from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2013, Issue No. 83
September 19, 2013

Secrecy News Blog:


Kenneth L. Wainstein, the former head of the Justice Department National Security Division, was named to the Public Interest Declassification Board by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr. Wainstein is a smart guy and an honorable public servant. But he is not the first or second person most people might think of to help advance "public interest declassification." In fact, the records that he classified as a Justice Department official or as President Bush's Homeland Security Advisor might well be the object of such declassification.

But then the Public Interest Declassification Board itself, which advises the White House on declassification policy, is dominated by former government officials, including several intelligence agency leaders. That has not prevented the Board from producing an important critique of declassification policy (Improving Declassification, 2008) and a more ambitious, somewhat less satisfactory report on classification policy (Transforming the Security Classification System, 2012).

"The members of the PIDB look forward to working with Mr. Wainstein as they continue their efforts to support a transformation of the security classification system," the Board said in a blog posting.

A deeper problem is that the Obama White House appears to be incapable of acting on the recommendations from the Board, even though it requested them. Nearly a year has passed since the Board's last report, and no response from the White House has been forthcoming. It's not even clear who would be expected to respond-- the National Security Advisor? the Homeland Security Advisor? the Director of National Intelligence (who also serves as "Security Executive Agent")?

In the absence of effective White House action, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and James E. Risch (R-ID) have introduced legislation that builds on the 2012 PIDB report "to facilitate and enhance the declassification of information that merits declassification" (S. 1464).


In its endless pursuit of national security, the United States has compromised core Constitutional values including civilian control of the military and states' rights, writes William M. Arkin in his new book "American Coup" (Little, Brown, 2013).

Since 9/11, a growing fraction of the population been mobilized and credentialed in support of homeland security -- whether as law enforcement, first responders, or those who simply "see something and say something."

"What is military and what is civilian is increasingly obscured," Arkin writes. "The state and local police forces are militarized and networked into one; states have their own intelligence establishments; the big cities make their own foreign policies."

What concerns Arkin, and what his book helps to illuminate, is what he describes as a parallel apparatus of executive authority that has developed outside of Constitutional norms (and beyond public awareness) to respond to national emergencies-- catastrophic acts of terrorism, nuclear disasters, threats to presidential survival, or other extraordinary events.

Some of this is familiar ground, and has been previously described under the rubric of Continuity of Government, or Continuity of Operations, dating back to the Eisenhower Administration. But it has expanded and been formalized, Arkin says, in a series of classified Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs) that assert all but unchecked executive power. And while those administrative instruments are technically dormant most of the time, they exercise a baleful influence on the normal conduct of political life, he argues.

Despite its garish and off-putting title (and subtitle: "How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution"), "American Coup" is not a manifesto, nor a call to action.

What makes the book interesting and valuable, rather, is its close reading of official documents in search of clues to undisclosed power structures. Arkin is a careful student and a subtle analyst of military doctrine, a neglected genre rich with insights waiting to be discovered. For some readers, the 100 pages of endnotes will be the most rewarding part of the book.

Arkin observes, for example, that an official U.S. Army history states that martial law has only been declared once in United States history. But an Army field manual reports that martial law has been imposed four times. The Justice Department said there had been two such cases. All of these are in error, he concludes, and reflect inconsistent definitions of the term. Meanwhile, he reports that the Army issued a new official definition of martial law in 2010 "for the first time in years."

Arkin is the co-author (with Dana Priest) of "Top Secret America," and many other works of research into national security policy.

"American Coup" was written prior to the revelations by Edward Snowden of unsuspected bulk collection of American telephone records by the National Security Agency, and such practices are not specifically discussed in the book. But Arkin would likely argue that the Snowden revelations are a special case of a more general phenomenon, in which national security is invoked to justify secret actions that exceed the bounds of public consent.

Arkin does not propose any kind of policy response to the political problems he perceives. In fact, beyond some marginal steps that might be taken, he says that "bigger changes are blocked" by the powers that be. Those who believe otherwise will need to look elsewhere.


New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News include the following.

Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress, September 17, 2013:

Chemical Weapons: A Summary Report of Characteristics and Effects, September 13, 2013:

North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation, September 13, 2013:

Federal Climate Change Funding from FY2008 to FY2014, September 13, 2013:

Climate Change Legislation in the 113th Congress, September 16, 2013:

Federal Permitting and Oversight of Export of Fossil Fuels, September 17, 2013:

Expiration and Extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, September 16, 2013:

Guam: U.S. Defense Deployments, September 12, 2013:

Russian Political, Economic, and Security Issues and U.S. Interests, September 13, 2013:

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Categorical Eligibility, September 17, 2013:

Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program: Overview and Current Issues, September 13, 2013:

Rebuilding Household Wealth: Implications for Economic Recovery, September 13, 2013:

Consumers and Food Price Inflation, September 13, 2013:

Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress, September 16, 2013:


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

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