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.

Transcript of 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing Declassified in Full

The transcript of the momentous 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing that led the AEC to revoke the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had led the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb, has now been declassified in full by the Department of Energy.

“The Department of Energy has re-reviewed the original transcript and is making available to the public, for the first time, the full text of the transcript in its original form,” according to a notice posted on Friday.

The Oppenheimer hearing was a watershed event that signaled a crisis in the nuclear weapons bureaucracy and a fracturing of the early post-war national security consensus. Asked for his opinion of the proceedings at the time, Oppenheimer told an Associated Press reporter (cited by Philip Stern) that “People will study the record of this case and reach their own conclusions. I think there is something to be learned from it.”

And so there is. But what?

“No document better explains the America of the cold war — its fears and resentments, its anxieties and dilemmas,” according to Richard Polenberg, who produced an abridged edition of the hearing transcript in 2002 based on the redacted original. “The Oppenheimer hearing also serves as a reminder of the fragility of individual rights and of how easily they may be lost.”

It further represented a breakdown in relations between scientists and the U.S. government and within the scientific community itself.

“The Oppenheimer hearing claims our attention not only because it was unjust but because it undermined respect for independent scientific thinking at a time when such thinking was desperately needed,” wrote historian Priscilla J. McMillan.

First published in redacted form by the Government Printing Office in 1954, the Oppenheimer hearing became a GPO best-seller and went on to inform countless historical studies.

The transcript has attracted intense scholarly attention even to some of its finer details. At one point (Volume II, p. 281), for example, Oppenheimer is quoted as saying “I think you can’t make an anomalous rise twice.” What he actually said, according to author Philip M. Stern, was “I think you can’t make an omelet rise twice.”

The Department of Energy has previously declassified some portions of the Oppenheimer transcript in response to FOIA requests. But this is said to be the first release of the entire unredacted text. It is part of a continuing series of DOE declassifications of historical records of documents of particular historic value and public interest.

The newly declassified portions are helpfully consolidated and cross-referenced in a separate volume entitled “Record of Deletions.”

At first glance, it is not clear that the new disclosures will substantially revise or add to previous understandings of the Oppenheimer hearing. But their release does finally remove a blemish of secrecy from this historic case.

Nuclear Attribution and Hot Cognition

The challenges of identifying the perpetrators of a nuclear attack on the United States and communicating that information to senior leadership were considered in a 2009 workshop sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A declassified report on the workshop was released last week in heavily redacted form. See “Transforming Nuclear Attribution: Culture, Community, and Change (SHARP 2009)” (redacted), Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 2009.

One of the challenges is that the task may be impossible. “The outcome from the assessment of all the evidence and sources may be that a definitive answer is not achievable.”

In the best of cases, “There will almost certainly be a disconnect between the speed at which the national leadership must respond to the policy/political environment and the slower pace at which forensic evidence, technical analysis, and law enforcement investigations can proceed. This gives rise to an anchoring problem (i.e. a tendency to anchor on the usual suspects in attributing responsibility for an event).”

“Given the magnitude of the likely national response to any substantial WMD event, those involved in the attribution process need to be cautious of leaping to conclusions ahead of the evidence.”

The report considers the problem of “hot cognition,” referring to analysis that is performed under conditions of emotional agitation or distress.

“Hot cognition has an immense potential for distorting our perceptions of the environment and how we interpret information. It leads us to more extreme judgments of information, perhaps far beyond what they warrant. And it may lead us to fill in the gaps of missing or ambiguous information with emotional filler that could seriously distort our assessments.”

The workshop was conducted as part of the ODNI Summer Hard Problem (SHARP) program. In the roughly 50% of the resulting report that was not redacted by ODNI and the Department of Energy, there are a number of passages of interest concerning the psychology of intelligence analysis, and other topics. For example:

*  “Resolving an information need is not just about finding a ‘nugget.’ Information must be actively incorporated into the mind. New information has to be assimilated into a person’s preexisting context or state of information about the world. ‘Meaning construction’ takes place when this new information can connect with what is already understood. Our ability to absorb new information is limited. People selectively attend to new information that connects, and may be oblivious to the rest.”

