In 1963, CIA Said It Had Copies of Soviet Spysat Images

In a newly disclosed memorandum from 1963, the Director of Central Intelligence advised the Secretary of State that the CIA had “good reproductions” of Soviet satellite imagery.

This puzzling remark appears to suggest a previously unrecognized capability of the CIA.

The declassified memo summarizes a July 3, 1963 telephone conversation between DCI John McCone and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. It was discovered by researchers David M. Barrett and Eric P. Swanson.

According to the memo, McCone said that the U.S. had “for some time tried to determine whether the Soviets were actually photographing and the extent they were from satellites.” The DCI said “it has been determined they have been and we have good reproductions of what they are getting.” The DCI was to brief the President on the subject the following week.

In an article discussing the memo in the journal Intelligence & National Security, Barrett and Swanson wrote that they found “no references in the intelligence literature to the United States having had the capability to see what the Soviet satellites were seeing, much less any treatment of how the CIA obtained the ‘good reproductions’.”

Assuming the McCone statement is accurate, it would seem to imply one of a few possibilities. It could mean that the US was somehow intercepting the Soviet images (which seems improbable), or that it was replicating the images through US overflights, or else that it was simply modeling the images based on the presumed capabilities of the Soviet satellites and their orbital parameters.

Prof. Barrett added that the fact that the matter was to be briefed to the President indicated that it was of more than ordinary significance. He also noted that the 1963 memo was located in State Department records at the National Archives, and was not released by CIA.

The import of the memo remains uncertain.

Reproductions of Soviet satellite imagery were “not anything I ever came across some ten years later,” said former CIA analyst Allen Thomson, “and I was in a decent position to see such (Office of Weapons Intelligence).”

“At a guess, perhaps the ‘reproductions’ were simulations based on the technical state of the art at the time (film) and estimates of the camera aperture. That would have been easy enough to do and useful as an aid to orient consumers to what might be in the imagery. Or it could just have meant looking at the ground tracks to see what the satellites overflew,” Mr. Thomson said.

Dino Brugioni, who was a pioneering figure in U.S. imagery intelligence and a CIA official at the time of the McCone memo, passed away in September with little public notice.

Intelligence Lessons from the 2009 Fort Hood Shooting

In 2010, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair convened a panel to review the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting committed by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan and the Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab aboard Northwest Flight 253.

A redacted version of the resulting panel report was finally declassified and released this week. See Report to the Director of National Intelligence on the Fort Hood and Northwest Flight 253 Incidents, Intelligence Community Review Panel, 15 April 2010.  The panel was led by former Acting DCI John E. McLaughlin.

In a nutshell, the report found, “There were several missed opportunities that could have increased the odds of detecting Abdulmutallab or Hasan. The causes of the missteps ranged from human error to inadequate information technology, inefficient processes, unclear roles and responsibilities, and an occasional lack of individual inquisitiveness.”

Beyond a detailed recounting of what was known by U.S. intelligence about the perpetrators, much of which has been withheld, the report fills a gap in the literature of intelligence reform with a look at systemic issues such as the state of information technology in the intelligence community (as of 2011), the process of watch-listing, and disagreements over the handling of U.S. person information.

“Inadequate information technology runs through both the Fort Hood and the NW Flight 253 narratives, particularly the inability of IT systems to help analysts locate relevant reporting in a sea of fragmentary data or to correct for seemingly minor human errors.”

“NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] analysts, for example, have access to more than 28 separate databases and systems, each of which, for the most part, has a separate log-on. This means analysts have to search each database separately before trying to identify connections among their results.”

The existing search capacity “is intolerant of even simple mistakes in the queries and does not enable questions like: list everyone that is potentially affiliated with AQAP and has a passport or visa that would permit entry to the United States or UK.”

But the problem is not purely one of technology, the report said. “The Community cannot realize the potential of information technology to assist the counterterrorism mission without clarifying… procedures for sharing information on US persons.”

The report reflects a view that restrictions on collecting and disseminating US person information had become onerous and counterproductive.

“Many of the people we interviewed assessed that policy on handling US Persons data… was limiting the Intelligence Community’s ability to aggregate and exploit available data, especially information pertaining to critical domestic-foreign nexus issues.”

