CIA Asks to Destroy Email of Non-Senior Agency Officials

The Central Intelligence Agency has asked for authority to destroy email messages sent by non-senior officials of the Agency. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has tentatively approved the proposal.

In an August 18 appraisal of the CIA request, Meredith Scheiber of NARA wrote that any permanently valuable material in the emails would almost certainly be captured in other permanent CIA records.

“It is unlikely that permanent records will be found in these email accounts that is not filed in other appropriate files appraised as permanent,” the appraisal said.

“There are multiple records systems to capture the actions and decisions of employees and multiple internal controls in place in the event an employee was engaged in malicious activities.”

Any “remaining email not captured in other recordkeeping systems is routine or administrative in nature; transitory; or personal in nature.”

The NARA appraisal of the CIA proposal noted in passing that “The Agency’s current email policy is to print and file” rather than to save permanently valuable email in softcopy format.

“The average career of an Agency employee is 22 years,” the NARA appraisal also observed.

The CIA proposal for email disposal authority and the accompanying NARA appraisal were announced for public comment in the Federal Register on September 17.

CIA: Cost of Personal Computer in 1987 is a Secret

Updated below

Under the prevailing information policies of the Central Intelligence Agency, even some well-known public facts, such as the price of a popular personal computer, may be withheld from public disclosure.

“We bought our first Commodore Amiga in 1987 for less than [price redacted] including software,” according to a paper entitled “NPIC, Amiga, and Videotape” from the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence. It was among hundreds of papers posted online this month in response to a FOIA lawsuit brought by Jeffrey Scudder.

The redacted Amiga price figure is marked “(b)(3)(c)”, signifying that the information is being withheld under The CIA Act of 1949, by which CIA may withhold information about the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency.

But is the cost of a publicly available consumer item like the Commodore Amiga computer properly subject to this exemption? A CIA information management official did not respond to an inquiry on the subject from Secrecy News.

Based on previous official statements, however, the CIA would likely say that even if the cost of the Commodore Amiga in 1987 is not intrinsically sensitive, the fact that CIA expended that amount makes it so.

Moreover, CIA seems to have adopted a declassification rule dictating that all of its expenditures, no matter how trivial, shall be withheld from disclosure, except in extraordinary cases (or the occasional mistake). The Agency might go on to argue that such a rule actually facilitates disclosure by expediting the declassification review process. That’s because instead of needing to pause to consider the potential ramifications of any individual spending disclosure, the Agency can proceed more quickly by simply withholding all such figures.

However, by adopting such sweeping non-disclosure practices, the CIA inevitably withholds more information than it should. And it lacks a reliable mechanism for correcting errors and excesses.

This has been a longstanding problem when it comes to withholding information concerning “intelligence sources and methods,” as authorized and required by the National Security Act [a FOIA exemption designated "(b)(3)(n)" in CIA's internal notation].

The 1997 Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the Moynihan Commission) said that the “sources and methods” justification for secrecy had been invoked too broadly and required clarification.

“Neither the National Security Act nor any of the relevant executive orders has defined what constitutes a ‘source’ or a ‘method,’ and the use of these provisions has been the subject of frequent criticism. Protection of sources and methods has been used to justify the classification of a range of information sometimes only indirectly related to a specific source or method,” the Moynihan Commission said (in Chapter 2 of its Report).

“In practice, the sources and methods rationale [for withholding information] has become a vehicle for agencies to automatically keep information secret without engaging in the type of harm analysis required by executive orders as a prerequisite to keeping other kinds of information secret. The statutory requirement that sources and methods be protected thus appears at times to have been applied not in a thoughtful way but almost by rote,” the Commission said (in Chapter 3).

But no action was taken on the Commission’s critique, and 15 years later the Public Interest Declassification Board still found reason to recommend that “The specific protections afforded intelligence sources and methods need to be precisely defined and distinguished.” So far, the Board’s 2012 recommendation to clarify the parameters of the National Security Act on this point has also gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, based on CIA’s promiscuous use of its withholding authorities as evidenced in the newly posted Studies in Intelligence papers, similar remedial action seems to be required with respect to the CIA Act as well.

And what was the cost of the Commodore Amiga in 1987 that CIA believes is exempt from disclosure today?

