparity between the real requirements of national security (by any definition of that term) and the indiscriminate secrecy of the intelligence agencies has created a new degree of tension, sometimes verging on outright hostility, with respect to U.S. intelligence among the alert public.
Thus, a Department of Defense survey found that a majority of the American public believes that, "given the world situation," the government classifies too many documents and keeps too many secrets.14 This is an extremely important finding, because it shows that openness is not some kind of "special interest" issue promoted by public interest busybodies-- it's the will of the people.
And in an open society, the will of the people cannot be obstructed for long without some consequences.
Leaks Are Busting Out All Over
"There is a much greater rate of leakage from the agencies than could have been imagined 20 years ago." --former DCI James Schlesinger15One of the consequences of the failure of intelligence disclosure policy to keep up with current realities and public expectations is a significant erosion of security discipline, leading to a near epidemic of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, or "leaks."
Of course, leaks are nothing new. They are the yin to secrecy's yang. It is only fitting that "the history of the CIA itself began with a leak," as one writer put it.16
And complaints about leaks are equally old. Lately, Defense Secretary William Perry expressed "deep concern" about a continuing series of "newspaper articles based on highly classified intelligence reports" and asked the FBI to begin an investigation to attempt to locate and prosecute the leakers.17
There are no reliable public statistics on the frequency of leaks or the number of leakers. But even setting aside the large number of "leaks" that are really authorized disclosures on a not-for-attribution basis, there appears to be a dramatically escalating number of genuinely unauthorized disclosures, judging from the almost daily quotations from currently classified documents that appear in the national press.
In fact, leaks have become such a pervasive fact of political life that Clinton Administration officials reportedly decided not to initiate a covert action to ship arms to Bosnian Muslims in 1994 because they believed it would inevitably become public knowledge, and Iranian arms shipments were allowed to proceed instead.18 Thus, an otherwise legal policy option was foreclosed by the growing dysfunction of the national security secrecy system.
Nor is it necessary to be a star reporter in a national news organization to be on the receiving end of such unauthorized disclosures. From my own perch on Capitol Hill, I have obtained documents from almost every classification category, up to and including unacknowledged special access program records. With few exceptions, the classified records I have seen could not plausibly be said to pose any threat to national security.
None of the "leakers" I have encountered are anarchists or individuals who are indifferent or hostile to national security. They simply do not regard the classification level of a document as an accurate indication of its national security sensitivity. The problem is, they are right.
But as a practical matter, the government has found it easier to tolerate the growing number of leaks than to prune the secrecy system down to the size dictated by genuine national security considerations. Consequently, leaks have become an essential component of the checks and balances that Americans depend on.
The Intelligence Budget: Classified, But Not Secret
"Well, my view is that it [the intelligence budget total] probably has already been made public at least by allusion if nothing else. It certainly seems to be the approximately worst kept secret in town." --Admiral William O. Studeman19The arguments for and against classification of the intelligence budget were thoroughly laid out in 1976 by the Church Committee, which concluded that the budget total should be published annually and that publication of more detailed figures should be considered.20 The arguments have not changed (or improved) with age, though they are ritually recited at regular intervals.
The closest thing to a coherent argument against declassification is that it would lead to a slippery slope of further uncontrolled disclosures. But this is unsupported by experience with other classified spending. Thus, the concealment of significant amounts of classified (non-intelligence) defense spending within an unclassified defense budget framework demonstrates that it is perfectly feasible to "hold the line" against uncontrolled disclosures.21
Today, even the modest Church Committee suggestion-- that disclosures beyond the total should be considered-- has little official support, even among Congressional advocates of aggregate budget disclosure.22
And yet, thanks to numerous deliberate and accidental disclosures, much of the U.S. intelligence budget now falls into the growing category of information that is "classified, but not secret."
