from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 89
November 9, 2009

Secrecy News Blog:


The U.S. intelligence community is making steady progress towards "an advanced state of intelligence integration and information sharing" regarding potential threats to the U.S. and its allies from the sea and the air, according to a new report from the Director of National Intelligence.

"Threats that terrorists and other illicit actors pose to the nation's ports, waterways and airways remain persistent and grave, leaving no room for error or delay in this effort," the report said.

In response to such threats, a new ODNI National Maritime Intelligence Center has been established, new information sharing protocols have been put in place, and collaborative "communities of interest" have been nurtured. But "challenges remain" in both air and maritime intelligence "to overcome cultural and institutional resistance" to cooperation, particularly given the "sharply diminished" sense of urgency since 9/11.

One enduring difficulty is that "a lack of robust foreign and domestic HUMINT assets hampers the capability to detect and identify place and time of hostile or disruptive actions...." However, the report says, "examining smuggling networks, front companies, and 'gray' actors and transactions has resulted in successful interdictions of people and cargo who clearly pose national security threats."

The unclassified report did not mention any specific interdictions. But last month, U.S. forces intercepted a German cargo ship carrying arms from Iran to Syria, according to an October 12 story in Der Spiegel. Last week, reportedly based on a tip from U.S. intelligence, Israel seized a ship carrying weapons said to be supplied by Iran and intended for Hezbollah fighters.

The DNI report described the formidable intelligence challenges posed by the vast maritime and air domains.

"Worldwide maritime activity includes more than 30,000 ocean-going ships of 10,000 gross tons or greater," operating under more than 150 different national flags, making tens of thousands of calls at 125 major U.S. ports each year. Meanwhile, "there are over 43,000 fixed airfields worldwide with over 300,000 active aircraft, making the air domain a dense, complex operating environment with attendant reduced reaction time to potential airborne threats."

"The economy's inherent lack of resiliency to a major [trade or transportation] disruption event presents a substantial opportunity for those who seek to attack our institutions asymmetrically," the report said.

The ultimate intelligence goal, therefore, is nothing less than "to create and maintain a persistent awareness of all aspects of passenger and intermodal cargo conveyance. This single integrated team approach would permit 24/7 coverage of the entire transportation spectrum...."

The new report is heavy on management jargon, with lots of integration, alignment and leveraging said to be taking place. ("ODNI remains committed to expediting horizontal intelligence integration supported by the implementation of data sharing standards that are breaking down barriers to information sharing, thereby facilitating rapid decision support.")

Some of the "successes" touted by the report seem paltry or oversold, such as a "precedent setting conference" on piracy in the Horn of Africa last April which "drew more than 280 attendees." And the new ODNI National Maritime Intelligence Center is confusingly housed within the existing National Maritime Intelligence Center that also hosts the Office of Naval Intelligence. But overall the 62-page report testifies to a level of bureaucratic churning within the intelligence community that rarely leaves a trace on the public record.

A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News. See "The Inaugural Report of the Global Maritime and Air Communities of Interest Intelligence Enterprises," Director of National Intelligence, November 2009:


Last year, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory thought they had successfully rebuffed a controversial government attempt to impose new background investigations on JPL employees under NASA's interpretation of President Bush's Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12. A federal appeals court concurred with the scientists that the new investigations into employee personal histories were intrusive, "open ended," and not "narrowly tailored" to meet legitimate government interests. The court granted a preliminary injunction exempting the scientists from the investigations into their personal backgrounds.

But last week, Obama Administration Solicitor General Elena Kagan petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court ruling in favor of the scientists. That ruling, she argued, was legally in error and "casts a constitutional cloud on the background-check process."

Each side has warned of ominous consequences if its position is not upheld.

"These investigations have a very negative impact on our ability to recruit the very best scientific and engineering talent to address our nation's complex technical needs," several of the JPL scientists wrote in a 2007 letter to Congress. "Many highly talented individuals, like much of the populace, attach great value to their personal liberties. We are Americans, after all."

But by finding the new background investigations improper, Solicitor General Kagan contended, the appeals court's ruling "calls into question even the most basic inquiries... that public employers undertake for prospective employees [and] appears to render suspect the most commonplace reference checks conducted by employers."

"We are, of course, quite disappointed," said Robert M. Nelson, a JPL scientist and lead plaintiff in the case. "The Solicitor General has opened a Pandora's Box, permitting the Supreme Court to possibly erase all protections that citizens might have against government snooping into the most intimate details of their private lives," he said last week.

The JPL scientists are contractors, not NASA employees, who work on unclassified projects. Government contractors who are similarly situated at other agencies (including DoE and NSF) are not required by those agencies to undergo comparable background investigations under HSPD-12. The current dispute has no bearing on the use of background investigations in the clearance process for access to classified information.

Additional information and the latest case files can be found on the plaintiffs' website here:


Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following.

"National Security Letters: Proposed Amendments in the 111th Congress," October 28, 2009:

"U.S. Fossil Fuel Resources: Terminology, Reporting, and Summary," October 28, 2009:

"Unconventional Gas Shales: Development, Technology, and Policy Issues," October 30, 2009:

"Electoral College Reform: 111th Congress Proposals and Other Current Developments," November 4, 2009:

"Congressional Printing: Background and Issues for Congress," November 5, 2009:

"Resolutions of Inquiry: An Analysis of Their Use in the House, 1947-2009," October 29, 2009:


Scripps College in Claremont, CA has been holding a semester-long series of lectures, films and other programs on the theme of "Secrets in a Democracy":

I will be speaking there on November 11.


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

See also "Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works" by Steven Aftergood, Yale Law and Policy Review, vol. 27, no. 2, Spring 2009:

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