Intelligence Oversight in Retrospect

With one remarkable exception noted below, no one believes that congressional oversight of intelligence has served the nation well in recent years or that it has been adequate to the momentous demands of the time.

While the country has been roiled by debates over detention and interrogation policies, warrantless domestic intelligence surveillance, extraordinary rendition, the legality and efficacy of torture, and many other urgent and fundamental issues, the congressional intelligence committees have had surprisingly little to contribute.

Under the leadership of Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the committees could not even accomplish their baseline task of legislating an intelligence authorization bill during the past two years.

“The 109th Congress … became the first since the 94th Congress that did not pass an Intelligence Authorization Act,” observed a new report of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Fiscal year 2006 became the first since 1978 to not only begin but also to end without an intelligence authorization [act].”

Though the committees have been largely ineffective, they were not idle. The 36-page Senate committee report details the proposals that were debated, the legislative initiatives that were introduced, and the various hearings that were held, during the 109th Congress.

See Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence covering the period January 4, 2005 to December 8, 2006, Senate Report 110-57, April 26, 2007.

But from the perspective of the Central Intelligence Agency, the sharply diminished productivity of congressional oversight was just about optimal.

In particular, Senator Roberts’ leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee was “exemplary,” the CIA proclaimed in a March 19 news release.

Neither his colleagues nor his constituents found much reason to celebrate intelligence oversight during his tenure. But at a March 16 luncheon ceremony at CIA headquarters, Senator Roberts was awarded the Agency Seal Medal, which is given to people outside the Agency who have made significant contributions to the work of CIA.

Today, Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill (pdf) to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

“Guantanamo Bay has become a lightning rod for international condemnation,” Senator Feinstein said. “This has greatly damaged the nation’s credibility around the world. Rather than make the United States safer, the image projected by this facility puts us at greater risk. The time has come to close it down.”

Special Operations: 2007 Posture Statement

Across the globe from Iraq and Afghanistan to Africa to Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, U.S. Special Operations Forces are deployed to conduct unconventional warfare, psychological operations, and other activities in support of U.S. military and foreign policy objectives.

In Fiscal Year 2007, U.S. Special Operations Command has total authorized manpower of 47,911 persons, according to a new SOCOM posture statement, which provides an overview of special operations capabilities and missions.

See “U.S. SOCOM: Posture Statement 2007” (pdf), April 2007.

Some Recent NSA Declassifications

Earlier this month, the National Security Agency released several brief historical essays that had been prepared for the Agency’s Cryptologic Almanac on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2002. The essays were declassified on April 10 in response to a Mandatory Declassification Review request from Michael Ravnitzky. They include (all pdf):

“Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?” on the origins of NSA.

“SIGINT and the Fall of Saigon, April 1975”

“The First Round: NSA’s Effort Against International Terrorism in the 1970s”

“A Brief Look at ELINT at NSA”

National Exercise Program Would Test Crisis Response

On January 26, 2007, the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council approved the establishment of a National Exercise Program (NEP) that would conduct management exercises to help senior government officials prepare for national crises from terrorism to natural disasters.

In a briefing last month (pdf), the Department of Homeland Security presented a proposed Five Year Schedule for the NEP.

Proposed exercises would model government responses to a nuclear weapons accident, pandemic influenza, Olympic terrorism, IED and MANPADS attacks, and other emergency scenarios.

Cabinet officers and other senior officials would be required to participate in five such exercises annually.

See the Department of Homeland Security briefing on the National Exercise Program, March 8, 2007 (For Official Use Only).

See also “Exercise Synchronization Working Group and NEP Implementation Plan Update and Way Ahead” (pdf), Joint Chiefs of Staff, 5-6 March 2007.

Thanks to Nemo at Entropic Memes.

Sensitive Site Operations

The U.S. Army yesterday issued a new Field Manual on “Sensitive Site Operations” (FM 3-90.15, 25 April 2007).

The document itself is restricted and the Army would not immediately provide a copy to Secrecy News. But a few blanks can nevertheless be filled in.

“A sensitive site is a designated, geographically limited area with special military, diplomatic, economic, or information sensitivity for the United States,” according to the Army Field Manual (2-0) on Intelligence (pdf).

“This includes factories with technical data on enemy weapon systems, war crimes sites, critical hostile government facilities, areas suspected of containing persons of high rank in a hostile government or organization, terrorist money laundering, and document storage areas for secret police forces.”

“Sensitive site exploitation consists of a series of activities inside a sensitive site captured from an adversary.”

“These activities exploit personnel, documents, electronic data, and material captured at the site, while neutralizing any threat posed by the site or its contents. While the physical process of exploiting the sensitive site begins at the site itself, full exploitation may involve teams of experts located around the world.”

For further background and description of some fairly recent sensitive site operations, see a seminar paper entitled “The Strategic Implications of Sensitive Site Exploitation” (pdf) by Col. Thomas S. Vandal, National Defense University, 2003.

See also “Managing Sensitive Site Exploitation — Notes from Operation Iraqi Freedom” (pdf) by Major Pete Lofy, 2003.

Wal-Mart Recruits Intelligence Officers

Wal-Mart, the massive retail chain, has established its own “intelligence” unit to conduct threat assessments, and to perform intelligence collection and analysis.

And it has been recruiting senior personnel from U.S. intelligence agencies to staff its operation.

“I’ve had a number of people contact me who have purely law enforcement / security investigative backgrounds,” wrote one Wal-Mart recruiter in a January 2007 bulletin board posting. “That is not what the company is looking for.”