Thus, the House Appropriations Committee inadvertently disclosed the size of the National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP), the Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities (TIARA) program, and the CIA budget.23 A classified memorandum setting out detailed five year budget projections for the NSA, DIA and other agencies was leaked to Defense Week, which published the memorandum.24 The recent report of the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community unintentionally provided budget and personnel details on the CIA, DIA, NSA and NRO.25 Further details can be readily deduced from close examination of unclassified government records.26
One could argue that if all of this information is already available, then what difference does it make whether the budget is declassified or not? There are at least two answers.
First, a drastic reduction in budget classification down to a level that can reasonably be defended on genuine national security grounds would allow the intelligence community to focus its security resources where they are most needed. The nation should no longer have to tolerate a situation where intelligence spending is protected as a national security secret while U.S. adversaries purchase spy satellite operating manuals for a few thousand dollars and routinely detect, turn or execute U.S. intelligence sources. Proponents of indiscriminate secrecy bear an unacknowledged burden of responsibility for these failures of security where secrecy mattered most.
Second, publication of the budget would help to demystify the "cult of intelligence" and would significantly simplify the congressional oversight burden which has otherwise proven to be unmanageable.
The Limits of Congressional Oversight
"I do not think there is a less becoming example of how this Congress deals with fundamental issues than the way we have historically dealt with intelligence." --Rep. Barney Frank27By perpetuating a policy of indiscriminate secrecy, Congress has needlessly crippled the intelligence oversight process, leaving the quality of oversight almost entirely dependent on the good will and the good faith of the intelligence community.
The defects of Congressional oversight of intelligence may be summarized with the observation that intelligence demands greater oversight than practically any other government activity, and yet it receives less.
Intelligence demands oversight above and beyond the mere supervision of tens of billions of dollars of annual expenditures because of the fact that it routinely operates outside the norms of U.S. law. Thus, the House Intelligence Committee recently observed that in the clandestine service
hundreds of employees on a daily basis are directed to break extremely serious laws in countries around the world in the face of frequently sophisticated efforts by foreign governments to catch them. A safe estimate is that several hundred times every day (easily 100,000 times a year) Directorate of Operations officers engage in highly illegal activities....28But even the "mere supervision" of routine budget matters often seems to be beyond the reach of congressional oversight. For example, billions of dollars of so-called "base" spending escapes meaningful oversight every year, simply because budget documents provide no detailed accounting for it and, at least until recently, it never occurred to Congress to demand an accounting.29
The public record does not allow for a complete evaluation of the quality and effectiveness of intelligence oversight. In fairness, the possibility should be acknowledged that oversight could be much better than is generally appreciated. And the very existence of the oversight system may be said to have some salutary effects. Thus, former DCI Robert Gates notes:
"I sat in the Situation Room in secret meetings for nearly twenty years under five Presidents, and all I can say is that some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved had everyone present not known and expected hard questions, debate, and criticism from the Hill."30Fundamentally, however, the current system of Congressional oversight is structurally defective, and does not even provide the scrutiny that is devoted to other less important and dangerous government activities.
This is because of the fact that a large fraction of the "oversight" function in every policy area from agriculture to health care is performed by the media, including numerous specialized trade publications. At the Pentagon alone, well over a thousand journalists hold building passes and are free to roam its halls at will, sniffing around for dirt or, at least, news. Their investigative efforts are supplemented and informed by countless advocacy groups.
But the opportunity for media and advocacy group oversight of intelligence is extremely limited in an environment in which even the budget for pens and pencils is a national security secret. Partly for this reason, the number of journalists who do original investigative reporting on intelligence matters is in the low double-digits, and the number of private advocacy groups doing their own research is in the single digits.
"Because of the classified nature of the programs we review," writes Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Mary K. Sturtevant, "we are especially reliant on information provided by the very Community we hope to oversee. We lack alternative sources of information and points of view on intelligence budget requests, as there are few constituents with legitimate access to intelligence programs who wish to bring information forward to the Committees."31
No matter how competent the Committee staffers may be, they cannot possibly make up for the deficit in independent information and analysis that results from the comprehensive secrecy surrounding intelligence.32
"Although we occasionally hear the charge of 'micromanagement'," says Ms. Sturtevant, "we always shake our heads in wonder that this could be so. In toto, we are perhaps one dozen or so full-time budget staff supporting the Intelligence Authorization and Appropriations Committees of both the House and the Senate reviewing activities conducted by tens of thousands of civilian and military personnel and programs valued in the multiple billions of dollars."
