A Secret Session of the House of Representatives

“Since 1830, the House has met behind closed doors only three times,” according to the Congressional Research Service: “in 1979 to discuss the Panama Canal, in 1980 to discuss Central American assistance, and in 1983 to discuss U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.”

On March 13, the House went into secret session once more to consider classified matters concerning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. After some extended discussion of the unusual practice, followed by a security check, public access to the proceedings was barred.

For related background see “Secret Sessions of the House and Senate” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, updated May 25, 2007, and “Secret Sessions of Congress: A Brief Historical Overview” (pdf), updated May 30, 2007.

Old Anti-nuclear Movie from FAS

The Federation of American Scientists was formed just a couple of months after the dawning of the nuclear age by scientists as who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. In the fall of 1945, there was tremendous interest in the new atomic bomb: what it was, how it worked, and its effects–and not just direct effects but the effect this invention would have on the military balance and politics of the world. FAS organized a group of its members, which it called the National Committee on Atomic Information, to talk to the public, the press, and political leaders, and to produce media materials for distribution. (Sixty two years later and we still seem to be at it…)

Jeff Aron here at FAS recently came across this amazing little film on YouTube called One World or None. It was produced by FAS and the National Committee. I have to admit, no one currently at FAS knew about it, it predates anyone’s memory here, and we are ourselves doing some research on its origins and asking our long-term members what they know. (If any of our blog readers can provide any information, please let us know.) Presumably, it was released in conjunction with the release of the first publication of the Federation, also called One World or None, a collection of essays by great scientists of the day, including Albert Einstein, that was first published in 1946. One World has recently been reprinted by the New Press in New York and is available through bookstores, Amazon, and the FAS website.

The film is clearly a bit dramatic, but the dangers of nuclear weapons are dramatic. By today’s standards, the graphics are Stone Age but the message is as important today as it ever was and doesn’t depend on fancy graphics. I can’t say you should enjoy this little film–not much to enjoy when discussing nuclear dangers–but I hope you take it to heart. The Federation is still working to reduce the global threat of nuclear weapons.

Igla missiles “available immediately” to Victor Bout, claims associate

On Thursday, famed arms merchant Victor Bout was arrested at a Thai hotel on charges of selling weapons to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 40-year-old insurgent group known for drug trafficking and terrorist attacks. In recent years, Bout and his affiliates have been accused of arranging illicit arms transfers in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and elsewhere.

The name “Victor Bout” has become synonymous with the large, clandestine arms shipments that have fueled devastating civil wars in developing countries, and the extreme difficulty of shutting down the global, ever-shifting networks that orchestrate these transfers. His arrest puts arms traffickers on notice that the days of impunity may be coming to an end.

The arrest could have significant practical implications as well, depending on the outcome of the case against Bout and the quantity and quality of information about his network acquired by authorities as a result of his arrest. If Bout is tried and convicted, and information collected along the way leads to the arrest and conviction of other key members of his global network – two big “ifs” – his arrest could indeed “mar[k] the end of the reign of one of the world’s most wanted arms traffickers,” as claimed by US Attorney Michael Garcia.

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The FBI as a Foreign Intelligence Organization

Since 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has assumed growing responsibilities as a collector of foreign intelligence, FBI budget documents (pdf) indicate.

“In May 2006, the Director of the Office of National Intelligence tasked the FBI to use its collection authorities, consistent with applicable laws and protection of civil liberties, to collect FI [foreign intelligence] information against the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and pursuant to the National HUMINT Collection Directives.”

Prior to that time, “there were no concerted efforts to collect FI exclusivly, nor did the FBI have an investigative program that solely focused intelligence collection activities on FI.”

Today, the FBI is “the primary or supporting collector on ninety-eight (98) national intelligence topics that implement the [National Intelligence Priorities Framework],” according to the FBI’s remarkably detailed congressional budget justification for fiscal year 2009 (page 6-48).

Virtually all foreign intelligence gathered by the FBI comes from confidential human sources. The Bureau requested $3.2 million to pay for source recruitment, or “approximately $16,000 per Agent for 200 Agents” (page 6-50).

The FBI Counterterrorism Division validated — i.e. checked the reliability — of 60% of its confidential human sources in FY 2007. This was an increase from 0% the year before, but short of the target of 100% validation (page 4-31).

Among other notable details, the FBI budget request states that in FY2007 there were over 21,000 “positive encounters” with known or suspected terrorists (page 4-29). “A positive encounter is one in which an encountered individual is positively matched with an identity in the Terrorist Screening Data Base.”

The budget document also reports on threats to government and private information systems, stating that “more than 20 terabytes of sensitive information has been stolen to date, disrupting military operations and significantly impacting the confidence in the integrity of our national information infrastructure” (page 6-20).

A recent national security computer intrusion investigation determined that “computers were compromised at a sensitive policy making government entity” (page 6-23).

