from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2008, Issue No. 108
November 6, 2008

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The possibilities for significant changes in government secrecy policy are starting to attract official attention as the presidential transition process begins.

"I know things are going to change," one executive branch official with national security classification responsibility said this morning. "The folks that are inbound have a keen appreciation for the kind of things that need to occur," the official said.

He noted the role of John Podesta as leader of the transition team. Mr. Podesta, now at the Center for American Progress (where he said he will return after the transition), is a former Clinton White House chief of staff. He played an influential part in the development of the Clinton executive order on classification policy, which generally favored openness and dramatically increased declassification of historical records.

Mr. Podesta testified on government secrecy policy before the Senate Judiciary Committee as recently as last September 16, where he presented his own agenda for secrecy reform.

His analysis was acute and his critique was eloquent. But many of his recommendations pointed backwards, towards undoing what the Bush Administration has done, rather than to a qualitatively new information security policy.

So, for example, the very first "key recommendation" in Mr. Podesta's testimony was that "The next president should rewrite [President Bush's] Executive Order 13292 to reinstate the provisions of [President Clinton's] Executive Order 12958 that establish a presumption against classification in cases of significant doubt."

But restoring a "presumption against classification in cases of significant doubt" will not accomplish much since executive branch classification officers do not experience significant doubt. There is no record of a single classification decision that was determined by the Clinton-era [and Carter-era] injunction not to classify in cases of doubt. Therefore adding such language back to the executive order on classification is not imperative.

A better starting point would be a systematic review of all of the thousands of agency classification guides, geared towards eliminating obsolete or unnecessary classification instructions. Classification guides are the secrecy system's "software." Revising and updating them would be likely to pay immediate dividends in reduced classification.

Beyond that, there may be a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally rethink the structure of the national security classification system, and to conceive of something altogether new, different, and better. What that might be remains to be discovered and articulated.

There is an old story of a Russian soldier who saved the life of the czar and was told that as a reward he could have anything he wanted. "Please change my commanding officer!" he begged.

In the coming weeks and months, it should be possible to do a lot better than that.


The National Reconnaissance Office has released a heavily redacted version of the Fiscal Year 2008 Congressional Budget Justification Book for the National Reconnaissance Program. It provides a few intriguing glimpses of the intelligence agency in transition.

"Ten years ago, a user might be satisfied with an image or a signal intercept; now users demand fused, multidiscipline, multi-phenomenology information tailored to a specific location or area of interest," wrote Donald M. Kerr, then-director of the NRO.

"The mission of the NRO remains the same-- the research, development, acquisition, launch and operation of overhead reconnaissance systems and other missions as directed to solve intelligence problems," the budget document stated. "However, the focus of the NRO and the way it executes the mission will change. NRO's priority for the future is to increase the value of the information its systems can deliver, chiefly through a variety of improvements in ground systems for rapid, adaptive, multisensor tasking, processing, exploitation, cross-cueing, and dissemination."

Development, acquisition and operation of intelligence satellites are still the main business of the NRO.

"Careful stewardship of limited budget resources is increasingly critical as the NRO undertakes the daunting task of designing and building the next generation of satellite systems," the document said.

"In general, IMINT [imagery intelligence] acquisition programs meet established performance requirements but are less successful in achieving cost and schedule goals," the document acknowledged.

The NRO budget book was released in redacted (declassified) form in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists. Excerpts from the 455-page document that have some intelligible content are posted here:


On 4 November 2008, Mozambique ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which bans all nuclear explosions on Earth, the CTBT Organization announced in a news release.

The Treaty has now been ratified by 146 nations, and signed by 180.

"To enter into force, however, the Treaty must be signed and ratified by the 44 States listed in Annex 2 to the Treaty," the CTBT Organization explained. "These States participated in the negotiations of the Treaty in 1996 and possessed nuclear power or research reactors at the time. Thirty-five of these States have ratified the Treaty, including the three nuclear weapon States France, Russian Federation and the United Kingdom. The nine remaining States are China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States."

Background on the Treaty from the Congressional Research Service is available here:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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