Debating New Biosecurity Research Regulations

US Senate consideration of a new biosecurity bill has been delayed to accommodate requests for additional information from the Administration.  The Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 (S.1649), introduced by Senators Lieberman and Collins at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, seeks to overhaul the US response to biosecurity threats.  In particular, the legislation focuses on research into potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

Highly infectious diseases are currently designated as select agents and regulated by the Departments of Agriculture (diseases of plants and livestock) or Health and Human Services (human pathogens).  The new legislation would replace this single list with three “tiers”, and research using the most dangerous agents would be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.  An amendment by Senator Claire McCaskill would allow DHS to shut down labs that do not comply with safety regulations.  However, the bill would also implement so-called personnel reliability programs, common in nuclear research, as a condition for researchers to access the labs.  Recent reports by the government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the National Academies’ Board of Life Sciences did not recommend such measures at this time.

Though Lieberman, who chairs the committee, has made the bill a top priority, it is unclear when time would permit consideration of the legislation on the Senate floor.

Obama Boosts White House Intel Advisory Board

In a move that will strengthen internal executive branch oversight of intelligence, President Obama this week said that a White House intelligence oversight board will be required to alert the Attorney General whenever it learns of “intelligence activities that involve possible violations of Federal criminal laws.” A similar requirement for the board to notify the Attorney General had been canceled by President Bush in February 2008.  President Obama reversed that step in his executive order 13516 on the authorities of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) and the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB).

The new Obama order also restores to the PIAB and the IOB some of the other teeth that the Bush Administration had removed.  The order states that the Director of National Intelligence and others “shall provide such information and assistance as the PIAB and the IOB determine is needed to perform their functions.”  The Bush order had only spoken of “such information and assistance as the PIAB and the IOB may need to perform functions under this order.”  So the new order (like the prior Clinton order) helpfully specifies that the PIAB and the IOB are the ones who will “determine” what they need–not the DNI or anyone else.

The Obama order does not restore the Clinton-era requirement that all intelligence agencies heads report quarterly to the IOB.  Instead, as in the Bush order, the DNI is to report to the Board at least twice a year.

The Obama order states that the PIAB membership should be comprised of individuals “who are not full-time employees of the Federal Government.”  Previously, they had to be “not employed by the Federal Government” at all.  The basis for this change is unclear.

Strengthening internal oversight of intelligence activities is among the easiest of changes to Bush Administration intelligence policy that the Obama Administration could be expected to make.  The action does not entail any increase in public disclosure or congressional reporting concerning intelligence activities, not does it infringe on executive authority in any way.

On October 28, President Obama announced the appointment of former Senators Chuck Hagel and David Boren to the PIAB, which had been vacant until then.

“We are off to a good start with this meeting by welcoming the press, which past advisory boards have rarely done,” the President said. “That’s a reflection of my administration’s commitment to transparency and open government, even, when appropriate, on matters of national security and intelligence.”  But judging from a published transcript, no matters of substance were discussed and no questions from the press were taken at the meeting.

Q&A With FBI Director Mueller

As a result of polygraph testing, more than a thousand applications for employment at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been rejected or otherwise terminated in the last year alone, the FBI told Congress last month.  Polygraph testing has been the single largest reason for discontinuing an application, well ahead of administrative or medical issues, use or sale of illegal drugs, or other suitability or security issues. In Fiscal Year 2009, 339 special agent applicants were turned away on polygraph-related grounds, and 825 professional support applications were similarly discontinued.

These data were presented in responses to questions for the record (pdf) from a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (pdf) last March, and were transmitted to Congress on behalf of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on September 15, 2009.

Most of the congressional questions, on everything from Freedom of Information Act compliance to detainee interrogation, are focused and pointed.  Some of the answers are informative and occasionally even startling.

Each day between March 2008 and March 2009, Director Mueller told the Committee, “there were an average of more than 1,600 nominations for inclusion on the [Terrorist] watchlist,” as well as 4,800 proposed modifications of existing records, and 600 proposed removals.  “Each nomination for addition [to the watchlist] does not necessarily represent a new individual,” Mueller cautioned, “but may instead involve an alias or name variant for a previously watchlisted person.”

