Viewing Secrecy Through “Blank Spots on the Map”

“I think that trying to understand secrecy through geography helps make the subject more real,” writes Trevor Paglen in a new book about secret government. “Thinking about secrecy in terms of concrete spaces and practices helps us to see how secrecy happens and helps to explain how secrecy grows and expands.”

Paglen, a geographer, writes about secrecy at the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, secret prisons in Afghanistan, secret satellite constellations in orbit, secret contractor locations around Washington, DC, and elsewhere. He considers their enabling conditions, as well as their implications for American democracy and public policy.

“The United States has become dependent on spaces created through secrecy, spaces that lie outside the rule of law, outside the Constitution, outside the democratic ideals of equal rights, transparent government, and informed consent,” he concludes. Worse, “the black world’s historical geography shows that where black budgets manifest into a space, informal violence becomes the norm.”

“Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World” by Trevor Paglen has just been published by Dutton Books.

The book has won enthusiastic blurbs from Andrew Bacevich, Robert Baer, Rebecca Solnit, and other esteemed authors. But it has important limitations and defects.

Paglen is a fluid writer with an eye for paradox and incongruity. But he is not a perfectly reliable guide to secrecy policy and practice. There are probably closer to three million persons holding security clearances, not four million [see correction below]. The majority of them are not employees of “the black world” of covert or unacknowledged programs but are engaged in perfectly overt activities that happen to involve handling of classified information. It is absurd to suppose that “In terms of numbers of pages, more of our own recent history is classified than is not” (p. 279). It is not correct to say the term “DET 3” never appeared on official Groom Lake documents (p. 41); it appeared on a facility security guide. The TIARA and JMIP intelligence budget categories which Paglen says are classified (p. 204) have not been in use for several years now.

Paglen’s point of departure is that there is a “lack of serious literature” about black sites and classified government operations (p. 13). But this premise cannot be sustained. If anything, there is an excess of largely repetitive material on the same themes. There are at least two books about Groom Lake alone, the subject of Paglen’s chapter 3. There are at least two other books about the 1953 Supreme Court decision in the Reynolds case on state secrets, which he summarizes in chapter 10. There are several other books about the black budget and classified spending, a topic he introduces in chapter 12, and so forth.

There are also some surprising “blank spots” in Paglen’s own narrative. In the 1990s, an independent researcher named Glenn Campbell spent years mapping the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, testing its perimeters and security procedures, scouting out the best public domain vantage points, and tracking the “Janet” airplanes in their daily flights to and from Groom Lake, fifteen years before Paglen did something similar. Without a credential or a book contract, he produced an astounding volume of genuine “black world” geography called the “Area 51 Viewer’s Guide.” But except for a misspelling of his name in an incidental footnote (p. 286), Campbell’s pioneering effort goes completely unacknowledged. Campbell himself would probably find his erasure from the record sublime, but to me it is dispiriting.

Finally, Paglen is so fascinated by the corruption of secrecy that he misses an opportunity to think more critically and more deeply about the subject. In his view, the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, is an instrument of “domination” while those who work diligently to expose its secrets are servants of “the public good” (p. 119). But what if the opposite is true? What if by performing secret missions that are authorized and funded by the people’s elected representatives the NRO is actually an agent of liberty? And what if those who work to penetrate its secrecy are thereby undermining its democratically authorized mission? These are live issues for some of us, and there are various ways to respond to them. But in “Blank Spots on the Map” the questions themselves find no place.

Correction: Paglen was roughly correct about the number of security clearances, which reached a reported 4.2 million in 2010, and I was mistaken.

Responding to a Nuclear Detonation, and Other Resources

“It is incumbent upon all levels of government, as well as public and private parties within the U.S., to prepare for” a nuclear detonation in a U.S. city, according to a new U.S. government document.  “Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation” (pdf) was drafted by an interagency team and published by the Homeland Security Council earlier this month (h/t

Security requirements for the protection of classified or controlled information held by the Department of Energy are set forth in a newly revised “Information Security Manual” (pdf), DoE Manual 470.4-4A, January 16, 2009.

