from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 15
February 13, 2009

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In a recent news story about the public availability of Congressional Research Service reports ("Thousands of Congressional Reports Now Available Online" by Brian Krebs,, February 11), I was accurately quoted saying: "While 90 percent of the [CRS] reports are probably mediocre, at their best they are very good."

I wish I had not said that 90% of CRS reports are probably mediocre. It was disrespectful and condescending. Besides, I have not read anywhere close to 90% of CRS reports and so I am not in a position to make such a judgment. In other words, at least 50% of my statement was wrong. I apologize for that.

I think my intent was to express skepticism about the utility of publishing another archive of CRS reports dating back a decade or more, as has recently done, since many of those reports address once-current policy issues that have been overtaken by events. Such reports generally do not retain their original value over time.

I think I also meant to indicate that even when they are brand new, a large fraction of CRS reports are introductory in character. Their purpose is primarily to organize and synthesize information that is already in the public domain, not to generate new insights or to provide original analysis or to advance a preferred policy. But that doesn't make them mediocre. Sometimes it makes them especially useful.

Though I know better, I further implied that CRS itself is responsible for its policy of not permitting direct public access to its reports. This is a tamer version of the recent Wikileaks assertion that CRS deliberately opposes public access so as to enable it to clandestinely influence Congress. ("Free from meaningful public oversight of its work, the CRS... is able to influence Congressional outcomes, even when its reports contain errors," according to Wikileaks. "Public oversight would reduce its ability to exercise that influence without criticism.") But that does not make sense, both because CRS does not advocate particular policy outcomes and because the majority of CRS reports are already in the public domain and have been available online for years. It is Congress that prevents CRS from making its reports directly available to the public. When Congress changes its policy, CRS will undoubtedly comply.

Perhaps the most important work that CRS performs does not find its way into the finished reports for Congress at all. That is the day to day support that CRS analysts provide to congressional staff, some of whom are young and inexperienced, and many of whom may be overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues they face. If Congress is ever to achieve its potential as a thoughtful, deliberative and co-equal branch of government, it will need all the help it can get, including the expert assistance of CRS.


"There is no known instance in which classified information was leaked or compromised by Government Accountability Office (GAO) employees," I wrote on February 9 ("Senate Bill Revisits GAO Oversight of Intelligence"). But that may not be true, according to one former GAO analyst.

"Sadly, your assertion of GAO's record of no loss or compromise of classified information is probably not correct," the former analyst told me. "There was a German-born staff member in the old Programs Evaluation Division in the 1970s and 1980s who turned out to have been a Stasi plant."

"I don't remember the gentleman's name. I don't think it was ever proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed espionage, but I do recall that he was allowed to quietly retire on essentially no notice. I also recall that GAO went through a really thorough internal review thereafter to assess the damage."

"I'm sorry I don't remember my former colleague's name, but I do recall that there was a great deal of handwringing on this one."

If there was a compromise of classified information at GAO in this case, however, it was the exception that proved the rule, said the former analyst (who asked that his name be withheld).

"I will assert... that GAO was among the most cautious and careful of government agencies in which I have either worked or observed in the manner in which it handles classified information."

"One of the most frustrating problems for Executive Branch agencies is that GAO consistently wants the original classification guidance/authorities for classified materials that end up in its possession. This 'auditor's obsession' with the 'complete' file unfortunately uncovers the fact that much classified material is incorrectly marked or is classified according to whim and whimsy, not a bona fide classification guide."

"And therein lies the problem," he said.

On February 11, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bennie Thompson and several colleagues that would "reaffirm and clarify the authority of [the GAO] to audit and evaluate the programs, activities, and financial transactions of the intelligence community." The new bill, HR 1008, is a companion to Senator Daniel Akaka's Intelligence Community Audit Act, S.385, that was introduced in the Senate on February 5.


U.S. Marine Corps personnel who are responsible for protecting classified information should consult a variety of sources including Secrecy News in order to maintain their professional awareness, a new Marine Corps newsletter advised.

To begin with, "you should read every security-related regulation/article you can get your hands on," including the executive order on classification, the Information Security Oversight Office implementing directive, and various agency-specific guides.

Then the newsletter recommended "exposing yourself to opposing views over the proper protection of CMI [classified military information]," a category that it said includes the views of Secrecy News and the National Security Archive.

See "Security Standard", the official newsletter of the MARFORPAC [U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific] Command Security Branch, January 2009, page 1.

The newsletter is marked "For Official Use Only."


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

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