Noteworthy New Publications

Former FAS President Jeremy J. Stone has published a memoir of his efforts to promote constructive dialogue in several of the world’s most intractable conflicts through his own organization, Catalytic Diplomacy.  Remarkably, writes Morton H. Halperin in a Preface to the memoir, “The conflicts that Jeremy sought to mitigate — US-Russian nuclear relations, China’s relation with Taiwan, North Korea’s relations with its neighbors, and U.S.-Iranian relations — have all been affected for the better by his efforts.”

The susceptibility of anti-satellite weapons to the control of international law is considered in a new paper called “ASAT-isfaction: Customary International Law and the Regulation of Anti-Satellite Weapons” (pdf) by David A. Koplow, Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 30, No. 4, Summer 2009.  Mr. Koplow is now Special Counsel for Arms Control at the Defense Department Office of the General Counsel.

Effective congressional oversight depends not only on the good intentions of the overseers, but also on their familiarity with the legislative, investigative and other tools they have at their disposal.  But the skillful use of those tools has been largely a matter of tacit knowledge, handed down through the generations of congressional staff.  To help preserve and propagate the techniques involved, the Project on Government Oversight has published a new handbook entitled “The Art of Congressional Oversight: A User’s Guide to Doing It Right.”

Germany and NATO’s Nuclear Dilemma

Security personnel monitor nuclear weapons transport at German air base. Image: USAF

By Hans M. Kristensen

The new German government has announced that it wants to enter talks with its NATO allies about the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany.

The announcement coincides with the Obama administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review, which is spending an unprecedented amount of time pondering the “international aspects” of to what extent nuclear weapons help assure allies of their security.

Germany and many other NATO countries apparently don’t want to be protected by U.S. forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons, which they see as a relic of the Cold War that locks NATO in the past and prevents it’s transition to the future. Continue reading

Waiting for Answers on Fordo: What IAEA Inspections Will Tell Us

by Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

After a cascade of disclosures and official announcements, followed by a great deal of conjecture from experts and the media, the Fordo enrichment plant, Iran’s newest enrichment facility located in the mountains near Qom, opened its doors on October 25 to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The US, France, and Britain accuse Iran of building the facility covertly and “challenging the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime.” Iran claims the accusations are “hypothetical” and “fantasy” and are part of a conspiracy against Iran’s nuclear program. The Agency has an indispensable role of providing an objective technical account of the facility and ultimately determining whether Iran violated its Safeguards Agreement. But how much can we expect to learn from the first visit to the facility and would that provide sufficient information to resolve the accusations made against Iran?

The text under the Iranian flag with the atom symbol says, "Nuclear power is our undeniable right."
The text under the Iranian flag with the atomic symbol says, "Nuclear power is our undeniable right."

Continue reading

“Useful But Prohibited”: Air Force Openness Lags

Some of the steps that are favored by the Obama Administration to open up government to public access and participation may be “useful” but they are nevertheless “prohibited” on U.S. Air Force web sites, according to a new Air Force policy instruction.

In a January 21, 2009 memorandum on transparency and open government, President Obama directed that “Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public…. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.”

The U.S. Air Force has a different vision, however.

A new Air Force policy on public communications (pdf) observed that “web-based message boards, threaded chat rooms, and guest books… allow users to post opinions, messages, or information openly on a web site.  They provide a useful means of creating two-way communication but are prohibited as part of public web site services (sec. 10)”

Instead of the “unprecedented level of openness” promised by the President, the Air Force prefers to follow precedent in other ways as well.

Only content that “is intended for a wide public audience” will be considered by the Air Force for publication online.  All other materials “should be posted on the [password-protected] Air Force Portal web site.”  Moreover, “all content on a public web site must be cleared for public release.”  See “Public Web Communications,” Air Force Instruction 35-107, October 21, 2009.

Unfortunately, the Air Force’s mandatory pre-publication clearance process (pdf) for “all content” is arduous, time-consuming and technologically primitive.  Authors should allow ten days for Air Force review, or twenty days when approval is needed from the Department of Defense.  Incredibly, materials for review can only be submitted in hardcopy (six paper copies for the Air Force and an additional four copies for DoD). Air Force Public Affairs says that it “does not accept material for review via e-mail or any other electronic means” (sec. 8).

On the other hand, “theatrical reviews… and works of fiction that are not sourced from active-duty experience” are excused from the pre-publication review requirement.  See “Security and Policy Review Process,” Air Force Instruction 35-102, October 20, 2009.