"We normally can review a program only once a year, [if that,] so we make up ours minds quickly [on the basis of limited information].... The great majority of continuing, or 'base,' programs go unscrutinized."33
Thus, the oversight process remains inadequate even when, as in the current environment, the intelligence community is relatively forthcoming to the oversight committees. (Since May 1995, CIA has provided over 300 notifications of intelligence activities to the Committees.34)
A drastic reduction in the scope of intelligence-related secrecy would enable Congress to concentrate its very limited resources on the most sensitive aspects of intelligence policy (which are properly kept secret), while allowing the press and the interested public to take up the slack on the rest.
Instead, the intrinsic limitations of Congressional oversight have been further aggravated by the idiosyncrasies of the 104th Congress. The House Intelligence Committee in particular has been possessed by alien notions that the Committee should be an advocate for the agencies it oversees35; that declassification should be discouraged and executive branch secrecy should be increased36; and that covert action can somehow be an instrument of a Congressional foreign policy.37
The reputation of Congressional oversight has now been degraded to the point that few Americans look to the intelligence committees to represent and defend their interests. The recent firestorm of criticism over alleged CIA links to cocaine traffickers reflects, among other things, a loss of public confidence in current oversight procedures.
In any event, with the erosion of discipline in the secrecy system, the press and the public are able to assert an ever greater role in overseeing U.S. intelligence.
Overcoming Intelligence Secrecy
"It is my firmly held conviction that if there is to be real, meaningful, significant change in the Intelligence Community, it will have to come from without. Not from within. Because having recently been a part of it, I don't believe that the Community in and of itself is capable of fundamental reform. That is not a pejorative comment, it is, in my view, a statement of fact." --former DIA Director Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper38When government institutions fail in an open society, citizens are not powerless to respond. And when the intelligence community fails to deliver on its promises of "openness" and Congress blocks more fundamental reforms, that is by no means the end of the story.
Despite the obstacles to media oversight of intelligence, there are at least a handful of outstanding reporters-- we all know who they are-- who regularly report to the public (and to the Congress) more information than the intelligence community would wish to have disclosed, and newspaper editors gladly highlight their work on the front pages. The erosion of security discipline noted above, while regrettable in the abstract, makes media oversight increasingly feasible by transferring disclosure authority to the news room.
For example, we now know more about the failed covert operation in Iraq over the last six months than we know about the majority of the thousands of covert actions that took place over the last fifty years.39
Even relatively trivial classified budget decisions, like a recent proposal for a new gymnasium at the CIA, can be determined by media attention. Plans to pursue the $10 million athletic facility at the CIA were canceled only after the Washington Post (not Congress) began to ask questions about it.40
If the effect of indiscriminate secrecy is to discourage (or shape) public awareness of intelligence, then any public discussion-- even the most demented posting on an internet news group-- is an appropriate act of resistance and may help to legitimize a public voice on intelligence policy.
Perversely, public discourse on intelligence appears to be most politically effective when it is least accurate. Thus, Oliver Stone's hallucinatory movie RJFKS succeeded-- where pusillanimous appeals to the public interest failed-- in dislodging hundreds of thousands of pages about the assassination of President Kennedy from CIA files. By any rational assessment of the requirements of national security, most of these records should have been declassified long ago, but it took Oliver Stone to make it happen. Similarly, propagation of the Roswell myth-- i.e. the asserted crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft in New Mexico in 1947 and the subsequent coverup-- proved remarkably effective in promoting declassification of records from that era.41 But in these cases and others, the public attitudes that eventually precipitated declassification became so deeply rooted that they have not been discernably affected by the release of the old documents. In this way, current classification policy promotes public stupidity.42
But this is old news. In the not too distant future, emerging new technologies will dramatically reduce public dependence on the willingness of the intelligence community and the Congress to disclose information. One outstanding example is the commercial high-resolution satellite imaging capabilities that will become available to the public and the media in 1998, and which exceed the quality of what was available to the U.S. intelligence community itself as recently as thirty years ago. For better and for worse, there will be far fewer secrets as a result.