According to an online history, the Amiga 500 cost $699 in 1987, while the high end Amiga 2000 (with 1 MB RAM and a monitor) cost $2395.

Update: A CIA official said on October 1 that the redaction of the cost of the Amiga was an error, and that it would be corrected.

Update 2: The paper has been re-posted by CIA with cost figures restored here.

Wanted: Astronomer with Top Secret Clearance

NASA’s orbiting James Webb Space Telescope will be “the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide, and studying every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.”

So why does its Director need to have a Top Secret/SCI security clearance, as specified in the job description posted last month on USA Jobs?

Clearly, the secrets of the universe do not lend themselves to, or require, national security classification controls, let alone non-disclosure agreements or polygraph testing.

But in practice, the civilian space program intersects the national security space program at multiple points, and former CIA analyst Allen Thomson suggested that the future Webb Director might need a Top Secret intelligence clearance in order to engage with the National Reconnaissance Office on space technology and operations, for example.

The Webb Space Telescope “will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, with longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity,” according to NASA. “The longer wavelengths enable the Webb telescope to look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.”

The Webb Telescope has a projected launch date in 2018.

A Look Behind President Clinton’s Veto of an Anti-Leak Bill

In 2000, both houses of Congress passed legislation that would have made any leak of classified information a felony.

The provision, contained in the FY2001 intelligence authorization act, was designed “to ensure the prosecution of all unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the primary sponsor of the provision, at the time.

While some unauthorized disclosures of classified information were already prohibited by statute (including the Espionage Act), others have not been specifically outlawed, or else their legal status is uncertain, requiring strenuous efforts by prosecutors to fit a prohibition to the presumed offense. The Shelby provision would have removed all ambiguities and would have simply criminalized all leaks of classified information.

But to the astonishment of nearly everyone, and to the relief of many, President Clinton vetoed the 2001 intelligence authorization bill because of the anti-leak measure.

“Although well intentioned, that provision is overbroad and may unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy,” he wrote in his November 4, 2000 veto message.

But that unexpected outcome almost didn’t come to pass.

Instead of a veto, White House lawyers had prepared draft signing statements for President Clinton in which he would have approved the bill, while expressing some reservations about its potential impact.

The draft signing statements were released by the Clinton Presidential Library last week. The newly disclosed presidential documents were first noted by Josh Gerstein in Politico on July 18.

“I strongly believe… that this new provision should not be applied in a manner that could chill legitimate activity or transform questions of judgment into criminal referrals,” according to the draft signing statement for President Clinton that was ultimately set aside in favor of a veto of the bill.

The worst effects of the anti-leak measure could be avoided by the limited, judicious use of prosecutorial authority, White House lawyers initially suggested.

“It is extraordinarily important, therefore, that the Justice Department use its prosecutorial discretion wisely when apparently unauthorized disclosures are referred to it for possible prosecution under this new provision,” the draft signing statement said.

Prosecutorial discretion often seems to be in short supply, however, and in all likelihood it would not have been an effective bulwark against abuse of the vetoed anti-leak provision, had it passed into law.

An apparent excess of zeal in the prosecution of classified document (mis-)handling was highlighted just last week in the case of Navy contract linguist James F. Hitselberger, who had been charged with multiple felonies in connection with the unlawful retention of national defense information. Earlier this year, Mr. Hitselberger pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to time already served (in pre-trial custody) and a fine of $250.00.

House Amendment Would Cut NSC Budget by a Third

The House of Representatives yesterday approved an amendment to cut the budget for the National Security Council by one third in response to NSC moves to block congressional access to information.

“Over the last few months, we have had several instances in which the National Security staff has mandated that the Department of Defense and other agencies selectively withhold information from congressional oversight committees,” complained Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who introduced the amendment. It was not immediately clear which instances of withholding he was referring to.

“Accurate, complete, and timely reporting by the Department of Defense is essential for the [Appropriations] committee to conduct its oversight responsibilities,” added Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN), who endorsed the amendment to cut the NSC budget.

“Over the past few years, the size of the National Security Council’s staff has grown, and it appears that they have moved beyond their Presidential advisory role to involve themselves in decisions which are not in their purview,” said Rep. Frelinghuysen.