“We noticed a strong belief among collectors and analysts that restrictions on collecting, disseminating, accessing, and analyzing data on US Persons impede mission performance…. We also saw a surprising level of disagreement — even among experienced practitioners — on whether current US Person authorities allow intelligence officers to accomplish their missions, or whether new legal authorities are needed.”

(“Sharing US Person information with foreign partners, and tasking them to collect on US Persons appeared at various points,” the report says at the start of an otherwise redacted paragraph.)

“We see a need to simplify, harmonize, update, and modify the Community’s procedures relating to US persons,” the McLaughlin panel wrote.

What exactly this might mean in practice was not spelled out, but it didn’t seem to entail tightening, narrowing or curtailing the use of US person information, or increasing oversight of it.

“The report’s finding on the Intelligence Community’s ‘caution’ and ‘risk aversion’ in the collection of US persons information is particularly notable,” said Christian Beckner, Deputy Director, GW Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, “leading the review group to worry that ‘the next terrorist surprise could be the result of confusion or excessive caution about how to manage this issue.’  This finding is in striking contrast to much of the public dialogue following the Snowden leaks about intelligence activities related to US persons.”

The panel report also includes various incidental observations of interest.

“The panel is concerned that the overlap between CTC [the CIA Counterterrorism Center} and NCTC [the National Counterterrorism Center] extends beyond healthy competition and that the turf battles, duplications, and clashes are a drain on the resources and creative energy of both organizations.”

Furthermore, “It appears that much of the tension between the two organizations centers on issues related to the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) — everything from who takes the lead to what is said in the articles.”

The report cites inaccuracies in news media coverage of the Fort Hood shootings and Christmas Day bombing “that have skewed the discussions.” For example, contrary to some accounts, “There is no evidence indicating that [Anwar al] Aulaqi directed Hasan.”

The report also presents a previously unreleased 2010 DNI directive on “lanes in the road” (included as Appendix D to the report) that “establishes the responsibilities and accountability of leaders of major organizations with counterterrorism analytic missions.” In other words, it assigned specific counterterrorism roles to each of the relevant intelligence agencies.

“Each organization within the IC with a significant counterterrorism analytic effort is expected to work seamlessly with its counterparts, drawing on the specific strengths and advantages of partners, but is also expected to place particular emphasis on those missions they are uniquely positioned to conduct,” wrote DNI Dennis C. Blair in the April 7, 2010 memorandum.

Tolman Reports on Declassification Now Online

This week the Department of Energy posted the first declassification guidance for nuclear weapons-related information, known as the Tolman Committee reports, prepared in 1945-46. The Tolman reports were an early and influential effort to conceptualize the role of declassification of atomic energy information and the procedures for implementing it. Though the reports themselves were declassified in the 1970s, they have not been readily available online until now.

Nuclear Weapon Declassification Decisions, 2011-2015

The Department of Energy issued twenty “declassification determinations” between April 2011 and March 2015 to remove certain specified categories of nuclear weapons-related information from classification controls.

“The fact that a mass of 52.5 kg of U-235 is sufficient for a gun-assembled weapon” was formally declassified in a written decision dated August 19, 2014.

The “total inventory of thorium at DOE sites for any given time period” was removed from the Restricted Data category on March 20, 2013.

The “existence of unlimited life neutron generators” was declassified on October 24, 2013.

As a result of such determinations, the specified information need no longer be redacted from documents undergoing declassification review, and it can also be incorporated freely in new unclassified documents.

So, for example, the fact that “The total United States Government inventory of plutonium on September 30, 2009 was 95.4 metric tons” was declassified on December 20, 2011.

This decision enabled the release of The United States Plutonium Balance, 1944-2009, a report published in June 2012. (“The aim of this publication is to provide, in a transparent manner, comprehensive and up-to-date data to regulators, public interest organizations, and the general public. Knowledge of the current U.S. plutonium balance and the locations of these materials is needed to understand the Department’s plutonium storage, safety, and security strategies.”)

The Department of Energy’s declassification determinations from 2011-2015 were released by DOE this week under the Freedom of Information Act. They are posted here in reverse chronological order, along with previous DOE declassification decisions.

The DOE declassification actions were performed in compliance with the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, in which Congress mandated a “continuous review of Restricted Data… in order to determine which information may be declassified and removed from the category of Restricted Data without undue risk to the common defense and security.”

