from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2012, Issue No. 22
March 12, 2012

Secrecy News Blog:


As long ago as the Gerald Ford Administration, the National Security Agency was directed to help secure non-governmental communications networks against intrusion and interception by foreign -- or domestic -- entities, according to a recently declassified presidential directive.

"The President is concerned about possible damage to the national security and the economy from continuing Soviet intercept of critical non-government communications, including government defense contractors and certain other key institutions in the private sector," wrote National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft in National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM) 338 of September 1, 1976.

"The President further recognizes that U.S. citizens and institutions should have a reasonable expectation of privacy from foreign or domestic intercept when using the public telephone system. The President has therefore decided that communication security should be extended to government defense contractors dealing in classified or sensitive information at the earliest possible time. He has also directed that planning be undertaken to meet the longer-term need to protect other key institutions in the private sector, and, ultimately, to provide a reasonable expectation of privacy for all users of public telecommunications."

The directive ordered that "in confirmed threat areas," existing communications networks involving classified information should be transitioned from microwave circuits to secure cable "as soon as possible." A broader plan to protect non-governmental communications was also to be prepared.

"The President further directs the Director of the Office of Telecommunications Policy, with the participation and assistance of DOD and NSA, to prepare a detailed Action Plan setting forth the actions and schedule milestones necessary to achieve a wide degree of protection for private sector microwave communications. The Plan should identify needed policy and regulatory decisions, describe in detail the roles of industry and government, including management and funding considerations, and integrate the schedule for these actions with the technical development milestones."

"The Action Plan should be based on the fundamental objective of protecting the privacy of all users of public telecommunications, as well as satisfying specific needs of the government," the directive stated.

The 1976 directive was originally marked TOP SECRET / SENSITIVE (XGDS), where XGDS stood for "exempt from general declassification schedule." It was declassified on September 13, 2011. The document had been requested through the mandatory declassification review process by Dr. John Laprise of Northwestern University.

The directive prefigures an ongoing controversy over the proper role, and the actual extent, of National Security Agency involvement in securing public communications.

In response to a FOIA lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the NSA said (and a court affirmed) that it could "neither confirm or deny" a relationship between the Agency and Google. NSA has also refused to release the 2008 National Security Presidential Directive 54, which reportedly tasks the Agency with certain cybersecurity functions.


The Watergate scandal was a formative episode in American political culture that powerfully reinforced public skepticism towards government and fostered a heroic image of the intrepid reporter aided by his truth-telling source. But the reality, as usual, is more complicated than the received narrative. In a fascinating new book, "Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat," Max Holland probes deep into the record of Watergate to illuminate some of those complications.

The question that Holland sets out to answer is the nature of "Deep Throat's" agenda. What drove FBI official Mark Felt to disclose sensitive investigative information about the Watergate burglary and the ensuing coverup to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post? What were his motivations and what was he hoping to accomplish?

Holland pays close attention to what Felt told Woodward (and when), what Felt could have told Woodward but did not, and what he told Woodward that was not actually true.

His conclusion, spelled out at the beginning of the book, is that Felt's actions are best understood in the context of the struggle over who would succeed J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI. Felt hoped it would be him.

"More than any other single factor, the desperate, no-holds-barred war of succession explains why Mark Felt did what he did, and to a considerable extent, why the scandal played out in the media as it did," Holland writes. "The contest to succeed Hoover was perceived as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and it brought out the worst in the Bureau and Mark Felt."

"The portrait of Felt that emerges when we follow this thread does not resemble any of Bob Woodward's depictions," in Holland's judgment. "Felt held the news media in contempt and was neither a high-minded whistle-blower, nor was he genuinely concerned about defending his institution's integrity."

"Woodward believed that he and Felt were on the same side, allies in the struggle to expose the facts and larger truth. For Felt, however, their relationship was simply a means to the end of becoming FBI director. If that end was best served by salting the information he gave Woodward with details that had only a casual relationship with the facts, so be it."

Strictly speaking, Felt's motives in leaking information are of secondary importance, if not quite irrelevant. Holland cites an observation by Timothy Noah that "If the free flow of vital information about our government depended on the purity of heart of all concerned, we would know very little. Happily, we are as likely to learn what we need to know through the pursuit of cheap advantage."

Still, Holland says, "a recognition that Felt was seeking personal advancement first and foremost would have led to heightened scrutiny of his claims and a better version of the obtainable truth."

More broadly, a reader of the book will be reminded to question the motives of sources, especially anonymous sources. Further, one may conclude that the mantle of "whistleblower" is not one to be lightly claimed or bestowed. (Some may feel that publishing collections of stolen email, for example, does not qualify.)

"Leak" is a work of impressive scholarship, yet it is vividly told and quite engrossing. Reading it on the subway, I missed my stop. The book benefits from the intrinsic drama of Watergate, and from the enduring impact of Woodward and Bernstein's book (and Redford's movie) "All the President's Men." For better or worse, the story is one that transcends its time.

"Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat" by Max Holland was published last week by University of Kansas Press.


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

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