In effect, the public will soon have an alternative intelligence capability that is not bound by the rather skewed priorities of the official intelligence community, which has come to emphasize "support to military operations" at the expense of preventive diplomacy and other national interests.
Even allowing for exaggerated expectations and several degrees of hype, the advent of high resolution satellite imagery-- along with the global media explosion, expanding Internet utility, and similar developments-- represents a fundamental shift in the "balance of power" between individual citizens and the government.43
In this scenario, historians are the losers, since the intelligence community may never fully disgorge its Cold War secrets, just as the Congress may never allow the contents of the intelligence budget to be officially discussed in public. But for everyone else, official secrecy will come to matter less and less.
Steps to the Future
"Any improved structure for American intelligence must recognize that the American people are no longer content to provide blind support for the secret work of intelligence, whatever may have been the traditions of the past. It is, therefore, ...essential that the relationship of the people to our intelligence apparatus be redefined and made appropriate to modern America.... --former DCI William Colby44The above considerations lead to several specific proposals that would substantially reduce the indiscriminate secrecy surrounding intelligence, and make it more responsive to the demands of the day.
1. Declassify the intelligence budget down to the program level.
All intelligence agency budgets should be declassified at least down to the program level, following the well-established example of the Department of Defense.
The defense budget specifies many dozens of classified programs, identified only by their program nickname, whose purpose remains obscure, i.e. protected. The same practice should be adopted in the intelligence budget.
Contrary to the prevailing view, the amount of money spent on intelligence is not intrinsically sensitive, although it may be politically controversial. As the defense budget has proven for decades, revealing the amount of money spent on a program does not jeopardize the sensitive contents of that program. It is simply fallacious to assert that disclosing the amount of money the CIA or DIA spends on analysis-- or the cost of a particular satellite program, not to mention general construction and administrative costs-- would compromise sensitive sources and methods. Even the amount of spending for clandestine collection or covert action could reveal nothing about the distribution or the targeting of such activities, and should be declassified. As it is, these numbers are hardly secret.45
It has been argued that even if individual numbers do not compromise sensitive information, year-to-year comparisons of incremental spending changes would reveal sensitive new initiatives. But this is a Cold War argument predicated on a global Soviet threat. Today, even the DCI feels no hesitation in publicly announcing that funding for human intelligence has been maintained "at a constant level" or that "The gain of new sources in the past 18 months far exceeds previous achievements."46 Publishing the budget for clandestine collection would not even reveal that much.
Budget disclosure is a sine qua non for reintegrating U.S. intelligence into post-Cold War American democracy. If it cannot be accomplished, then any other "reforms" will likely be futile.
2. Formally recognize the public as a legitimate consumer of intelligence.
"Intelligence must accept the end of its special status in the American government, and take on the task of informing the public of its nature and its activities as any other department or agency.... By far the most effective manner of accomplishing the task of public education is by letting the public benefit directly from the products of intelligence, its information and assessments...." --former DCI William Colby47One of the basic definitional questions concerning intelligence is, Whom does it serve? Traditionally the answer to this question has been the President and his circle of advisers.
But intelligence is information that is used to inform policy, particularly on crucial issues of defense and foreign affairs. And if citizens are to be more than passive spectators of events and mute consumers of "news," then they need access to intelligence too.
According to conventional wisdom, secrecy is intrinsic to intelligence and the notion of "public intelligence" is a contradiction in terms.48 To demand public access to intelligence is to reject this view.
However, to the extent that disclosure compromises or degrades sensitive intelligence sources or methods, intelligence disclosure becomes self-defeating.