House Defense Bill Seeks Expedited Declassification of POW Records

The House Armed Services Committee is asking the Secretary of Defense to identify “specific inefficiencies with regard to the process for the declassification of documents” pertaining to prisoners of war and missing in action personnel, and ways to expedite the release of such documents. The directive was included in the new Committee report on the FY 2016 defense authorization act.

Declassification of POW/MIA records is a niche issue of intense personal interest to some, and of no particular interest to others. But because such niche issues embody systemic problems, they have the potential to drive changes in policy that can have ripple effects throughout the national security classification process, as disputes over release of JFK assassination records have done in the past.

Thus, the Committee asked the Secretary to report on “challenges in current declassification procedures; recommendations to expedite procedures for interagency declassification; recommendations for procedures to declassify redacted portions of previously released documents;…” and so forth.

In a separate provision, the House Committee responded to a Department of Energy Inspector General finding this year that information had sometimes been misclassified and/or improperly disclosed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Committee instructed the National Nuclear Security Administration to report on “the measures taken to improve the effectiveness of the classification process and related oversight.”

Declassification of Nuclear Warhead Build Rate Sought

The Federation of American Scientists this week petitioned the Department of Energy to declassify the annual rate at which the United States built new nuclear weapons throughout the cold war.

“The proposed declassification would enrich public understanding of the historical development of the U.S. stockpile. Disclosure of the actual build rate per year would add a dimension to the cold war historical narrative and bolster transparency in nuclear policy,” the FAS request said.

Total annual build rates have previously been declassified for the years 1945 through 1961.

The last completely new nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal was assembled on July 31, 1990, according to Stephen I. Schwartz of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Dept of State Delays Release of Iran History

The U.S. Department of State has blocked the publication of a long-awaited documentary history of U.S. covert action in Iran in the 1950s out of concern that its release could adversely affect ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

The controversial Iran history volume, part of the official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, had been slated for release last summer. (“History of 1953 CIA Covert Action in Iran to be Published,” Secrecy News, April 16, 2014).

But senior State Department officials “decided to delay publication because of ongoing negotiations with Iran,” according to the minutes of a September 8, 2014 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation that were posted on the Department of State website this week.

Dr. Stephen P. Randolph, the Historian of the State Department, confirmed yesterday that the status of the Iran volume “remains as it was in September” and that no new publication date has been set. The subject was also discussed at an Advisory Committee meeting this week.

The suppression of this history has been a source of frustration for decades, at least since the Department published a notorious 1989 volume on U.S. policy towards Iran that made no mention of CIA covert action.

But the latest move is also an indirect affirmation of the enduring significance of the withheld records, which date back even further than the U.S. rupture with Cuba that is now on the mend.

It seems that the remaining U.S. records of the 1953 coup in Iran are not only of historical interest but they evidently hold the power to move whole countries and to alter the course of events today. Or so the State Department believes.

“The logic, as I understand it, is that the release of the volume could aggravate anti-U.S. sentiment in Iran and thereby diminish the prospects of the nuclear negotiations reaching a settlement,” said Prof. Richard H. Immerman, a historian at Temple University and the chair of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.

“I understand the State Department’s caution, but I don’t agree with the position,” he said. “Not only is the 1953 covert action in Iran an open secret, but it was also a motive for taking hostages in 1979. The longer the U.S. withholds the volume, the longer the issue will fester.”

Besides, if the documents do have an occult power to shape events, maybe that power could be harnessed to constructive ends.

“I would argue that our government’s commitment to transparency as signaled by the release of this volume could have a transformative effect on the negotiations, and that effect would increase the likelihood of a settlement,” Prof. Immerman suggested.

“At least some in the Iranian government would applaud this openness and seek to reciprocate. Further, the State Department of 2014 would distinguish this administration from the ‘Great Satan’ image of 1953 and after,” he said.

Continued secrecy has become an unnecessary obstacle to the development of US-Iran relations, argued historian Roham Alvandi in a similar vein in a New York Times op-ed (“Open the Files on the Iran Coup,” July 9, 2014).

“Moving forward with a new chapter in American-Iranian relations is difficult so long as the files on 1953 remain secret,” he wrote. “A stubborn refusal to release them keeps the trauma of 1953 alive in the Iranian public consciousness.”


