Obama: New Web Site Will Help Challenge “Nation of Secrets”

Senator Barack Obama praised the launch of a new government website yesterday that tracks federal contract awards.

The new website — USAspending.gov — constitutes “an important milestone on the path to greater openness and transparency in the Federal Government,” he said.

“I have been very troubled by the extent to which America has become a nation of government secrets,” said Senator Obama. “More and more information is kept secret or made intolerably complicated and inaccessible. More and more decisions are made behind closed doors with access limited to insiders and lobbyists.”

“USAspending.gov along with watchdog groups will give us all tools to help buck that trend,” he said.

The new website resulted from legislation enacted last year, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, that was sponsored by Sen. Obama and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

The Office of Management and Budget developed the website with technical support from the non-profit OMB Watch, along with advocacy support from the Sunlight Foundation and other organizations.

The web site does not include information on classified spending and contracting.

Deliberating the Intelligence Budget in France

Although last year’s budget for national intelligence was disclosed, current year spending remains classified, reflecting a judgment by the Bush Administration that its disclosure would cause serious damage to national security.

So it is interesting to see that current intelligence spending is treated matter-of-factly in some other countries, and publicly disclosed without any fanfare at all.

In France, for example, the intelligence budget is addressed as part of the normal deliberative process.

The latest parliamentary budget report notes the precise staff levels of each of the French intelligence services, their individual budgets, and the total amount of spending on intelligence for the coming year: 743.5 million euros, with a total of 9,500 employees.

Not only that, but the parliament notes that French intelligence resources compare unfavorably with those of key allies such as the United Kingdom (3.3 billion euros, with 13,400 staff) and Germany (16,500 employees, budget not given).

This disparity could become a problem, the report notes candidly, because intelligence sharing with foreign partners is predicated on the ability of each side to provide useful information to the other.

(“En matière de renseignement, la capacité à obtenir des informations de la part de partenaires étrangers repose sur la possibilité d’en fournir en échange. Avec des services français de qualité mais dont la taille et les budgets sont sensiblement inférieurs à ceux des deux autres principaux acteurs dans le domaine en Europe, c’est la possibilité même de travailler sur un plan d’égalité qui finira par être remise en question.”)

See the French parliamentary discussion of intelligence spending here.

While current intelligence spending remains classified in the United States (though it must be disclosed by the end of next October), the Federation of American Scientists this week asked the Director of National Intelligence to declassify past intelligence spending levels dating back to the beginning of the National Foreign Intelligence Program.

Last October, Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said (pdf) he is “hopeful that the top line numbers for previous fiscal years will be declassified so the public can get a full accounting of the government’s priorities over the last two decades.”

U.S. Africa Command, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made available to the public online include the following (all pdf).

“Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa,” updated December 7, 2007.

“China’s Currency: Economic Issues and Options for U.S. Trade Policy,” updated November 29, 2007.

“Belarus: Background and U.S. Policy Concerns,” updated November 29, 2007.

“Strategic Airlift Modernization: Analysis of C-5 Modernization and C-17 Acquisition Issues,” November 28, 2007.

“Nonproliferation and Threat Reduction Assistance: U.S. Programs in the Former Soviet Union,” updated November 28, 2007.

“Terrorism and Security Issues Facing the Water Infrastructure Sector,” updated November 16, 2007.

Curious Omission in a Congressional Budget Office Report on Plutonium Reprocessing

On 14 November, Peter Orszag, Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the relative costs of plutonium reprocessing and direct disposal of used nuclear fuel. The oral testimony was quite brief and, unless otherwise noted, my comments are based primarily on the longer and presumably more carefully prepared written testimony. The testimony contained many errors, not all of them trivial, but one gigantic omission discussed at the end of this essay is inexcusable and calls into question the credibility of the entire CBO report.

When Mr. Orszag writes that “Uranium-235 is relatively scarce and typically makes up less than 1 percent of mined uranium ore” it could just be poor wording—235 does not typically make up less than a percent, it is 0.71% everywhere in the world (with one fascinating exception)—but I don’t know how that ambiguity is going to affect the Committee’s decision about whether to support a national plutonium reprocessing program to separate the plutonium and other components of used fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

When he writes that, “Under reprocessing—which is done in a few countries but not the United States—a reprocessing facility recovers the useful components of the spent fuel (uranium and certain forms of plutonium) and returns them to the fuel cycle, where they are combined with newly mined uranium to produce more reactor fuel …” I start to worry because reprocessing recovers all forms of plutonium, not certain forms, and this is an error that is starting to affect the question of whether we should reprocess the plutonium from commercial nuclear reactors.

When he writes that, “Spot prices for uranium have recently reached historical highs (adjusted for inflation), but high prices would have to persist for decades to increase the economic viability of reprocessing” and later in his testimony, “Although uranium prices are currently high by historical standards, it is not certain whether high prices will continue in the future or whether current prices will encourage additional uranium development that could lower prices,” he addresses an issue that directly affects the attractiveness of reprocessing. He should have added that, at the time he spoke, uranium spot prices had already tumbled by almost half from their summer peaks and that the surge in prices was far more likely to be a replay of the bump in the late 70s than a long term increase.