Obviously, then, the optimum solution would be to enforce a distinction between the products of intelligence, which should in general be disclosed, and those sources and methods which must be protected if they are to remain productive.
Currently, section 103 of the National Security Act specifies that the Director of Central Intelligence is responsible for providing national intelligence to (a) the President; (b) executive branch agency heads; (c) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior military commanders; and (d) "where appropriate, to the Senate and House of Representatives and the committees thereof."49
This section should now be amended to recognize the American public as an authorized consumer of intelligence, consistent with legitimate security requirements.
The precise implications of such an amendment would remain to be worked out (and fought over). But the statutory recognition of the public as an intelligence consumer would signal the beginning of a long overdue revolution in intelligence. The very idea of public intelligence challenges the foundations of Cold War intelligence policy in a way that the pieties of the official reform commissions and task forces failed to do.50
3. Limit the secrecy of "sources and methods" to those instances where disclosure would demonstrably damage sources or methods.
It is clear that the DCI has abused his authority to protect intelligence sources and methods by extending such protection to all manner of information that does not warrant it. The continued classification today of the 1947 intelligence budget on "sources and methods" grounds, as cited above, is sufficient proof of that.
Consequently, it is necessary to limit that authority. Just as the 1974 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act specified that information is not necessarily exempt from disclosure just because it is classified-- rather, it must be "properly classified"-- so the "sources and methods" exemption can no longer be left to the DCI's subjective discretion or whim.
Therefore, the National Security Act [section 103(c)(5)] should be amended to state that the DCI shall "protect intelligences sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure if that disclosure would demonstrably lead to loss of life or significant loss of intelligence capability" or language to that effect. What is essential is that a defensible standard for withholding information must be set, and it must be subject to independent judicial review.
4. Reduce the volume of classified information by cancelling the lowest classification levels.
"If the American people ever learned how much slop and drivel is disguised by imposing classifications and caveats, they would have our heads-- and we would deserve our fates." --U.S. Army Major Ralph Peters51There is too much classified information in the U.S. intelligence community. Indiscriminate classification does a disservice to the nation first of all by withholding information that does not need protection. But it also devalues the effectiveness of the classification system itself by diverting security resources from where they are needed most, and by promoting contempt for classification inside and outside of the government.
"Ames was passing so much information to the KGB that VLAD gently suggested it was sometimes too much-- the CIA secrets were beginning to clog the KGB's files." --David Wise52
Last year's executive order 12958 on "Classified National Security Information" set out a fairly ambitious program for declassification of 25 year old records, but did little or nothing to limit contemporary classification activity. Indeed, anything that could have been classified the day before the order took effect could also have been classified the day after. Consequently, post-Cold War reductions in the scope of classification remain to be achieved.
Just as the magnitude and intensity of the threat to U.S. national security have diminished significantly with the demise of the Soviet Union, the scope and volume of government secrecy should be reduced accordingly.
One way to proceed would be to categorically invalidate the two lowest levels of classification, Confidential and Secret. With a reasonable allowance for exceptions, most of this material should not be reviewed in any depth, but should simply be declassified by fiat.
If the purpose of classification really is to protect the nation's most sensitive secrets-- a task at which it has failed so badly in recent years-- then the wholesale cancellation and release of the least sensitive secrets would materially assist in achieving that purpose, while marking the end of Cold War classification policy.
"The world is moving inexorably into an era of openness. We have the choice of being pushed into this new era or of leading the rest of the world into it." --former DCI Stansfield Turner53The kinds of measures described above would constitute important steps towards a more productive, responsive, and acountable intelligence system.
Of course, political conditions today are heavily weighted against proposals such as these, or indeed against any deliberate changes at all, as the collapse of the intelligence reform efforts of the last year embarrassingly demonstrates.
The good news, however, is that preserving the status quo is not a realistic option. The classification system can be fixed, or it can be allowed to deteriorate in the face of public and media resistance. Oversight can serve to uphold broad public interests, or it can devolve into a mere appendage of the intelligence agencies. The intelligence community itself can be transformed to enlighten and inform the nation as a whole, or it can continue to fight some iteration of the Cold War.