*  Assembling an “all-star” team of outstanding intelligence analysts to tackle the attribution problem may not be the right approach. “It has been observed in a number of professional level sporting events that all-star teams — that is, teams created by joining the most exceptional players from across the league — rarely produce the best team overall. While their members have exceptional skills and are tremendous atheletes individually, these all-star teams typically do not perform as well as expected, nor do individual all-stars perform as well as they performed on their originating team.”

*  “In the case of a nuclear event, it is likely that individual private citizens will have images stored on cell phones or digital cameras that could help [resolve] the attribution question. [Word deleted – AFTAC?] should make arrangements in advance of any actual emergency that would give the public a way to send information to government servers for analysis.”

*  “For every one casualty actually caused by a [WMD] event, as many as fifty other individuals may descend upon local medical facilities presenting with psychosomatic symptoms.”

*  “Current limits to information sharing exist for good reasons, including the need to protect sources, the need to avoid tainting legal prosecution, and the need to protect rights to privacy. These reasons will remain important in a nuclear emergency, but cannot be allowed to impede the higher priority of protecting thousands or millions of human lives…. We must prepare IT tools and approaches now, that when activated for a nuclear emergency, allow relevant players to share knowledge at the speed of technology, not the speed of bureaucracy.”

*  “Having examined the range of capabilities that the US Government will bring to the issue of nuclear attribution, we conclude that IC, LE, and TNF [intelligence community, law enforcement, and technical nuclear forensics] capabilities, as currently configured, are likely to result in eventual success. By this we mean that we are confident that these efforts would eventually result in identification of those who mounted and sponsored any nuclear-related attack on the US or engaged in related activities. We are far less confident that as currently configured these agencies will be able to deliver meaningful, rapid success.”

 

CIA Says Redaction of Commodore Amiga Cost was an Error

The CIA should not have redacted the amount that was paid for a Commodore Amiga portable computer in 1987 from a recently declassified article, a CIA official said today. (CIA: Cost of Personal Computer in 1987 is a Secret, Secrecy News, September 29).

“The redaction of the cost of the Commodore Amiga computer was in fact an error,” said Joseph W. Lambert, Director of CIA Information Management Services.

“Although we would normally redact budget figures, this clearly does not constitute a budget figure and should not have been redacted. The mistake was made in a high volume court deadline environment,” he said, referring to a FOIA lawsuit brought by former CIA official Jeffrey Scudder.

“I have instructed my folks to make the appropriate corrections by lifting the redactions in question and then subsequently re-post the document to our website,” Mr. Lambert said via email. The revised document should be posted tomorrow. (Update: The document with cost figures restored is now posted here.)

The Scudder lawsuit was not settled by the latest releases of hundreds of articles from CIA’s Studies in Intelligence journal. The parties told the court on Monday that Scudder intends to challenge some of CIA’s withholdings.

CIA Posts Hundreds of Declassified Journal Articles

The Central Intelligence Agency has posted hundreds of declassified and unclassified articles from its in-house journal Studies in Intelligence, in an effort to settle a lawsuit brought by a former employee, Jeffrey Scudder. Until lately, the CIA had resisted release of the requested articles in softcopy format (Secrecy News, March 17), but the Agency eventually relented.

“Of the 419 documents that remain in dispute in Scudder, the CIA has produced 249 in full or in part by putting them up on the CIA website,” the government informed Mr. Scudder’s attorney, Mark S. Zaid, this week. They are posted here. [Update: The preceding link is dead. CIA has integrated the Scudder release into this larger collection of declassified Studies articles].

The newly posted articles cover a wide range of topics, and vary considerably in substance and originality. The CIA said that 170 other articles sought by Scudder had been withheld in full.

Jeffrey Scudder was profiled recently in the Washington Post (CIA employee’s quest to release information ‘destroyed my entire career’ by Greg Miller, July 4, 2014).

New Exemptions from 50 Year Declassification Approved

Most of the national security agencies in the executive branch have now been granted approval to exempt certain 50 year old classified information from automatic declassification.

The national security classification system normally requires declassification of classified documents as they become 25 years old, with several specified exemptions to allow continued classification up to 50 years.

Only “in extraordinary cases” may agency heads propose to exempt information from declassification when it is 50 years old, says President Obama’s 2009 executive order 13526. They must request and receive approval from the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP).