But, really, all these problems, and there are others, are small potatoes compared to the great glaring omission: The CBO study, in developing its cost estimates, used two other studies, one by a respected group of academics at Harvard and the University of Maryland—including John Holdren, the current president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Steve Fetter, the Dean of the School of Public Policy at Maryland—and the other by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Starting from the cost estimates in these two studies, CBO essentially splits the differences between their cost estimates to arrive at a “best estimate” for the economic viability of plutonium reprocessing. The authors of these two reports were not mentioned at all in the oral testimony before the committee. But the BCG report was prepared on contract for Areva, the French company, partially owned by the French government, that hopes to sell the United States a multi-billion dollar reprocessing facility. Search as I may, I could not find in the prepared text of CBO testimony any mention of the origin of this cost study. Finally, I did find a reference, in a parenthetical comment in a footnote, and then in a caption in a chart. But the CBO report did not reprint this key paragraph from the BCG report:

“This report was prepared by The Boston Consulting Group at the request of AREVA. BCG reviewed publicly available information and proprietary data provided by AREVA, but did not undertake any independent verification of the facts contained in those source materials. Changes in these facts or underlying assumptions could change the results reported in this study. Any other party using this report for any purpose, or relying on this report in any way, does so at their own risk. No representation or warranty, express or implied, is made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented herein or its suitability for any particular purpose.”

In other words, this is not some independent, disinterested report from some unheard-of “Boston Consulting Group,” this is an Areva study; Areva just hired a contractor to crunch a couple of numbers, write some narrative, and put a cover on it. Can anyone imagine that the origin and motivation for this report would not be of immense interest to the members of the Committee who are trying to judge the credibility of competing cost claims? Not that Areva’s numbers are necessarily wrong but if the Congress were deciding on purchase of, say, a new fighter plane, they would not unquestioningly use cost calculations from, say, Boeing if Boeing is hoping to win a huge government contract to manufacture it. Moreover, the difference between the two reports is not trivial. BCG estimates that reprocessing reactor waste will cost $30 more per kilogram than direct geological disposal while the Harvard study estimates that reprocessing will cost $700 more per kilogram, that is, a twenty three times greater addition.

CBO owes it to Congress to be more than clear, to be emphatic, when it is basing its reports on “analysis” carried out by clearly vested groups with the potential to make huge profits from government contracts decided by the vote of Congress.

The post Curious Omission in a Congressional Budget Office Report on Plutonium Reprocessing appears on the FAS Strategic Security Blog.

Curious Omission in a Congressional Budget Office Report on Plutonium Reprocessing

On 14 November, Peter Orszag, Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the relative costs of plutonium reprocessing and direct disposal of used nuclear fuel. The oral testimony was quite brief and, unless otherwise noted, my comments are based primarily on the longer and presumably more carefully prepared written testimony. The testimony contained many errors, not all of them trivial, but one gigantic omission discussed at the end of this essay is inexcusable and calls into question the credibility of the entire CBO report.
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Did CIA Violate the Federal Records Act?

Even if the videotapes of interrogation sessions that were destroyed by the Central Intelligence Agency showed nothing illegal or untoward, their destruction could still be a violation of the federal law which requires the preservation of official records, suggested Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) yesterday.

Rep. Waxman asked Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein to render a judgment as to whether the destruction of the videotapes was consistent with the law.

“I would like your opinion on whether the CIA’s destruction of these videotapes was in accordance with the Federal Records Act and your implementing regulations,” Waxman wrote (pdf) on December 11.

CIA’s records management failures, including inadequate preservation of audiovisual records, are a longstanding
concern of the National Archives and Records Administration.

“Videos stored in the ARC [CIA Agency Records Center] are in danger of catastrophic loss due to tape binder failure and/or fungal contamination,” the Archives found in a 2000 audit of CIA records management practices.

And some CIA employees seemed oblivious to the laws governing record preservation, NARA reported.

“Some of the agency personnel who create and maintain special media do not recognize them as federal records that may be disposed only in accordance with NARA-approved schedules,” the Archives audit found.

The 2000 audit of “Records Management in the Central Intelligence Agency,” cited in Rep. Waxman’s letter, was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) yesterday asked the White House to explicitly confirm that a White House directive to preserve records related to the destruction of CIA videotapes encompassed all White House records.

“In light of the Office of the Vice President’s record of fatuous arguments that it is not subject to the authority of the President, please also confirm that the directive included the Office of the Vice President and that the Office of the Vice President intends to comply,” Sen. Biden wrote.

Sen. Biden was apparently referring to the Vice President’s position, recently endorsed by the Justice Department, that his Office is not an “executive branch entity” for purposes of classification oversight.