In each case, the path of least resistance is to do nothing, and let current trends play out as they will. But following that path, the U.S. intelligence community will be scorned by a growing sector of the public, and then rejected by its official consumers, as it is outmaneuvered and outperformed by increasingly agile competitors.
Notes1. The CIA File, edited by Robert L. Borosage and John Marks, Grossman Publishers, New York, 1976, page 182.
2. In 1995, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments called for the expeditious declassification of all surviving classified records from MKULTRA and more than half a dozen related CIA human experimentation programs from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. To date, the CIA has not complied with this recommendation. Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, October 1995, Recommendation 18, pp. 837-839.
3. Yet that is exactly what the CIA argues. In denying the request (CIA FOIA number 95-0825), CIA cited FOIA exemptions (b)(1) on national security and (b)(3) on protection of sources and methods. An appeal of the denial is still pending. In a startling reflection of how much the Cold War distorted American political standards, the budget of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor of the CIA, was unclassified even during the War itself!
4. "IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century," hearings before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, July 27, 1995, page 205.
5. An exception: For some reason, the Department of Justice Office of Intelligence Policy and Review is extraordinarily forthcoming with documents requested under the FOIA, and routinely fulfills requests within the statutory ten day time limit! If prizes were awarded for complying with the law, this Office would be a winner.
6. The DCI has essentially unlimited authority under the sources and methods provision to withhold information, no matter how remote it may actually be from revealing a sensitive intelligence source or method. The information need not be "properly classified" under the executive order on national security information. National Security Act of 1947, section 103(c)(4), 50 U.S.C. 403(d)(3).
7. NSC Intelligence Directive No. 12, "Avoidance of Publicity Concerning the Intelligence Agencies of the U.S. Government," January 6, 1950. Reprinted in "Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment," Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945-1950, U.S. GPO, 1996, pp. 1118-1119.
8. Welcome as these disclosures are, they have hardly begun to appease most historians of national security. See, for example, "CIA Less Than Helpful to Historians Seeking to Analyze Covert Operations," by Jim Mann, Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1996.
9. As noted by Brian Latell, Director, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, speaking at the National Archives on July 24. But according to the executive order, 15% of the inventory of 25 year old classified records were to be declassified by mid-October 1996 and CIA has not come close to declassifying 9 million pages this year (i.e. 15% of its 60 million declared pages).
10. An amendment to the 1997 Defense Authorization Act will exempt from disclosure under the FOIA all information about "the organization or any function of" the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the new National Imagery and Mapping Agency. This exempts information above and beyond what is properly classified (which is already exempt from the FOIA). See Inside the Pentagon, August 8, 1996, page 17.
11. Refreshingly, DCI William Casey did not claim to support greater openness in intelligence.
12. This is not to dismiss the threat posed by terrorists, proliferants, and others to global or regional stability. The point, rather, is that all the terrorists in the world do not add up to one USSR. The baseline threat to U.S. national security has dropped by orders of magnitude, while classification policy remains predicated on a ubiquitous high-tech superpower adversary.
13. "U.S. Sets Baghdad Missile Strike," by Bill Gertz, Washington Times, 9/3/96, p. 1; "U.S. is Preparing Bigger Air Strikes on Targets in Iraq," by Philip Shenon, New York Times, 9/12/96, p. A1.
14. "Overall support for security and counter-espionage measures is quite strong. Only in terms of the classification of secrets does the majority favor the anti-security [sic] position." See "Public Attitudes Towards Security and Counter-Espionage Matters in the Post Cold-War Period," November 1994, commissioned by the Personnel Security Research Center of the U.S. Department of Defense.
15. Government officials always say "leaks are worse than they have ever been." But Schlesinger, who in 1975 advocated prosecuting Seymour Hersh of the New York Times for publishing classified information, has some standing to make this comparison. "IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century," hearings before the House Intelligence Committee, May 22, 1995, p. 73.