So it was somewhat disconcerting to see an updated Notice from the Information Security Oversight Office last week indicating that dozens of executive branch agencies have now been granted exemptions from declassification for 50 year old information, including all of the major national security agencies. The United States Mint, among others, was even granted an exemption for 75 year old classified information.

It appeared that the extraordinary had become quite ordinary.

But that initial impression is not correct, said John P. Fitzpatrick, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the national security classification system.

In the first place, the exemptions from declassification are limited to specific categories of information that the ISCAP was persuaded “would clearly and demonstrably cause damage to national security.”

“Blanket exemptions were not approved,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

And proposed exemptions for particular categories of information were critically reviewed by the ISCAP members, he said. “They often required agencies to make specific changes to their proposed declassification guide before granting approval.”

Because the ISCAP is a presidential body (of which he is the Executive Secretary), Mr. Fitzpatrick said he could not provide detailed information about its deliberative process. But he responded to several questions on the subject in general terms.

“During the evaluation of agency exemptions the ISCAP required that certain agencies significantly narrow their submissions,” he said. “In some cases, the ISCAP required that an agency remove a requested exemption element.”

Moreover, exemption from “automatic declassification” does not necessarily mean exemption from declassification altogether. Individual “records exempted from automatic declassification remain subject to mandatory declassification review,” he noted.

Why does the U.S. Mint need an exemption from declassification for 75 year old information? Is it some sort of anti-counterfeiting issue? No, he said, that’s not it.

The U.S. Mint declassification exemption, “which is perhaps the most [narrowly] targeted of all ISCAP-approved exemptions,” applies solely to “security specifications from the U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, which was built in the late 1930s,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

“Think ‘Goldfinger’,” he said.

WWII Atomic Bomb Project Had More Than 1,500 “Leaks”

The Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II was among the most highly classified and tightly secured programs ever undertaken by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it generated more than 1,500 leak investigations involving unauthorized disclosures of classified Project information.

That remarkable fact is noted in the latest declassified volume of the official Manhattan District History (Volume 14, Intelligence & Security) that was approved for release and posted online by the Department of Energy last month.

In several respects, the Manhattan Project established the template for secret government programs during the Cold War (and after). It pioneered or refined the practices of compartmentalization of information, “black” budgets, cover and deception to conceal secret facilities, minimal notification to Congress, and more.

But wherever there are national security secrets, it seems that leaks and spies are not far behind.

During the course of the Manhattan Project, counterintelligence agents “handled more than 1,000 general subversive investigations, over 1,500 cases in which classified project information was transmitted to unauthorized persons, approximately 100 suspected espionage cases, and approximately 200 suspected sabotage cases,” according to the newly declassified history (at pp. S2-3).

Most of the 1,500 leak cases seem to have been inadvertent disclosures rather than deliberate releases to the news media of the contemporary sort. But they were diligently investigated nonetheless. “Complete security of information could be achieved only by following all leaks to their source.”

In 1943, there were several seemingly unrelated cases of Protestant clergymen in the South preaching sermons that alarmingly cited “the devastating energy contained in minute quantities of Uranium 235″ (while contrasting it with “the power of God [that] was infinitely greater”). The sermons were eventually traced back to a pamphlet distributed by a Bible college in Chicago, which was determined to be harmless. Other disclosures cited in the history involved more serious indiscretions that drew punitive action.

“Since September 1943, investigations were conducted of more than 1500 ‘loose talk’ or leakage of information cases and corrective action was taken in more than 1200 violations of procedures for handling classified material,” the history said (p. 6.5).

“Upon discovery of the source of a violation of regulations for safeguarding military information, the violator, if a project employee, was usually reprimanded, informed of the possible application of the Espionage Act, and warned not to repeat the violation.”

Fundamentally, however, information security was not to be achieved by the force of law or the threat of punishment. Rather, it was rooted in shared values and common commitments, the Project history said.

“Grounds for protecting information were largely patriotism, loyalty to the fighting men, and the reasoning that the less publicity given the Project, the more difficult it would be for the enemy to acquire information about it and also, the greater would be the element of surprise” (p. 6.13).

The only other remaining portion of the official history, Foreign Intelligence Supplement No. 1 to Manhattan District History Volume 14, was also published online last month. It provided an account of U.S. wartime intelligence collection aimed at enemy scientific research and development. Some information in that volume was deleted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The entire thirty-six volume Manhattan District history has now been declassified and posted online.