White House Objects to FY2008 Intelligence Authorization Bill

Perhaps the clearest indication lately that intelligence oversight still matters is a new White House Statement of Administration Policy (pdf) expressing strong opposition to the FY2008 Intelligence Authorization bill.

“If this bill were to pass the House and the Senate and be presented to the President for signature, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill,” the Statement notes.

On issue after issue, from interrogation to congressional reporting, the White House indicates disapproval of the new legislation, which has already been accepted by a House-Senate conference and awaits a final vote in each house.

Among other things, “The Administration also objects to section 328, which attempts to use Congress’ power of the purse to circumvent the authority of the Executive Branch to control access to extraordinarily sensitive information.”

This provision, which represents something of a new milestone in intelligence oversight, would impose a “fence” on certain spending until the Administration briefs the intelligence committees on the Israeli strike on a Syrian facility. It was introduced by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) and adopted on a bipartisan basis.

A Resolution on Internet Access to CRS Reports

A bipartisan resolution to provide online public access to Congressional Research Service reports was introduced in the Senate yesterday.

“The Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate, in consultation with the Director of the Congressional Research Service, shall make available through a centralized electronic system, for purposes of access and retrieval by the public … all information described in paragraph (2) that is available through the Congressional Research Service website,” the Resolution states.

Exemptions from disclosure are included for copyrighted and personal information, and for reports that are prepared confidentially for an individual member or committee.

The resolution, S. Res. 401, was jointly introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman, John McCain, Susan Collins, Patrick Leahy, John Cornyn and Tom Harkin.

The Legislative Branch must “increase its transparency and expand its interactive relationship with the public,” said Sen. Lieberman (pdf) yesterday.

“In this spirit, Senators McCain, Collins and I are introducing today legislation to require the Congressional Research Service to make its extremely valuable reports public. No method currently exists for the public to access them quickly and easily. As a result, many businesses collect the reports and sell them to paying customers. Our bill would allow members and Committees to easily post all CRS reports on their websites to anyone with internet access,” Sen. Lieberman said.

This arguably overstates the case on several points — “extremely valuable,” “no method,” and “many businesses.” And similar legislative initiatives have proved fruitless in the past. But this one may fare better, particularly since it does not appear to require coordination with the House of Representatives.

A Reversal for CIA in JFK FOIA Lawsuit

A federal appeals court last week overturned (pdf) a lower court ruling that the CIA had won in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit involving JFK assassination records, and ordered CIA to continue processing the request.

The case involves records sought by journalist Jefferson Morley that he believes will provide new insight into the assassination.

“This decision, if the CIA respects it, will shed new light on one of the murkiest areas of the Kennedy assassination story: the CIA intelligence collection operations that picked up on Lee Harvey Oswald in the weeks before JFK went to Dallas,” Mr. Morley said.

FOIA decisions against the CIA are relatively rare. The latest decision does not immediately imply any new release of records, but requires the CIA to perform a new search and to provide further justification for its opposition to disclosure.

See “CIA Loses Case at DC Circuit” in The FOIA Blog, December 7.

Mr. Morley recently presented his views of the JFK assassination in “The Man Who Didn’t Talk” in Playboy.

Vice President’s Office is Not an Agency, ISOO Told

The Office of the Vice President is not an “agency” for purposes of the executive order on classification and therefore its classification and declassification activity no longer need be reported to the Information Security Oversight Office, the Justice Department finally informed ISOO Director Bill Leonard in a newly disclosed letter (pdf).

In a January 9, 2007 letter to the Attorney General, Director Leonard had questioned the OVP’s refusal since 2003 to submit to normal oversight. He was following up on a complaint (pdf) filed with ISOO by the Federation of American Scientists, which was also forwarded to the Attorney General.

The OVP’s position is not consistent with a “plain text reading” of the executive order, Mr. Leonard wrote (pdf) to the Attorney General at that time.

Be that as it may, the President’s intention is that the Office of Vice President should not be considered an “agency” for purposes of oversight, Steven G. Bradbury of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel wrote to Mr. Leonard on July 20, 2007 on behalf of the Attorney General. He cited another letter ((pdf) to that effect from White House counsel Fred Fielding.

The Bradbury letter to ISOO was obtained by blogger Marcy Wheeler, who disclosed it today on her blog EmptyWheel.

The Bush Administration’s evident willingness to reinterpret — not revise — the executive order and to deviate from what is commonly understood as the order’s “plain text” meaning illustrates the unreliability of executive orders as a safeguard of public rights, Ms. Wheeler stressed.

The move gave new resonance to a statement presented on the Senate floor last week by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) who described an Office of Legal Counsel opinion which he said concludes as follows:

“An Executive order cannot limit a President. There is no constitutional requirement for a President to issue a new Executive order whenever he wishes to depart from the terms of a previous Executive order. Rather than violate an Executive order, the President has instead modified or waived it.”

What the President is claiming, Sen. Whitehouse said, is that “I don’t have to follow my own rules, and if I break them, I don’t have to tell you that I am breaking them.”