16. Walter Laqueur, A World of Secrets: The Uses and Limits of Intelligence, Basic Books, New York, 1985, page 391, note 31. The reference is to a secret memo that surfaced in early 1945 concerning plans to create an "all powerful super spy system."
17. A copy of Secretary Perry's July 31 memorandum on leaks, which itself was obtained through unofficial channels, is available at https://sgp.fas.org/clinton/perry.html.
18. Walter Pincus, "Iranian Arms and the 'Instruction of No Instructions'," Washington Post, April 28, 1996, page A20.
19. "Nomination of Vice Admiral William O. Studeman to be Deputy Director of Central Intelligence," hearings before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 10, 1992, p. 49.
20. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book I, 1976, pp. 367-384.
21. It is true that one highly classified-- in fact, unacknowledged-- DoD program was penetrated by unauthorized American citizens a few years ago, but a subsequent investigation determined that it should not have been classified at that high a level in the first place. See "The Timber Wind Special Access Program," DoD Inspector General Report Number 93-033, December 16, 1992.
22. Senator Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has stated that aggregate budget declassification should be the beginning, not the end, of budget disclosure.
23. Tim Weiner, "$28 Billion Spying Budget is Made Public by Mistake," New York Times, November 4, 1994.
24. Tony Capaccio and Eric Rosenberg, "Deutch Approves $27 Billion for Pentagon Spy Budgets," Defense Week, August 29, 1994.
25. R. Jeffrey Smith, "Making Connections With Dots to Decipher U.S. Spy Spending," The Washington Post, March 12, 1996, p. A11.
26.See the budget analysis prepared by John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists at https://irp.fas.org/agency/index.html.
27. Congressional Record, December 21, 1995, page H15496.
28. "IC21: Intelligence Community in the 21st Century," Staff Study, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 1996, p. 205. This study is the most important congressional publication on intelligence since the Church Committee report.
29. Nearly 20 years after the House Intelligence Committee was established, it was still necessary for the IC21 Staff Study to argue that "Costs should be delineated as thoroughly for 'baseline' collection and other programs as for non-baseline programs. The NFIP practice of maintaining an undelineated intelligence 'base' should be banished." (p. 117). More than one-third of the national reconnaissance program budget-- or more than $2 billion-- falls into the undelineated 'base' category.
30. From the Shadows, Simon & Schuster, 1996, page 559.
31. Mary K. Sturtevant, "Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: One Perspective," American Intelligence Journal, Summer 1992, pp. 17-20. Some of the "few constituents" are intelligence contractors, who have unfettered access to lobby for lucrative programs that potential critics are not even supposed to know about. See Robert Dreyfuss, "Orbit of Influence: Spy Finance and the Black Budget," The American Prospect, March-April 1996, pp. 30-36.
32. The integrity of the oversight process is further compromised by the longstanding "revolving door" between the intelligence community and the oversight committee staff, as in the recent appointment of a former House Intelligence Committee staffmember to become General Counsel of the CIA. When conflicts arise between the agency interest and the public interest, a staffer who harbors ambitions of a career in intelligence will naturally be tempted to defer to the agency.
33.Sturtevant, op.cit., bracketed words in original.
34. Inside the Pentagon, September 12, 1996, pp. 5-6. The oversight committees have also been blessed with access to Intelink, the classified intelligence computer network.
35. See the IC21 Staff Study, chapter 15. The Committee seems to misapprehend the extraordinary nature of intelligence oversight. It will be impossible to "normalize" intelligence oversight, as the Committee proposes, as long as the most basic features of intelligence policy remain classified.
36. In addition to cuts on spending for declassification and new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee opposed declassification of the intelligence budget total even after the DCI determined it could be safely disclosed.
37. The clumsy insistence of the House Intelligence Committee on expanding covert action against Iran late last year significantly embarrassed the United States in the world press. On August 12, 1996, the Government of Iran submitted a formal complaint to a tribunal in The Hague, arguing plausibly that the U.S. action violated the 1980 Algiers Accord between the U.S. and Iran.