The State Department published a new Foreign Relations of the United States volume today on the Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1978-80. It is the ninth FRUS volume of the year, and it came out “a little ahead of schedule,” said Dr. Randolph, the Department Historian.

Set Priorities for Declassification, Study Urges

Each year millions of pages of government records are declassified that few if any members of the public will ever look at. This is an awkward fact which is not often discussed because it might call into question the whole declassification enterprise.

“Statistical Records Relating to Ship Stability, 1918-67,” anyone? A new collection of declassified records on that subject was among those processed for release recently by the National Declassification Center. Like too many other such records, it seems unlikely to generate or to justify much public attention.

In response to this problem, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), an official advisory committee, said that agencies should do more to selectively prioritize topics of high public interest for declassification review rather than trying to declassify most records as they become 25 years old.

“After studying declassification practices in use at agencies and at the National Declassification Center (NDC), we concluded that a coordinated government-wide policy focused on declassifying historically significant records with greatest interest to the public made most sense,” wrote former Congressman David E. Skaggs, the acting chair of the PIDB, in a letter to President Obama last week transmitting a new PIDB report on the subject.

“Currently, all classified records of a certain age receive the same attention, regardless of their historical value or potential research interest,” the PIDB report said. “Such indiscriminate use of dwindling government resources makes no sense.”

PIDB therefore proposed that agencies move away from broad-based “automatic declassification” (which is rarely if ever automatic) to “topic-based prioritization [that] would ensure declassification review of records of the greatest potential for use by the public, historians, public policy professionals and the national security community itself,” the report said.

The PIDB proposal, which addresses a genuine problem, itself raises several concerns.

Automatic declassification of all (non-exempt) historically valuable 25 year old classified records was originally mandated by the Clinton Administration in 1995 in order to compel agencies to take declassification seriously. It served as a forcing function, requiring documents to be released if they were not reviewed or exempted, and it yielded more than a billion pages of declassified records.

A move away from automatic declassification could eliminate that forcing function without replacing it with another equally compelling rationale. The PIDB report says, a bit vaguely, not to worry: “Lessening the burden of automatic declassification [in a shift to topical priorities]… should not reduce the overall declassification activity across government.” It is not immediately clear why not.

Another concern is how to establish which declassification priorities are actually dictated by “the public interest.” There are certainly passionate communities of interest surrounding topics such as the JFK assassination, prisoners of war, or intelligence history, but these are not necessarily a proper basis for a “public interest” declassification agenda. Even a preliminary list of declassification topics that was compiled by the PIDB itself and published in the new report is admittedly “too extensive and diffuse… to inform decisions leading to implementation of a priority-based declassification program.”

A deeper problem than the choice of topics or the impact of resource limitations is the question of which criteria are to be used by agencies for making declassification decisions. If the declassification criteria are obsolete or overly conservative, then applying them even to well-chosen topics won’t do much good.

The PIDB report does not directly engage the question of how to optimize and update declassification criteria. It does propose, however, to eliminate the crude pass/fail process that is often used to withhold entire documents when even a small portion of them is found to be exempt. The report also notes in passing that the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Review Act mandated disclosure requirements for assassination-related records that were “much more stringent” than those of past and current executive orders. There is perhaps an implicit suggestion that a similarly forthcoming approach could be adopted in other topical reviews.

The PIDB report also discusses new applications of technology to declassification, the need for increased risk tolerance, and other topics.

Meanwhile, the demand for declassification is persistent and growing.

Just last week, Sen. Carl Levin renewed his request to the Central Intelligence Agency “to fully declassify a March 13, 2003 cable from CIA field officers to headquarters. This cable provides information about the Bush administration’s campaign to build public support for the Iraq invasion” on grounds that were erroneous and misleading, Sen. Levin said in a December 11 floor statement.

A day before, Sen. Mark Udall introduced a resolution calling on the Administration to declassify records on mass killings and U.S. covert action in Indonesia in the 1960s. “Some may ask, why is this resolution needed? Why now? This is why: The survivors and descendants of victims continue to be marginalized. Many of the killers continue to live with impunity. Very few Americans are aware of these historical events or our government’s actions during this time. These events demand our attention and resolution as we work together to build a strong Asia-Pacific partnership,” he said.

And also last week, Congress approved the new FY 2014-15 intelligence authorization act containing a provision (sec. 321) that “requires the DNI to submit a report to Congress describing proposals to improve the declassification process.”

