Afghan Elections: Candidates and Powerbrokers

The leading presidential candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming August 20 election are briefly profiled in a chart prepared by the DNI Open Source Center.  See “Afghan Presidential Election: Potential Candidates and Powerbrokers” (pdf), May 4, 2009.

Further background on elections in the region may be found in “Middle East Elections 2009: Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq” (pdf), Congressional Research Service, May 18, 2009.  (Elections in Lebanon took place on June 7.)

Identity Theft, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News include the following (all pdf).

“Mexico’s Drug-Related Violence,” May 27, 2009.

“The 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) ‘Swine Flu’ Outbreak: U.S. Responses to Global Human Cases,” May 26, 2009.

“The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” updated May 15, 2009.

“USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives After 15 Years: Issues for Congress,” May 27, 2009.

“Airport Improvement Program (AIP): Reauthorization Issues for Congress,” May 29, 2009.

“Identity Theft: Trends and Issues,” May 27, 2009.

Peter B. Versus the CIA

Employment disputes are all too common inside and outside of government, including at the CIA.  In one pending lawsuit, a former CIA employee claimed that the Agency improperly terminated his employment and communicated negative information about him to another prospective employer, thereby violating his rights.

In this case, however, the name of the aggrieved employee is a national security secret.

“As plaintiff’s true name is classified, he has been permitted to file as ‘Peter B.’,” according to a recent court ruling (pdf), in which Judge Richard W. Roberts rejected the CIA’s motion to dismiss the case.  “Peter B’s” attorney, Mark S. Zaid, whose name is not classified, welcomed the June 1 opinion.

Online Transparency Discussions Move Forward

An innovative White House attempt to engage the interested public in the development of government policy on openness and transparency is moving briskly and, so far, productively.

An initial online brainstorming session attracted over 98,000 visits and generated some 2,450 “ideas” for increasing public access to government information, over 11,000 comments on those ideas, and over 200,000 votes in favor or against them.  The process threatened to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of proposals, not all of which were clearly focused or formulated, and some of which were eccentric or irrelevant (legalize marijuana!).  But the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy team that is managing the process was able to distill the best suggestions into a substantive but digestible core.

The next step is an online discussion of the particular proposals that is intended to flesh them out and to convert “lofty principles into specific actions” that the executive could take, said Dr. Beth Noveck, the OSTP Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government.  Interested members of the public are invited and encouraged to participate in the process.  To catch up on the latest developments, see the OSTP Open Government blog.

Other White House efforts to address overclassification and the spread of official controls on unclassified information have received a less enthusiastic reception.  Critics (including Secrecy News) expressed concern that these initiatives may be insufficiently ambitious in conception and that they provide no formal mechanism for public input.  See “Critics Blast Obama Classification Review” by Justin Rood, ABC News The Blotter, June 3, 2009.

A Few Intelligence Science Board Reports

There is “an astonishing number of groups and activities concurrently pursuing the subject” of information sharing, according to a newly disclosed 2004 report (pdf) of the Intelligence Science Board (ISB).  But those activities are not well coordinated.  “In effect, we aren’t even sharing information about information sharing.”

The ISB is a little-known advisory panel that addresses intelligence science and technology issues at the direction of the Director of National Intelligence.  Almost all of its products are classified, but a few are not.

It’s hard to say whether the ISB is influential.  But it has performed important and interesting work, most notably on the science of interrogation.  Its 2006 report on “Educing Information” (pdf), concluded that there was no scientific evidence to support a belief in the efficacy of coercive interrogation.  (“Intelligence Science Board Views Interrogation,” Secrecy News, January 15, 2007.)

Now the only other unclassified ISB reports have been released by ODNI under the Freedom of Information Act:  “Concept Paper on Trusted Information Sharing” (November 2004) and “What Makes for a Great Analytic Team?:  Individual versus Team Approaches to Intelligence Analysis” (February 2005). All of the unclassified ISB reports are available here.

The State Secrets Privilege, and More from CRS

The Congressional Research Service has prepared a new account of the state secrets privilege, which is used by the government to bar disclosure of certain national security information in the course of civil litigation.  While the CRS report contains nothing new, it is a detailed, dispassionate and fairly comprehensive account of the subject.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “The State Secrets Privilege and Other Limits on Litigation Involving Classified Information” (pdf), May 28, 2009.

Other notable new CRS products that have not been made publicly available include the following (all pdf).

“Major U.S. Arms Sales and Grants to Pakistan Since 2001” (fact sheet), updated June 3, 2009.

“Political Turmoil in Thailand and U.S. Interests,” May 26, 2009.

“The 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) ‘Swine Flu’ Outbreak: An Overview,” May 20, 2009.

“Defense: FY2010 Authorization and Appropriations,” May 8, 2009.

“Medical Marijuana: Review and Analysis of Federal and State Policies,” March 31, 2009.

Obama Orders Review of Classification Policy

President Obama last week formally initiated a review of national security classification policy, directing the National Security Adviser to prepare recommendations for revising the current executive order on classification.