These new Air Force directives, and another Air Force Instruction on Public Affairs Policies and Procedures (pdf) that was modified last week, do not even mention the January 2009 Obama transparency memorandum, and certainly do not reflect its declared intent.

The impact of the President’s January memorandum has been deferred because the implementing Open Government Directive that was originally due for release in May has still not been completed. [Correction: The May 2009 deadline was for development of “recommendations” for the Open Government Directive, not for release of the Directive itself.]

But the Directive “will come out this fall,” said Beth Noveck, White House deputy chief technology officer for open government, at a meeting organized by the Center for Democracy and Technology yesterday.  The forthcoming Directive, to be issued by the Office of Management and Budget, will provide “a framework for agencies to pursue their own transparency initiatives,” she said.

Open Skies and Counterproliferation

Whatever its archaic publication policy may say, the U.S. Air Force still manages to generate and publicly release documents of significant policy interest.  A new manual on the Open Skies Treaty explores the origins, development, and implementation of the Open Skies regime, which permits the overflight and inspection of member nations’ territory and facilities.  See Air Force Manual 16-604 (pdf) on “Implementation of, and Compliance with, the Treaty on Open Skies,” October 20, 2009.

A summary account of U.S. government programs to combat weapons of mass destruction is provided in the latest annual report from the interagency Counterproliferation Program Review Committee.  See “Report on Activities and Programs for Countering Proliferation and NBC Terrorism,” Volume I, executive summary, July 2009 (published September 2009).

Books Received

From time to time, publishers send us review copies of new books.  We are glad to receive them, even if we cannot always read the books promptly or produce substantial reviews.  New receipts include these:

“Nuclear Insights: The Cold War Legacy” by Alexander DeVolpi, volume 2: Nuclear Threats and Prospects, 2009.

“Preventing Catastrophe: The Use and Misuse of Intelligence in Efforts to Halt the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” by Thomas Graham Jr. and Keith A. Hansen, Stanford University Press, 2009.

“Vanished,” a novel by Joseph Finder, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

Congress Wants Better Locks for Secret Docs

A House Subcommittee is reviving a decade-old debate over the need to expeditiously replace the older security locks on safes for storing classified documents with new, more sophisticated electromechanical locks.

“The secure storage of classified information is a matter of paramount importance to the national security of the United States,” wrote Rep. John F. Tierney (D-MA) earlier this month.  Yet, he complained, government contractors that have possession of classified materials have been slow to upgrade their locks and safes to meet the new government standards.

Rep. Tierney’s House National Security Subcommittee is therefore “conducting an investigation” focusing on  industry’s ability and intention to carry out the mandatory upgrade to improved locks and containers prior to a 2012 deadline.  Almost 20,000 “substandard security containers” are supposed to be replaced in the next three years, according to the Defense Security Service.

“Based on Industry’s slow rate of transition over the past decade, and the substantial number of substandard security containers still in use, it appears that Industry may not have adequate plans in place to complete the transition by October 1, 2012.”  Rep. Tierney described his concerns in an October 7 letter (pdf) to William J. Bosanko, director of the Information Security Oversight Office.  The letter was released at a recent meeting of the NISP Policy Advisory Committee.

Although Rep. Tierney did not mention it, the origins of the requirement to upgrade security locks for storage of classified documents are tainted by parochial financial concerns, and the move is questionable on security policy grounds.

Beginning in the 1990s, the lock conversion requirement was zealously advocated by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) whose constituents, not coincidentally, included the manufacturer of the proposed replacement lock.  The manufacturer also enlisted the lobbying support of Douglas Feith, who went on to become the Bush Administration’s controversial Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.  See “Sen. Bunning Pushes Electronic Locks to the Dismay of Industry, DoD” by Hampton Stephens, Defense Information and Electronics Report, August 10, 2001.

But there has never been any known compromise of classified information in government or industry that was attributable to a faulty security container or lock.  For that reason, the cost-benefit ratio of a systematic retrofit does not seem very compelling, particularly when compared to other potential uses for the limited supply of security dollars.

On the other hand, the fact that self-serving financial interests drove the political debate does not mean the security issue is entirely groundless, an independent security consultant told Secrecy News.  Existing mechanical locks “can be penetrated surreptitiously within 20 minutes,” he said, and the older barlock containers that are still in use “can be penetrated surreptitiously within seconds.”