CIA Torture Report: Oversight, But No Remedies Yet

The release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program is, among other things, an epic act of record preservation.

Numerous CIA records that might not have been disclosed for decades, or ever, were rescued from oblivion by the Senate report and are now indelibly cited and quoted, even if many of them are not yet released in full.

That’s not a small thing, since the history of the CIA interrogation program was not a story that the Agency was motivated or equipped to tell.

“The CIA informed the Committee that due to CIA record retention policies, the CIA could not produce all CIA email communications requested by the Committee,” the report noted, explaining that the desired information was sometimes recovered from a reply message when the original email was missing.

Agency emails turned out to be a critical source of information, a fact that illuminates the Committee’s sharp response recently to the (now suspended) CIA proposal to the National Archives (NARA) to destroy most Agency emails of non-senior officials.

Thus, the gruesome record of the waterboarding of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah “was referenced in emails, but was not documented or otherwise noted in CIA cables.” (This is at odds with NARA’s initial view that “It is unlikely that permanent records will be found in these email accounts that is not filed in other appropriate files.”)

The Committee report is also a remarkable demonstration of the congressional oversight function that is all the more impressive because it was performed in adverse, unfavorable conditions.

It is striking to see how the CIA sometimes treated the Senate Intelligence Committee, its leadership and its staff with the same disdain and evasiveness that is often perceived by FOIA requesters and other members of the public.

Committee questions were ignored, inaccurate information was provided, and the oversight process was gamed.

“Internal CIA emails include discussion of how the CIA could ‘get… off the hook on the cheap’ regarding [then-Committee] Chairman [Bob] Graham’s requests for additional information…. In the end, CIA officials simply did not respond to Graham’s requests prior to his departure from the Committee in January 2003,” the report said.

“I am deeply disturbed by the implications of the study for the committee’s ability to discharge its oversight responsibility,” wrote Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in his additional remarks. “Because it appears from the study that the committee was continuously misled as to virtually all aspects of this program, it naturally raises the extremely troubling question as to whether we can trust the representations of the agency in connection with difficult or sensitive issues in the future.”

But minority members of the Committee disputed this characterization: “In reality, the overall pattern of engagement with the Congress shows that the CIA attempted to keep the Congress informed of its activities,” they wrote in their extensive dissenting views.

Perhaps the most important achievement of the Committee report was to document and memorialize the fact that agents of the US Government practiced torture. Not “harsh measures” or “enhanced techniques,” but torture.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who criticized what she said were methodological flaws in the Committee report, said in her additional views that “Despite these significant flaws, the report’s findings lead me to conclude that some detainees were subject to techniques that constituted torture. This inhumane and brutal treatment never should have occurred.”

By the same token, the most important omission from the report is the absence of any discussion of remedies.

Now that it is firmly established that “we tortured some folks,” as President Obama awkwardly put it, the question is what to do about it. Confession without atonement is incomplete.

Prosecution seems problematic for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of localizing responsibility, when it is entire institutions and not just particular officials that failed.

A different approach to the problem would start by considering the individuals who suffered abuse at the hands of the U.S. government, including a number of persons who were detained in error. Congress could now ask how some of them (i.e. those who are still alive) could be compensated in some measure for what was wrongly done to them.

Several previous efforts to seek remedies for torture were deflected by use of the state secrets privilege. In light of the detailed findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, that sort of evasion should be harder to sustain. Congress could accelerate a resolution of the problem with a focused investigation of what potential remedies are now feasible and appropriate.

New Releases from the National Declassification Center

The National Declassification Center at the National Archives yesterday announced the availability of 240 sets of records that have recently undergone declassification processing.

Many of the record collections are listed in such banal or generic terms that it is hard to imagine they would attract any interest at all. (“Bureau of Naval Personnel Activity File, Personnel Accounting Ledger Records, 1952-1967”?)

But there are also a few items that will make at least some researchers’ hearts beat a little faster, such as three boxes of declassified “Cloud Gap Field Test Reports, 1962-69.”

Cloud Gap was an ambitious government project in the 1960s to establish the technical basis for new arms control measures. Previously disclosed Cloud Gap Field Test Reports on the verifiable dismantlement of nuclear weapons are posted here.