38. "IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century," hearings before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, November 16, 1995, p. 317.
39. See, e.g., Tim Weiner, "Iraqi Offensive Into Kurdish Zone Disrupts U.S. Plot to Oust Hussein," New York Times, September 7, 1996; R.Jeffrey Smith, "CIA Operation Fell With Iraqi City," Washington Post, September 8, 1996; R. Jeffrey Smith and David B. Ottaway, "Anti-Saddam Operation Cost CIA $100 Million," Washington Post, September 15, 1996, p. A1; and Kevin Fedarko, "Saddam's CIA Coup," Time, September 23, 1996, pp. 42-44.
40. Walter Pincus, "Deutch Shelves $10 Million CIA Field House," Washington Post, July 31, 1996, page A25.
41. See, e.g., The Roswell Report: Fact versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government Printing Office stock no. 008-070-00697-9,1995, approx. 1000 pages.
42. Conspiracy-mongering as a strategy for promoting declassification may have already reached its peak, as the threshold for outrageousness becomes unachievably high and public discourse becomes increasingly incoherent. Today, "No one is willing to read 20 books on the CIA when they can watch 20 episodes of 'The X Files,' and have more fun doing it," writes Daniel Brandt of Public Information Research . The result is a problem that Mr. Brandt terms "Why Johnny Can't Dissent."
43. For information on the use of high resolution imagery for public interest applications, see the FAS "Public Eye" website at http://www.fas.org/eye/. See also Gary Stix, "Public Eye," Scientific American, August 1996, pp. 18-19; and Charles Lane, "The Satellite Revolution," The New Republic, August 12, 1996, pp. 22-24.
44. Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA, Simon & Schuster, 1978, pp. 459.
45. Reasonable estimates of spending on covert action can already be inferred from the public record. See John Pike, "Uncloaked Dagger: CIA Spending for Covert Action," Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1994-95, pp. 48-55.
46. R. Jeffrey Smith, "Critics 'Wrong,' CIA Chief Says," The Washington Post, September 6, 1996, p. A21; Tim Weiner, "The CIA Seeks Out Informers on Terrorism, and Finds Them," New York Times, September 6, 1996, p. A2.
47. Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA, Simon & Schuster, 1978, pp. 459-60.
48. Thus, "The connection between intelligence and secrecy is central to most of what distinguishes intelligence from other intellectual activities." Abram Shulsky, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence, first edition, Brassey's, 1991, p. 174. For a starkly contrasting conception, see Robert David Steele, "E3I: Ethics, Ecology, Evolution, and Intelligence," Whole Earth Review, Fall 1992, pp. 74-79.
49. Interestingly, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence recently attempted to upgrade its status to a full-fledged equal consumer of national intelligence by deleting the phrase "where appropriate," thereby requiring the DCI to provide intelligence "to the Senate and House of Representatives and the appropriate committees thereof." See House Report 104-620, part 1, on "The Intelligence Community Act," sect. 102(b)(3). This proposed legislation never reached the House floor.
50. In a intriguing development, the new Strategic Plan of the CIA Directorate of Intelligence (DI) states that "public outreach will be one of the Directorate's highest priorities [!], embracing all levels of the organization." Further, "The DI will be well suited to discuss with the general public how the IC serves the American people-- not just an administration or Congress." But the Plan does not consider the possibility that American citizens have a legitimate interest in direct access to most DI products. See "Directorate of Intelligence in the 21st Century: Strategic Plan," Central Intelligence Agency, August 1996.
51. This remark might seem to be just a cheap rhetorical jibe if the author were not employed at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the Pentagon. See volume 2 of the Proceedings of the 1995 Open Source Symposium, Open Source Solutions, Oakton, VA, pp. 428-436.
52. Nightmover, Harper Collins, New York, 1995, page 155.
53. Secrecy and Democracy, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985, page 285.