Current policy on biosecurity was discussed in a newly published congressional hearing entitled “One Year Later — Implementing the Biosurveillance Requirements of the 9/11 Act,” House Homeland Security Committee, July 16, 2008.

The record of a May 21, 2008 House Judiciary hearing on “FBI Whistleblowers,” featuring witness testimony from Bassem Youssef and Mike German (now of the ACLU), has also been recently published.

Thoughts on the Stimulus

Looking at the numbers pulled out from yesterday’s post, there are a few things I want to note.

First of all, the amount of money being put into building retrofits is pretty astounding. Just under 35 billion is included in the house stimulus package that is strictly for retrofitting and renovating buildings. This isn’t all solely for energy-efficiency measures, but much of it is. This includes money to the DOE Weatherization Assistance Program, money for the US General Services Administration to improve energy efficiency of federal buildings, grants to improve the energy efficiency of HUD subsidized housing for the elderly, disabled, and for Section 8, and for improving schools and institutions of higher education.

All of this is really exciting, but it also creates an astounding puzzle: how to ramp up these programs to such enormous levels quickly and effectively. For example, the Weatherization Assistance Program was allocated $227.2 Million last year. There is a national framework and a network of state and local agencies already in place, and allowances per building have been doubled, but absorbing roughly 25 times the amount of money will be a dramatic challenge.  A national framework for training and certification, as well as some sort of national database to expedite the process of analyzing and retrofitting buildings to the full cost-effective level. FAS is currently putting together thoughts on this, and I’ll have more on this shortly.

Another important point to note is tucked into the section on State Energy Program grants. The bill allocates $3.4 Billion to state energy programs, but allows money beyond normal allocations to be distributed only to states that have “decoupled” utility profits from sales in their regulation. This allows for utilities to profit from energy efficiency, rather than strictly from producing more energy, and it has been shown to be an important tool in energy reductions. It appears as though this was Rep. Waxman’s doing, and a more in depth account can be found here.

In addition to being tied to decoupling, these state energy program grants are to be given to states where the residential building code is equivalent or better than the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (and for commercial buildings, ASHRAE 90.1-2007). This is also encouraging. There are two halves to improving the national building stock through building codes: improving the codes themselves, and then getting municipalities to adopt them. Hopefully this carrot will help push states towards these improved codes.

Its unclear what of this will emerge in the final version of the stimulus, and I’ll be keeping an eye and adding more thoughts as things happen.

Buildings In The House Stimulus Package

The House of Representatives passed the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 yesterday, sending the stimulus package to the senate. We’ve taken a look through the bill and have pulled out the sections related to buildings, and more specifically, building retrofits. Overall, we’re pleased to see that so much attention has been paid to weatherization and buildings, and we’re excited to see how this will play out.

We will look through the senate version of the stimulus when it gets sorted out. In the meantime, you can find the full text of the house bill here, and our analysis below.

Continue reading

New Directive Seeks to Bolster Air, Sea Intelligence

Ambitious new interagency structures that are supposed to provide an improved intelligence response to maritime and air threats to national security are described in a newly-disclosed Intelligence Community Directive.

The directive establishes what it calls Communities of Interest (COI) “to maximize intelligence collection and all-source analytic coordination.”

“IC stakeholders in the maritime and air COIs shall aggressively collaborate and share information to proactively identify and mitigate threats posed within these domains as early and as geographically distant from the U.S. as possible,” the new directive states.

A plan to maximize air domain awareness “directs development and improvement of new capabilities that enable persistent and effective monitoring of all aircraft, cargo, people, and infrastructure in identified areas of interest and at designated times, consistent with protecting civil liberties and privacy,” the directive says.

“Creating a shared common awareness among intelligence, law enforcement and operational communities is a complex task,” the directive notes, “and many associated policy and legal implications must be resolved to achieve success.”

The January 14, 2009 directive, signed by former Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell, has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

See “Global Maritime and Air Intelligence Integration,” Intelligence Community Directive 902, effective 14 January 2009.