“My Administration is committed to operating with an unprecedented level of openness,” the President wrote on May 27. “While the Government must be able to prevent the public disclosure of information where such disclosure would compromise the privacy of American citizens, national security, or other legitimate interests, a democratic government accountable to the people must be as transparent as possible and must not withhold information for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment.”

The President’s memo specifically identifies “overclassification” as a “problem” and invites recommendations for “greater openness and transparency.” However, both the memo’s diagnosis and its own suggested remedies are quite superficial.

For example, the memo does not address the need to revise and update the criteria for classification.  And it does not require an inquiry into the role of “need to know” restrictions, if any, in a networked information environment.

The memo proposes a National Declassification Center to facilitate collaborative declassification review.  This is a welcome idea that would eliminate costly, time-consuming sequential reviews of records for declassification.  But without changes to classification criteria, the Center would continue to produce the same results as before, only more quickly.  Thus, if the CIA thinks that fifty year old intelligence budget figures should remain classified, which it does, the mere existence of a Declassification Center would do nothing to correct such an error in judgment.

The memo also suggests restoring a presumption against classification “where there is significant doubt about the need for such classification.”  This sounds fine, but because doubt (or even “significant doubt”) is an unverifiable mental state, it cannot serve as a basis for classification policy.  When a similar presumption was included in past executive orders, it had no identifiable effect on agency classification practices.  (The only possible role for such a provision is if the “doubter” is a different person than the “classifier.”  In other words, if an independent auditor or overseer “doubted” the need for certain information to be classified, he or she might usefully be authorized to cancel its classification. But that would be a new policy measure, not a restored one.)

A response to the President’s memorandum is due within 90 days.  In the same May 27 memorandum, the President also called for a review of restrictions on so-called “controlled unclassified information.”

In April 1993, President Clinton issued his own directive to undertake reforms of classification policy.  Many of the questions posed in that directive are persistent and remain unresolved today, including:  What types of information continue to require protection through classification in the interest of our national security? And, What steps can be taken to avoid excessive classification?  See Presidential Review Directive 29, April 26, 1993.

In a paper that should be published later this month in the Yale Law and Policy Review, I attempted to identify the conditions for successful reform of government secrecy policy.

Secrecy Conceals Some Classification Costs

Following sharp increases in the first several years after 9/11, the total estimated costs of implementing the national security classification system seem to have leveled off at around $10 billion annually, according to a new report to the President (pdf) from the Information Security Oversight Office.  The total cost of protecting classified information in government and industry last year was $9.85 billion, down slightly from $9.9 billion the year before, ISOO director William J. Bosanko reported.

The May 19 ISOO report also provided a striking reminder of the tide of secrecy that has silently and inexorably concealed previously public information in recent years.

When classification cost data were first reported in April 1994 (at the initiative of then-Rep. David Skaggs of Colorado), the CIA made the surprising claim that its classification costs were classified.  This was understood by outside observers such as Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan as a familiar expression of CIA’s excess of zeal.  No one seriously believed that it was a legitimate national security issue, particularly because the cost data involved were rough estimates, not actual expenditures.  As if to confirm that assessment, the classification costs incurred by all other intelligence agencies were incorporated as a matter of course in the ISOO cost reports each year through 2005 (pdf).

But since 2006, the CIA’s silly secrecy has become prevalent in the intelligence community and other agencies have adopted the claim that their estimated classification costs are national security secrets too.  In the latest ISOO report to the President, Mr. Bosanko noted that the cost estimates for CIA, DIA, ODNI, NGA, NRO, and NSA were all classified “in accordance with Intelligence Community classification guidance.”

“Understanding the financial costs associated with keeping information secret is essential to any effort to begin scaling back the scope of secrecy and making protection more efficient,” according to the 1997 Report of the Moynihan Commission (Chapter 1, page 9).  Such an effort is naturally frustrated when classification itself is used to conceal those costs.

OSC Views Islam in Bolivia

The tiny Muslim community of Bolivia was surveyed in a recent report from the DNI Open Source Center.  The OSC report “is an overview of mosques, Islamic organizations, and religious leaders in Bolivia and their susceptibility to foreign Islamist influence.”

Like many OSC products, this item has not been approved for public release.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Bolivia — Key Muslim Converts Assert Local Peril, Ally With Zealots Abroad,” Open Source Center, May 12, 2009.

A Profile of the Office of Legal Counsel

The organization, role and operation of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which produces binding interpretations of the law for the executive branch, are usefully described in the Justice Department’s FY 2010 budget request (pdf).

“OLC’s mission remains highly critical and urgent as the Department enters into a new era of responsibility confronting national security and intelligence challenges, reinvigorating federal civil rights enforcement, and advising the myriad of agencies involved in responding to the economic crisis,” the budget request document states.  “The Office is operating at a particularly challenging time, when a number of major legal positions of the United States government are under review or in the process of being changed.”

Under the Bush Administration, the OLC notoriously issued numerous opinions — many of which would later be withdrawn under criticism — authorizing abusive interrogation, warrantless surveillance, and other departures from established legal norms.  The President’s distinguished nominee to head the Office, Prof. Dawn Johnsen, still awaits Senate confirmation and she reportedly faces opposition from some Senate Republicans.