from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
March 6, 2001


The New York Times' disclosure on Sunday that the FBI and NSA had dug a tunnel beneath the Soviet embassy in Washington in the 1980s intrigued many readers.

But Plato Cacheris, the attorney for accused spy Robert Hansen, was not among them. He criticized the timing of the story and especially the accusation by unnamed officials that it was his client who had betrayed the tunnel's existence to the Soviets.

"I think it's abominable," Mr. Cacheris told reporters on Monday, according to a Reuters report. "You should be skeptical about that." But skepticism has been sparse.

Mr. Cacheris' complaint highlights the unresolved conflicts among the interests of journalists who are pursuing hot stories, counterintelligence officials who are hunting down foreign spies, and suspected spies who are seeking a fair trial.

"The wild card that no one could control was the New York Times," wrote Col. Stuart Herrington in Traitors Among Us, his compelling memoir of Cold War counterintelligence. He recalled a 1988 leak to Times reporter Jeff Gerth concerning one of the Army's most sensitive counterintelligence investigations that threatened to derail the whole case.

"With the security of the investigation hinging on the patriotism, fidelity, and discretion of the New York Times," Col. Herrington wrote sarcastically, "we had no choice but to wrap up the case, one way or another, ready or not." In fact, as it turned out, Mr. Gerth and the Times refrained from disclosing the case until a foreign news outlet reported it first.

On the other hand, the Times' treatment of the Wen Ho Lee case demonstrated the damage that a particular kind of aggressive journalism can do both to the interests of the accused, in that case Dr. Lee, and of the government. The Times uncritically reported allegations portraying Dr. Lee as a spy for China, thereby ruining his life in certain respects. Publication of the initial Times story about the case also forced the government's preliminary investigation of the matter to a premature conclusion, before the meaning of Dr. Lee's activities could be firmly established, or other suspects identified. But little or nothing has been learned, it seems, from the overenthusiastic reporting of the Wen Ho Lee investigation. Anonymous sources with undisclosed interests proliferate.

On the third hand, Mr. Cacheris probably overreacted to the Soviet Embassy tunnel story, as reported by James Risen with Lowell Bergman in the March 4 New York Times.

Mr. Cacheris will have every opportunity in court to challenge its relevance to Mr. Hanssen's case, so his interests are largely preserved. And as an intelligence operation, the tunnel is defunct, so no harm to intelligence can come from its disclosure. Besides, it's a great story.

Meanwhile, in a notable bit of self-restraint, the Washington Post posted the recent FBI affidavit and complaint against espionage suspect Robert Hanssen on its web site, but blacked out his home street address and social security number.


A newly declassified 1978 diplomatic cable "reveals that the United States facilitated communications among South American intelligence chiefs who were working together to eliminate left-wing opposition groups in their countries as part of a covert program known as Operation Condor," according to an analysis by the National Security Archive.

The cable was first reported in the New York Times on March 6. The Archive has posted the declassified cable, from Ambassador Robert E. White, with related documentary materials here:


Many of the pitfalls of Cold War covert action were successfully averted in the remarkably transparent U.S. campaign to depose Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

"From the end of the war in Kosovo until last October, when the Serbian people stormed parliament and booted out Milosevic, the Central Intelligence Agency seems to have spent its time, of all things, centralizing intelligence. That's ... one major reason why the operation to remove Milosevic worked so well," writes Nicholas Thompson in the March issue of Washington Monthly. See:


The Defense Department has established a new private sector Advisory Committee for the End-to-End Review of the U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System. The command and control of nuclear weapons is perhaps the most sensitive topic in the U.S. government.

"This advisory committee will provide advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Defense ... regarding the full range of U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System (NCSS) policies, responsibilities, functions, management structures and capabilities...," according to a March 6 Notice in the Federal Register.

"The Advisory Committee will consist of a balanced membership of approximately four senior members from the private sector, appointed by the Secretary of Defense," the Federal Register Notice said.

For the Pentagon to solicit advice from the private sector on ultra-classified issues of nuclear command and control seems rather extraordinary.

But considering the identities of the newly appointed private sector members, it is not so much of a stretch after all. The members are Gen. (ret.) Brent Scowcroft, chair; Gen. (ret.) Michael Carnes; John Crawford, former vice president of Sandia National Laboratories; and William Crowell, President and CEO of Cylink, Inc. Assistant Secretary of Defense Art Money and a yet unnamed Energy Department official will also serve.

The Committee is established under the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, but all or most of its meetings are expected to be closed and its minutes classified, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Campbell told Secrecy News. The first meeting is scheduled for April 5.


To subscribe to Secrecy News, send email to with this command in the body of the message:
      subscribe secrecy_news [your email address]
To unsubscribe, send email to with this command in the body of the message:
      unsubscribe secrecy_news [your email address]
Secrecy News is archived at: