Wikileaks Fails “Due Diligence” Review

In the past week, both the Washington Post and the New York Times have referred to, the web site that publishes confidential records, as a “whistleblower” site.  This conforms to WikiLeaks’ own instructions to journalists that “WikiLeaks should be described, depending on context, as the ‘open government group’, ‘anti-corruption group’, ‘transparency group’ or ‘whistleblower’s site’.”

But calling WikiLeaks a whistleblower site does not accurately reflect the character of the project.  It also does not explain why others who are engaged in open government, anti-corruption and whistleblower protection activities are wary of WikiLeaks or disdainful of it.  And it does not provide any clue why the Knight Foundation, the preeminent foundation funder of innovative First Amendment and free press initiatives, might have rejected WikiLeaks’ request for financial support, as it recently did.

From one perspective, WikiLeaks is a creative response to a real problem afflicting the U.S. and many other countries, namely the over-control of government information to the detriment of public policy.  WikiLeaks has published a considerable number of valuable official records that had been kept unnecessarily secret and were otherwise unavailable, including some that I had attempted and failed to obtain myself.  Its most spectacular disclosure was the formerly classified videotape showing an attack by a U.S. Army helicopter crew in Baghdad in 2007 which led to the deaths of several non-combatants.  Before mostly going dormant late last year, it also published numerous documents that have no particular policy significance or that were already placed in the public domain by others (including a few that were taken from the FAS web site).

WikiLeaks says that it is dedicated to fighting censorship, so a casual observer might assume that it is more or less a conventional liberal enterprise committed to enlightened democratic policies.  But on closer inspection that is not quite the case.  In fact, WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.

Last year, for example, WikiLeaks published the “secret ritual” of a college women’s sorority called Alpha Sigma Tau.  Now Alpha Sigma Tau (like several other sororities “exposed” by WikiLeaks) is not known to have engaged in any form of misconduct, and WikiLeaks does not allege that it has.  Rather, WikiLeaks chose to publish the group’s confidential ritual just because it could.  This is not whistleblowing and it is not journalism.  It is a kind of information vandalism.

In fact, WikiLeaks routinely tramples on the privacy of non-governmental, non-corporate groups for no valid public policy reason.  It has published private rites of Masons, Mormons and other groups that cultivate confidential relations among their members.  Most or all of these groups are defenseless against WikiLeaks’ intrusions.  The only weapon they have is public contempt for WikiLeaks’ ruthless violation of their freedom of association, and even that has mostly been swept away in a wave of uncritical and even adulatory reporting about the brave “open government,” “whistleblower” site.

On occasion, WikiLeaks has engaged in overtly unethical behavior.  Last year, without permission, it published the full text of the highly regarded 2009 book about corruption in Kenya called “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by investigative reporter Michela Wrong (as first reported by Chris McGreal in The Guardian on April 9).  By posting a pirated version of the book and making it freely available, WikiLeaks almost certainly disrupted sales of the book and made it harder for Ms. Wrong and other anti-corruption reporters to perform their important work and to get it published. Repeated protests and pleas from the author were required before WikiLeaks (to its credit) finally took the book offline.

“Soon enough,” observed Raffi Khatchadourian in a long profile of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange in The New Yorker (June 7), “Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most–power without accountability–is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”

Much could be forgiven to WikiLeaks if it were true that its activities were succeeding in transforming government information policy in favor of increased openness and accountability — as opposed to merely generating reams of publicity for itself.  WikiLeaks supporter Glenn Greenwald of wrote that when it comes to combating government secrecy, “nobody is doing that as effectively as WikiLeaks.” But he neglected to spell out exactly what effect WikiLeaks has had.  Which U.S. government programs have been cancelled as a result of Wikileaks’ activities?  Which government policies have been revised?  How has public discourse shifted?  (And, by the way, who has been injured by its work?)

A less sympathetic observer might conclude that WikiLeaks has squandered much of the impact that it might have had.

A telling comparison can be made between WikiLeaks’ publication of the Iraq Apache helicopter attack video last April and The New Yorker’s publication of the Abu Ghraib abuse photographs in an article by Seymour Hersh in May 2004.  Both disclosures involved extremely graphic and disturbing images.  Both involved unreleased or classified government records.  And both generated a public sensation.  But there the similarity ends.  The Abu Ghraib photos prompted lawsuits, congressional hearings, courts martial, prison sentences, declassification initiatives, and at least indirectly a revision of U.S. policy on torture and interrogation.  By contrast, the WikiLeaks video tendentiously packaged under the title “Collateral Murder” produced none of that– no investigation (other than a leak investigation), no congressional hearings, no lawsuits, no tightening of the rules of engagement.  Just a mild scolding from the Secretary of Defense, and an avalanche of publicity for WikiLeaks.

Of course, it’s hard for anyone to produce a specific desired outcome from the national security bureaucracy, and maybe WikiLeaks can’t be faulted for failing to have done so.  But with the whole world’s attention at its command for a few days last April, it could have done more to place the focus on the victims of the incident that it had documented, perhaps even establishing a charitable fund to assist their families.  But that’s not what it chose to do.  Instead, the focus remained firmly fixed on WikiLeaks itself and its own ambitious fundraising efforts.

In perhaps the first independent review of the WikiLeaks project, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation considered and rejected an application from WikiLeaks for financial support.  The Knight Foundation was actively looking for grantees who could promote innovative uses of digital technology in support of the future development of journalism.  At the end of the process, more than $2.7 million was awarded to 12 promising recipients.  WikiLeaks was not among them.

“Every year some applications that are popular among advisors don’t make the cut after Knight staff conducts due diligence,” said Knight Foundation spokesman Marc Fest in response to an inquiry from Yahoo news.  “WikiLeaks was not recommended by Knight staff to the board.”

Classification Actions May Get “External” Review

The Obama Administration has instructed government agencies that classify national security information to review and update all of their classification guides — which specify what information is classified and at what level — and to gather input on classification policy from “the broadest possible range of perspectives,” according to a new official directive.

“To the extent practicable, input should also be obtained from external subject matter experts and external users of the reviewing agency’s classification guidance and decisions,” wrote Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) director William J. Bosanko in the new directive (pdf).

The ISOO directive, to be published in the Federal Register on Monday June 28, informs government agencies how they are supposed to implement President Obama’s December 2009 Executive Order 13526 on classification and declassification policy, which formally takes effect on June 27.

Among that executive order’s several interesting features is what is called the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which requires a complete reexamination of all agency classification practices to validate their contents and to cancel obsolete secrecy requirements.  This Review is the Obama Administration’s primary response to the pervasive problem of overclassification.

The Fundamental Classification Guidance Review is “the most important effort to address this problem [of overclassification],” said William H. Leary of the National Security Council last January.

“[It] is a totally new requirement that agencies conduct fundamental reviews of their classification guides and other guidance to ensure that they eliminate outdated and unnecessary classification requirements.  The first of these fundamental reviews has to be completed within two years, and agencies are required to make public the results so that people… can hold us responsible for the results,” said Mr. Leary, who spoke at a January 20 program at American University’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy. “These reviews can be extremely important in changing the habits and the practices of classifiers throughout government,” he said.

Opening the classification reviews to “the broadest possible range of perspectives,” as required by the new ISOO directive, has the potential to minimize the frivolous, self-serving or unnecessary use of classification authority.  At least, that’s the theory.

“We cannot simply throw open the doors today and make all information public, but we should rigorously push-back on current notions of what needs to be secret,” wrote Suzanne E. Spaulding in the Huffington Post yesterday.  See “No More Secrets: Then What?”

Secrecy Costs Continued to Rise in 2009

The financial costs of national security classification-related activities continued to rise in 2009, reaching a record high of $9.93 billion for the combined costs of protecting classified information in government and industry, the Information Security Oversight Office reported today (pdf).

Classification-related costs include not simply the act of classification, but also everything that follows from it:  physical security for classified materials, computer security for classified information systems, personnel security, and so forth. “The agencies also reported a modest, but welcome increase in spending on declassification programs,” wrote ISOO Director William J. Bosanko in his transmittal letter to the President.

The newly reported cost data do not include classification-related costs for CIA or the large Pentagon intelligence agencies — since those costs are themselves considered to be classified.  This means that the costs incurred by the most classification-intensive agencies are outside the scope of the published report, which significantly limits its value.  See “Report on Cost Estimates for Security Classification Activities for Fiscal Year 2009,” Information Security Oversight Office, June 25, 2010.

GAO Oversight of Intel Agencies in Dispute

One of the simplest and most effective ways to strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence agencies would be to task cleared staffers from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is the investigative arm of Congress, to undertake specific audits or investigations of intelligence programs.  Perhaps the clearest indication of the power of this approach is the fact that the intelligence agencies hate the idea and the White House has threatened a veto if it is adopted by congress.

Senate intelligence committee leaders have already yielded to executive branch opposition on this point, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is insisting that the GAO has a role to play in intelligence oversight, and she says she is trying to ensure that Congress does not willingly surrender one of its most sophisticated oversight tools.  See “Pelosi Faces Off with Obama on CIA Oversight” by Massimo Calabresi, Time, June 25 and “Acting Spy Chief Plans Departure” by Siobhan Gorman, Wall Street Journal, June 25.

An unreleased opinion from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel reportedly holds that intelligence programs are outside the purview of the Government Accountability Office and that intelligence agencies should therefore not cooperate with the GAO.

Although the GAO previously reviewed FBI counterterrorism programs prior to the 2004 intelligence reform legislation, “GAO has been essentially blocked from conducting its current work,” complained Sen. Charles Grassley (R-ID).  “The DoJ Office of Legal Counsel is arguing that GAO does not have the authority to evaluate the majority of FBI counterterrorism positions, as these positions are scored through the National Intelligence Program (NIP) Budget.”

The FBI confirmed that the GAO’s access to some previously auditable programs has been denied.  “With the post-2004 inclusion of FBI counterterrorism positions in the Intelligence Community, aspects of the review GAO proposed in 2009 would have constituted intelligence oversight,” the FBI told Sen. Grassley (at pdf pp. 67-68).  “It is the longstanding position of the Intelligence Community to decline to participate in GAO reviews that evaluate intelligence activities, programs, capabilities, and operational functions.”

I recently discussed the question of GAO oversight of intelligence with colleagues from the Project on Government Oversight, which published the conversation as a podcast here.

Various Resources

The term “overclassification” is used in two distinct senses:  The classification of information that should not be classified at all, and the classification of information at a higher level than is justified.  Both are problematic, though in different ways.  The second form of overclassification, which unnecessarily limits the sharing of information by cleared persons, is addressed in a new Senate Committee report on “The Reducing Over-Classification Act.”

The latest volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series documents U.S. policy toward Vietnam during January to October 1972, including events surrounding the so-called Easter Offensive of the war in Vietnam.  The 1100-page FRUS volume includes a large collection of transcripts of tapes from the Nixon White House.

The National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ have both published declassified documents regarding the 1946 UKUSA Agreement on cooperation between the United States and Great Britain in signals intelligence.

On May 26, two days before his final day as Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair signed a new Intelligence Community Directive, ICD-705 (pdf), on “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities” or SCIFs.  It mostly says that all SCIFs must comply with technical security standards that are to be issued in the near future.

The Congressional Research Service has an opening for an analyst with expertise in one or more of the following areas:  presidential powers, emergency powers, information policy, privacy, and/or transparency, among others.

Former Chinese Nuclear Site Now a Tourist Attraction

China recently opened to the public a massive underground former nuclear weapons facility known as Project 816 in Chongqing, and video footage of the site was featured in a recent report (pdf) from the DNI Open Source Center.

The Chongqing facility, which began construction in 1967 (some say 1966), was originally intended to house plutonium production reactors.  But construction ceased in 1984, and the site was apparently never operational.  Its existence was declassified by the Chinese government in 2003 (some say 2002), and it was opened to public tours in April of this year.

Two Chinese television news reports on the facility were translated by the Open Source Center.

“Project 816 is a gigantic system hidden in an inconspicuous mountain,” the TV narrator said in the OSC translation.  “According to experts, Project 816 is the world’s biggest artificial cave.”  It consists of a massive chamber “with multiple stories and caves within the caves, making it like a maze.”  There are “over 130 roads, tunnels, and passages, totaling 21 kilometers in length.”

“Nuclear bombs are a great mystery to many,” said Hu Lindan, an official at the site, in one of the news clips.  “The place to make nuclear bombs must be an even bigger mystery.  Plus, ours is an underground one.  It is so immense that we call it the Underground Great Wall.”

A copy of the OSC report with links to the translated video clips was obtained by Secrecy News and posted on the Federation of American Scientists website.  See “Subtitled Clips of China’s Declassified Underground Nuclear Facility in Chongqing,” Open Source Center, April 22-23, 2010.  The facility was also described in “Project 816 – Unfinished plutonium production complex in China” by Hui Zhang in the International Panel on Fissile Materials blog, June 5.

“Visitors can now pay 40 yuan for a tour of this once top-secret facility,” China Daily reported yesterday. “However, staff at the entrance warned that, due to ‘confidential matters’, both foreigners and the use of cameras are prohibited.”

“It is so sad,” said one former worker. “The base was supposed to be the largest nuclear facility in China, not a tourist attraction.”  See “Nuclear Reaction to Tourist Attraction” by Peng Yining, China Daily, June 22, 2010.

“Underground facilities are being used to conceal and protect critical activities that pose a threat to the United States,” according to a 1999 report from the JASON defense advisory panel. “The proliferation of such facilities is a legacy from the [first] Gulf War: a lesson from this war was that almost any above-ground facility is vulnerable to attack and destruction by precision guided weapons.  To counter this vulnerability, many countries have moved their assets underground.”

“Hundreds of underground installations have been constructed worldwide,” the JASONs observed at that time, “and many more are under construction.”  See “Characterization of Underground Facilities” (pdf), April 1999.

China’s Green Energy Programs, and More from CRS

One thing that is even more impressive than China’s nuclear history is its emerging green energy future.  “China has set ambitious targets for developing its… renewable energy resources with a major push of laws, policies and incentives in the last few years,” according to a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

“The wind power sector is illustrative of China’s accomplishments, as installed wind power capacity has gone from 0.567 GW in 2003 to 12.2 GW in 2008.  Plans already exist to grow China’s wind power capacity to 100 GW by 2020. A similar goal exists for the solar photovoltaic power sector which China intends to increase from 140 MW as of 2009 to over 1.8 GW by 2020.”

“Renewable energy is subsidized by a fee charged to all electricity users in China of about 0.029 cents per kilowatt-hour,” the CRS report noted.

A copy of the report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “China and the United States — A Comparison of Green Energy Programs and Policies,” June 14, 2010.

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

“Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Acquisition: Issues for Congress,” June 15, 2010.

“Securing America’s Borders: The Role of the Military,” June 16, 2010.

Studies on Military R&D (1984)

The role of scientific research in weapon development was explored through four case studies written in 1984 by arms control scholar Milton Leitenberg. The case studies examine the development of anti-satellite weapons;  weather modification;  Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs); and biological weapons research.

Military research does not cause arms races, Leitenberg argued, nor is it autonomous or self-sustaining.  Rather, military R&D is driven by a deliberate political process.  Weapons systems are “produced by an enormous enterprise consciously established by political decision to produce them.”

“Military R&D is guided and directed: questions are put;  particular materials, effects, and performance capabilities are sought;  and research funding is allocated accordingly.”

It follows that a reallocation of research funding is also a political possibility.  “Particularly in the area of weapons development and procurement decisions, there seems to be extremely little, if any, ‘technological imperative’ [that would somehow compel certain technology choices],” Leitenberg wrote.

The studies were originally prepared in support of a United Nations report.  That UN report was never released, the author explains, due to objections from a Soviet official who wanted references to the USSR excised.  But the supporting studies have now been published on the Federation of American Scientists website.  See “Studies on Military R&D and Weapons Development” by Milton Leitenberg, 1984.

FBI Found 14 Intel Leak Suspects in Past 5 Years

The Federal Bureau of Investigation identified 14 suspected “leakers” of classified U.S. intelligence information during the past five years, according to newly disclosed statistics (pdf).

Between 2005 and 2009, U.S. intelligence agencies submitted 183 “referrals” to the Department of Justice reporting unauthorized disclosures of classified intelligence.  Based on those referrals or on its own initiative, the FBI opened 26 leak investigations, and the investigations led to the identification of 14 suspects.

“While DOJ and the FBI receive numerous media leak referrals each year, the FBI opens only a limited number of investigations based on these referrals,” the FBI explained in a written response to a question from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

“In most cases, the information included in the referral is not adequate to initiate an investigation. The most typical information gap is a failure to identify all those with authorized access to the information, which is the necessary starting point for any leak investigation. When this information is sufficient to open an investigation, the FBI has been able to identify suspects in approximately 50% of these cases over the past 5 years.  Even when a suspect is identified, though, prosecution is extremely rare (none of the 14 suspects identified in the past 5 years has been prosecuted),” the FBI said.

The FBI report to Congress predated the indictment of suspected NSA leaker Thomas A. Drake, who was presumably one of the 14 suspects that the FBI identified.  The case of Shamai Leibowitz, the FBI contract linguist who pled guilty to unauthorized disclosures in December 2009, is not reflected in the new report and may be outside the scope of intelligence agency leaks that were the subject of the congressional inquiry.

The FBI recommended that agencies continue to report unauthorized disclosures of classified information to the Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation, but it said they should also consider imposing their own administrative penalties.  “Because indictments in media leak cases are so difficult to obtain, administrative action may be more suitable and may provide a better deterrent to leaks of classified information,” the FBI said.

The previously unreported statistical information on unauthorized disclosures of classified intelligence information was transmitted to Congress on April 8, 2010 and was published this month in the record of a September 16, 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (pdf).

“As a matter of national security and employment discipline, it is important that leakers face repercussions for improper disclosure of classified information,” Sen. Whitehouse said.  This formulation notably implies that a leaker should be subject to punishment even if no damage to national security results from the unauthorized disclosure, so as to bolster an agency’s authority over its employees.

The Obama Administration has adopted an increasingly hard line toward leaks of classified information with multiple prosecutions pending or underway, as noted recently in Politico (May 25) and the New York Times (June 11).  A recent memorandum from the Director of National Intelligence will “streamline” the processing of leak investigations, Newsweek reported June 11.

Elena Kagan on Executive Power, and More from CRS

As a matter of law and policy, the Congressional Research Service does not make its products directly available to the public.  The following CRS reports were obtained by Secrecy News (all pdf).

“Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan: Presidential Authority and the Separation of Powers,” June 4, 2010.

“Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan: Defamation and the First Amendment,” June 10, 2010.

“The Jurisprudence of Justice John Paul Stevens: Selected Opinions on the Jury’s Role in Criminal Sentencing,” June 7, 2010 (see related materials here).

“Israel’s Blockade of Gaza and the Mavi Marmara Incident,” June 5, 2010.