“The primary screening criteria for the positions is [sic] formal training and experience in intelligence analysis. If an individual does not possess that minimal criteria, then he will not be considered.”

See “Wal-Mart Recruits Intelligence Officers” by Marcus Kabel, Associated Press, April 24.

See also “Wal-Mart Defends Itself with New Intel Unit” by Jason Goodwin, Government Security News, February 2006.

Other Secrecy News

Having spent months assessing the role of contractors in U.S. intelligence agencies, U.S. intelligence officials say they cannot disclose how many contractors there are, because that’s classified. See “Government Keeps a Secret After Studying Spy Agencies” by Scott Shane, New York Times, April 26.

Veteran female intelligence officers charge that the Central Intelligence Agency deals more harshly with women employees who have relationships with foreign nationals than it does with men. See “Does the CIA have a double standard when its spies cozy up to foreigners?” by David E. Kaplan, U.S. News and World Report, April 22.

A tumultuous congressional hearing on the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program was captured by Jeff Stein in “A CIA Man Speaks His Mind on Secret Abductions,” CQ Homeland Security, April 20.

In 1967 the United States had a top secret contingency plan for attacking Israel to prevent it from moving westward into the Sinai or eastward into the West Bank, reported Amir Oren in Haaretz. See “The Right to Strike,” April 23.

Selected CRS Reports

With congressional concurrence, the Congressional Research Service refuses to make its products directly available to the public. Some noteworthy new CRS reports obtained by Secrecy News include the following (all pdf).

“Presidential Advisers’ Testimony Before Congressional Committees: An Overview,” updated April 10, 2007.

“Information Operations, Electronic Warfare, and Cyberwar: Capabilities and Related Policy Issues,” updated March 20, 2007.

“Network Centric Operations: Background and Oversight Issues for Congress,” updated March 15, 2007.

“Statutes of Limitation in Federal Criminal Cases: An Overview,” updated April 9, 2007.

“Speechwriting in Perspective: A Brief Guide to Effective and Persuasive Communication,” April 12, 2007.

Presidential Secrecy and the Law

Presidential secrecy is best understood not as an expression of executive strength but as a sign of weakness and insecurity, according to a provocative new book on the subject.

“When the president lacks diplomatic or interpersonal skill, he is likely to compensate by shielding his activities — even shielding his very self — from the public, relying on secrecy rather than diplomacy,” write political scientists Robert M. Pallitto and William G. Weaver in “Presidential Secrecy and the Law.”

The authors explore how the growth of executive branch secrecy has transformed the institution of the presidency and the character of American government.

Secrecy, they say, “has depoliticized the president’s role in governmental action. Where a president may do what is desired in secret, there is no reason to withstand the ordeal of a political battle to achieve the same ends.”

“Increasingly, our governmental institutions are unable to hold the president accountable for actions undertaken in secret in the name of national security. In a subtle but sweeping way, this failure is working detrimental changes in our federal government institutions.”

The authors review the landscape of national security secrecy and the accumulation of unchecked executive authority and they proceed to critique the performance of the legislative and judicial branches.

Legislative initiatives such as the War Powers Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that were intended to restrain the executive branch have consistently backfired, they contend, serving instead to legitimize the presidential actions that they were intended to restrict.

“As counterintuitive as it may seem, we conclude that congressional efforts to control executive abuse in areas of purported national security concerns are ill-advised. These efforts insulate the president and establish a bureaucratic machinery and process for engaging in precisely the kinds of activity that were meant to be avoided.”

“We argue that aggressive action to control executive branch abuse of secrecy should not come from Congress but from the courts, which are in a position to provide the scrutiny necessary to discourage presidential abuse of secrecy powers.”

For more information, see “Presidential Secrecy and the Law” by Robert M. Pallitto and William G. Weaver, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

A White House obsession with secrecy should not be confused with a commitment to good security. Rep. Henry Waxman yesterday itemized several gross violations of classified information security policy in the Bush White House (pdf) and called upon former White House chief of staff Andrew Card to explain security practices during his tenure.

Pentagon Proposes New Info Access Restrictions

The Department of Defense has asked Congress to enact two expansive new provisions in the FY 2008 defense authorization act to help it restrict public access to information.

One of the provisions would create a new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for certain unclassified information related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The other would establish civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized publication or sale of maps and images (“geodetic products”) that the Secretary of Defense has designated for “limited distribution.”

The proposed exemption for unclassified WMD information, which was proposed and rejected by Congress last year, is exceptionally broad in scope.

Its definition of “weapons of mass destruction” even extends to devices that are not lethal, as long as they may cause “serious bodily injury to a significant number of people” (50 U.S.C. 2302).

The Pentagon’s argument for the exemption is further undermined by the assertion that without it, unclassified information could “easily” assist a terrorist to make or use a weapon of mass destruction. The notion that terrorism is “easy,” popular with some New York Times op-ed writers and other lazy persons, was memorably dissected by George Smith of and the Dick Destiny blog.

The second provision to penalize “inappropriate disclosures” of geodetic information, “including postings of such products on the internet,” originated with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), which said it could not effectively protect these unclassified maps and images without a new criminal prohibition.

“For several years, products bearing the LIMDIS [limited dissemination] caveat have wrongfully been offered for sale to the public … on eBay or displayed on internet sites. To date, DCIS efforts to prosecute the eBay sellers have not been successful.”

An organization that engaged in unauthorized disclosure or dissemination of such materials would be subject to a penalty of “not more than $500,000 for each violation….”

The text of the two proposed Pentagon access restrictions, with accompanying explanation and justification, may be found here.