Secrecy Reigns at the DoJ Office of Legal Counsel

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which is responsible for interpreting the law for executive branch agencies, has played an influential role in the development of Bush Administration policy, and an unusually secretive one.

In a December 7 floor statement, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) described the contents of three OLC opinions that he had been able to review. One of them discussed the nature of executive orders as a category. Sen. Whitehouse characterized the conclusions of that OLC opinion 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.”

We requested a copy of that seemingly innocuous, if questionable, opinion under the Freedom of Information Act. But the request was denied.

“We are withholding the document in full because it is classified and thus exempt under Exemption 1 of the FOIA,” the OLC responded (pdf).

“The OLC should publicly release more of its opinions, as was routinely done during Janet Reno’s tenure as attorney general during the 1990s,” the Washington Post editorialized today. “Too many Bush OLC memos remain secret, with only a handful of administration officials being privy to their conclusions.”

“During the Bush administration, the OLC has become known as a partisan enabler of legally and ethically questionable presidential policies, including those involving the use of torture.”

Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week, a national campaign to promote openness and access to information, is March 16-22, 2008. Numerous events at the national and local level, as well as online, have been scheduled to encourage a public dialogue on transparency. More information and abundant resources can be found here.

National Freedom of Information Act day will be observed on March 14 with a day-long conference sponsored by the First Amendment Center.

The recently-formed Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the American University’s Washington College of Law will hold a conference on Monday March 17.

OpenTheGovernment.org will hold a webcast conference on Government Secrecy at the National Press Club on March 19.

Other national and local Sunshine Week events are noted here.

The Reimer Digital Library is Back

The U.S. Army today restored public access to the Reimer Digital Library, as it had promised to do in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists.

At first glance, the site appears to be complete. Or at least as complete as it was before it was closed to the public last month. But there are some anomalies.

Among the items listed under “New Documents” is Field Manual Interim (FMI) 3-04.155, “Army Unmanned Aircraft System Operations.” Oddly, the link to this document is marked as Restricted, and it cannot be downloaded from the Reimer site. However, Secrecy News obtained a copy independently, and it is posted here (9 MB PDF file). The document is clearly marked “approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.”

Seemingly arbitrary restrictions on public access to online records continue to appear, and we try to swat them down when we can.

Yesterday, the Federation of American Scientists filed a Freedom of Information Act request (pdf) asking the U.S. Marine Corps to release all of the unclassified contents of its online doctrine library. That site, which had previously been available to the public, no longer is.

Frederick Seitz and the 1970 Task Force on Secrecy

The distinguished scientist Frederick Seitz who died this week was not only an accomplished physicist, global warming skeptic and tobacco industry-funded medical researcher, as obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post observed.

He was also an early, incisive critic of government secrecy.

In 1969-70, Dr. Seitz chaired the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy, leading a stellar panel of defense scientists and technologists such as Edward Teller, Jack Ruina, Marshall Rosenbluth and others, who identified fundamental defects in the secrecy and security policies of the time.

Their Task Force Report on Secrecy presented an acute critique of secrecy policy that remains pertinent.

“When an otherwise open society attempts to use classification as a protective device, it may in the long run increase the difficulties of communications within its own structure so that commensurate gains are not obtained,” the Report stated.

“Classification of technical information impedes its flow within our own system, and, may easily do far more harm than good by stifling critical discussion and review or by engendering frustration. There are many cases in which the declassification of technical information within our system probably had a beneficial effect and its classification has had a deleterious one.”

“In the opinion of the Task Force the volume of scientific and technical information that is classified could profitably be decreased by perhaps as much as 90 percent through limiting the amount of information classified and the duration of its classification.”

“The Task Force noted that more might be gained than lost if our nation were to adopt– unilaterally, if necessary– a policy of complete openness in all areas of information, but agreed that in spite of the great advantages that might accrue from such a policy, it is not a practical proposal at the present time.”

A copy of the 1970 Final Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy, chaired by the late Dr. Frederick Seitz, is posted here.

Chinese Nuclear Arsenal Increased by 25 Percent Since 2006, Pentagon Report Indicates

China’s nuclear weapons arsenal has increased by 25 percent since 2006, Pentagon reports indicate, due to deployment of new ballistic and cruise missiles.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Updated April 8, 2008

The Pentagon’s 2008 annual report to Congress on China’s military power indicates, when compared with previous versions, that China has increased its nuclear arsenal by 25 percent since 2006. The increase has happened due to deployment of new long-range solid fueled ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

Part of the increase can be expected to be offset by retirement of older liquid fueled missiles over the next several years, but the trend is toward a slightly larger arsenal in the future.

As a reminder of the tendency to estimate too much too soon, however, the 2008 report lowers the range estimates for all three types of China’s new long-range ballistic missiles, one of them by as much as 10 percent.
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