from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2010, Issue No. 78
September 29, 2010

Secrecy News Blog:


By censoring Anthony Shaffer's new book "Operation Dark Heart" even though uncensored review copies are already available in the public domain, the Department of Defense has produced a genuinely unique product: a revealing snapshot of the way that the Obama Administration classifies national security information in 2010.

With both versions before them, readers can see for themselves exactly what the Pentagon classifiers wanted to withhold, and can judge for themselves whether the secrecy they tried to impose can be justified on valid national security grounds. In the majority of instances, the results of such an inspection seem disappointing, if not very surprising, and they tend to confirm the most skeptical view of the operation of the classification system.

The most commonly repeated "redaction" in Operation Dark Heart is the author's cover name, "Christopher Stryker," that he used while serving in Afghanistan. Probably the second most common redactions are references to the National Security Agency, its heaquarters location at Fort Meade, Maryland, the familiar abbreviation SIGINT (referring to "signals intelligence"), and offhand remarks like "Guys on phones were always great sources of intel," which is blacked out on the bottom of page 56.

Also frequently redacted are mentions of the term TAREX or "Target Exploitation," referring to intelligence collection gathered at a sensitive site, and all references to low-profile organizations such as the Air Force Special Activities Center and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as to foreign intelligence partners such as New Zealand. Task Force 121 gets renamed Task Force 1099. The code name Copper Green, referring to an "enhanced" interrogation program, is deleted.

Perhaps 10% of the redacted passages do have some conceivable security sensitivity, including the identity of the CIA chief of station in Kabul, who has been renamed "Jacob Walker" in the new version, and a physical description of the location and appearance of the CIA station itself, which has been censored.

Many other redactions are extremely tenuous. The name of character actor Ned Beatty is not properly classified in any known universe, yet it has been blacked out on page 15 of the book. (It still appears intact in the Index.)

In short, the book embodies the practice of national security classification as it exists in the United States today. It does not exactly command respect.

A few selected pages from the original and the censored versions of Operation Dark Heart have been posted side-by-side for easy comparison here:

The New York Times reported on the Pentagon's dubious handling of the book in "Secrets in Plain Sight in Censored Book's Reprint" by Scott Shane, September 18:


The House and Senate this week approved legislation that will require the Inspector General of each executive branch agency that classifies information to evaluate the agency's classification program and to assess its implementation of classification policies and procedures. The new measure should help to bolster the oversight of the national security classification system, which is currently the sole responsibility of the Information Security Oversight Office.

The provision was included in the "Reducing Over-classification Act" (HR 553), which was originally introduced by Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) and amended by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and which generally seeks to promote improved information sharing.

Despite its bold title, the legislation does not establish any new criteria for assuring appropriate classification nor does it even define the term overclassification. Yet by enlisting the Inspectors General to oversee agency compliance with current classification policies, the bill may make a significant contribution to addressing the problem of wrongful or unnecessary secrecy.

In particular, the IGs may be expected to monitor agency implementation of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, the Obama Administration initiative that is supposed to eliminate obsolete classification requirements in each agency (as required by executive order 13526, section 1.9). To date, there is no available evidence that agencies have made any progress in performing the Reviews, which must be completed by June 2012.


The Government Accountability Office seems poised to play an increased role in intelligence oversight, despite a series of legislative setbacks and the Obama Administration's threat of a veto earlier in the year.

The issue remains alive in the FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act which was approved in the Senate on September 27 and which now appears likely to be enacted into law, due to the sustained efforts of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Anna Eshoo, and Sen. Daniel Akaka, among others. The Act (in section 348) requires the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a directive on GAO access to intelligence community information -- thereby setting the stage for a stable new role for the GAO in intelligence agency audits and reviews.

In a letter to Congress withdrawing the threat of a veto (reprinted in the record of the floor debate), ODNI General Counsel Robert S. Litt stressed that the new directive would not imply any change in existing law or authority for the GAO. He added that the directive would also conform with "relevant opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel." However, the only OLC opinion on the subject is from 1988, and it argued that GAO access to intelligence information is "precluded" by law. It hardly seems likely that the new directive would affirm that view.

Instead, the required directive should be seen as analogous to the recently updated Pentagon directive that permitted GAO access to highly classified special access programs, suggested Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair.

"The GAO has produced very useful studies" on defense intelligence matters, said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., at his July 20 confirmation hearing. "I think the GAO serves a useful purpose for us."


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

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