U.S. Military Embraces Space Control, “Proximity Operations”

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued updated military doctrine on space operations (pdf) that includes new material on “offensive space control” and “proximity operations.”

Offensive space control “entails the negation of enemy space capabilities through denial, deception, disruption, degradation, or destruction.”

“Adversaries — both state and non-state actors — will exploit increased access to space-based capabilities. Hence, it is incumbent on the US military to negate the adversaries’ use of those space capabilities that affect the safety and well-being of US, allied, and coalition forces,” the new publication says.

Another new section of the document addresses “rendezvous and proximity operations,” in which “two resident space objects are intentionally brought operationally close together.”

In addition to assembly and servicing missions, proximity operations “include the potential to support a wide range of future US space capabilities,” which are not further specified.

See Joint Publication 3-14, “Space Operations,” January 6, 2009.

The Pentagon acknowledged using two micro-satellites to approach and inspect a third, disabled satellite, New Scientist reported last week. See “Spy satellites turn their gaze onto each other,” January 24.

The U.S. Army defined its own mission in space in “Department of the Army Space Policy” (pdf), U.S. Army Regulation 900-1, January 23, 2009.

Blair: Intel Classification Policy Needs “Fundamental Work”

“There is a great deal of over-classification,” admitted Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the nominee to be the next Director of National Intelligence, at his confirmation hearing last week.

“Some of it, I think, is done for the wrong reasons, to try to hide things from the light of day. Some of it is because in our system, there is no incentive not to do that, and there are penalties to do the reverse, in case you get something wrong and don’t classify it.”

“So I think we need to do fundamental work on the system,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden at the January 22 hearing.

“I’ll be working to see if we can come up with a different approach that incentivizes it at the right level and that informs not only those of you who have security clearances on this committee but the wider interested public whose support we need,” Adm. Blair said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse pursued the same question.  “My experience,” the Senator said, “is that, over and over and over again, we have seen official secrecy used not for national security purposes, but to mislead the public and to frame — or more particularly, mis-frame — an outside, political debate. Will you pledge to us that you will take this trust of secrecy that you are given as Director of National Intelligence and use it only to protect national security and not to manipulate public opinion or frame or mis-frame political debates?”

“Absolutely, Senator,” Adm. Blair replied.

The DNI-nominee also told Sen. Kit Bond and Sen. Whitehouse that he favored prosecution of leakers of classified information.  “If I could ever catch one of those it would be very good to prosecute them.”

He suggested that there might be new technical steps that could be taken to identify leakers.

“If confirmed,” he added, “I would like to come to talk to you about some ideas where we can build in some technical, some procedural safeguards into agencies so that it’s not a case of going back afterwards and trying to get records and question people but we have some tools that will let everybody who works for the government know that if you are going to pass classified information to a reporter or to someone, there will be a trace of it which will make it relatively quick to identify you as the one who did it,” Adm. Blair told Sen. Whitehouse.

Presumably this refers to improved tracking of classified intelligence “records,” not of “information.”

In answers to pre-hearing questions (pdf), Adm. Blair said that he favored continued publication of the annual intelligence budget total.  “It has not, to my knowledge, caused harm to the national security, and provides important information to the American public,” Blair said.

He also endorsed declassification review of 25 year old classified intelligence records.

“While much intelligence information remains sensitive even at 25 years, that which can be released to the public should be. Intelligence — especially the intelligence that informed key policy decisions — can and should ultimately become part of the country’s historical record.” [at p. 55]

The profound confusion that prevails in intelligence classification policy was recognized last year in an internal report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (Secrecy News, April 10, 2008). Even the most basic concepts of classification policy, it said, are open to question and interpretation.

“The definitions of ‘national security’ and what constitutes ‘intelligence’ — and thus what must be classified — are unclear,” the ODNI report stated (pdf).

A new directive signed by outgoing DNI Mike McConnell on January 21 is intended to “foster an enduring culture of responsible sharing and collaboration within an integrated [intelligence community]” and to breakdown traditional “stove pipes” that inhibit communication within the government.  See “Discovery and Dissemination or Retrieval of Information Within the Intelligence Community,” Intelligence Community Directive 501 (pdf),  January 21, 2009.

The continuing classification of obsolete Cold War intelligence satellite imagery, to the disappointment of space historians and others, was examined in “A ray of sunshine into a dark world: the future declassification of satellite reconnaissance information” by Dwayne Day in The Space Review, January 26.

Correction: An Anomalous Rise in Public Knowledge

Secrecy News last week misquoted a line in President Obama’s inaugural speech.  He did not say: “And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge will be held to account….”  What he said was “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account….”

The erroneous reference to “public knowledge” was also published by the Washington Post, United Press International, and other news outlets.  It may have originated with a mistake by the FDCH transcription service.

The text of the inaugural address on the White House web site says “public dollars,” not “public knowledge,” and it is clear from the tape of the speech that that is correct.  Thanks to reader LD for questioning the discrepancy.

There must be lots of historic events that were mistakenly transcribed and reported.

“You can’t make an anomalous rise twice,” said J. Robert Oppenheimer, according to the official record of his momentous hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.

But what Oppenheimer actually said was “You can’t make an omelet rise twice” (as noted by Philip M. Stern).  Oh well.

The Oppenheimer case is to be reviewed once again in the latest episode of PBS’s American Experience tonight.

China Defense White Paper Describes Nuclear Escalation

By Hans M. Kristensen

A Chinese government defense white paper for the first time describes how China’s nuclear forces would gradually be brought to increased levels of alert during a crisis to deter an adversary and retaliate to nuclear attack.

The paper describes a growing portfolio of deterrence and counterattack capabilities with an ambitious agenda to control war situations with a more flexible deterrent and strategy.

Despite shortcomings, the paper provides a new level of Chinese transparency about its forces and planning. Continue reading

President Obama Declares “A New Era of Openness”

In a breathtaking series of statements and executive actions, President Barack Obama yesterday announced “the beginning of a new era of openness in our country.”

“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” he told reporters at a January 21 swearing-in ceremony.

“The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed” (a paraphrase of the October 2001 policy statement of former Attorney General John Ashcroft).  “That era is now over.”

“Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known,” President Obama said.

Moreover, “I will also hold myself, as president, to a new standard of openness…. Information will not be withheld just because I say so.  It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well-grounded in the Constitution.”

“Let me say it as simply as I can.  Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

Accordingly, the President issued several new policy statements.  A new policy on Freedom of Information directed that “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” and called for the Attorney General to develop new FOIA guidelines reflecting that principle.  A broader statement on Transparency and Open Government directed agencies to “harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public,” and ordered preparation of recommendations for an Open Government Directive.  A new executive order rescinded an order issued by former President Bush that imposed increased restrictions on public access to presidential records.

The whole package gained immense force from the fact that it was presented on the President’s first full day in office.  (By comparison, the Clinton and Bush Administrations did not get around to addressing FOIA policy until October of their first year in office.)  The actions closely tracked the recommendations of openness advocates, and they represented a personal commitment to openness and accountability that goes far beyond what any previous President has dared to offer.

Inevitably, several caveats are in order.  A “presumption of disclosure” really only applies to records that are potentially subject to discretionary release, which is a finite subset of secret government information.  Vast realms of information are sequestered behind classification barriers or statutory protections that remain unaffected by the new policy statements.  “In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” the President said.  But throughout the government secrecy system, there is not a lot of doubt or soul-searching about the application of secrecy.

For example, last week Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., the director of the ODNI Intelligence Staff, denied a FOIA request for declassification and release of the 2006 intelligence budget total, even though the 2007 and 2008 budget numbers have already been officially disclosed (Secrecy News, January 14).  According to ODNI, the 2006 number is still classified, and its disclosure would compromise intelligence sources and methods.  The problem here is not that doubt mistakenly yielded to secrecy instead of disclosure.  The problem is that General Burgess and his colleagues cling to an obsolete and counterproductive classification framework.

Unfortunately President Obama’s new directives do not yet encompass the needed overhaul of the national security classification system.  That may have to wait another day or two.