The amendment to reduce the FY 2015 NSC budget by $4.2 million, or approximately one-third, passed the House on a voice vote.

Espionage Act Case Was “Overcharged,” Defense Says

In 2012, former Navy linguist James F. Hitselberger was indicted on two felony counts under the Espionage Act statutes after several classified documents were found in his possession. In 2013, a superseding indictment charged him with another four felony counts.

But in the end, Mr. Hitselberger pleaded guilty this year to a single misdemeanor charge of removing classified documents without authorization.

Now both the defense and the prosecution are endorsing Hitselberger’s request that any jail penalty be limited to the time he has already served, including two months in DC jail and eight months of home confinement. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 17.

Despite the stark disparity between the multiple felony counts with which Hitselberger was charged, and the single misdemeanor of which he was convicted, the prosecution said that it had no second thoughts about the way the matter was handled.

“It is important to note that the government’s case against Mr. Hitselberger did not collapse,” prosecutors said in a June 27 sentencing memorandum. To the contrary, prosecutors wrote, “in several ways, the government’s case became stronger than what it had been when the charges were first obtained.”

Defense attorneys disputed that assertion and said the government had overreached.

“At a minimum, the evidence demonstrates that the government significantly overcharged the case, and the guilty plea to a misdemeanor not only was the appropriate result, but also demonstrates how the offense should have been charged from the beginning,” the defense wrote in a June 27 reply.

The mountain of Espionage Act charges that yielded a molehill of a misdemeanor in this case recalls a similar progression in the prosecution of former NSA official Thomas Drake, where ten felony counts gave way to a technical misdemeanor. This recurring pattern may indicate that overcharging is a standard prosecutorial approach to such cases, or that the judicial process is effectively winnowing out excessive felony charges, or perhaps both.

A June 26 sentencing memorandum submitted by the defense presented its own account of the facts of the case, along with several moving testimonials from Hitselberger’s friends and relatives as to his character.

In another pending Espionage Act case, the Obama Administration must decide if it will pursue a subpoena against New York Times reporter James Risen. For a current update, see Reporter’s Case Poses Dilemma for Justice Dept. by Jonathan Mahler, New York Times, June 27.

“For Official Use Only” is Used Too Much at DHS, House Says

There is too much information that is marked “For Official Use Only” at the Department of Homeland Security, the House Appropriations Committee said in its report on DHS Appropriations for 2015. Efforts to sort out what is really sensitive have “wasted substantial staff resources,” the report said.

Therefore, the Committee would require any official who marked a document FOUO to identify himself or herself on the document, along with a justification for doing so.

The Committee inaptly described the use of FOUO controls as a problem of “overclassification,” and spoke of “classifying” records as FOUO. Strictly speaking, however, national security classification and FOUO are mutually exclusive domains. Classified records cannot be marked as FOUO, and information or documents that are FOUO are by definition unclassified. Still, the Committee’s point is clear.

Here is the Committee language from its June 19 DHS Appropriations report:

Over-Classification of Information

The Committee is concerned with the number of reports, briefings, and responses to requests for information that are designated by the Department as “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), often without a consistent and appropriate review as to why information requires such a classification. As a consequence, both the Committee and the Department have wasted substantial staff resources deliberating over what information can and could be publicly disclosed. The Committee directs that all reports, briefings, or responses to requests for information provided to the Committee that are classified as FOUO include the name(s) and title(s) of the personnel that made the designation and the specific reasons for the classification based on requirements detailed in DHS Management Directive 11042.1, which provides guidance for safeguarding sensitive but unclassified FOUO information.

IC Media Policy Should be Revised, Sen. Wyden Says

An Intelligence Community Directive that prohibited unauthorized contacts with the news media is overbroad and needs to be corrected, said Sen. Ron Wyden last week on the Senate floor.

“I will tell you, I am troubled by how sweeping in nature this is,” Senator Wyden said about the Directive, ICD 119, issued last March. (See Intelligence Directive Bars Unauthorized Contacts with News Media, Secrecy News, April 21).

“The new policy makes it clear that intelligence agency employees can be punished for having ‘contact with the media about intelligence-related information’,” he said. “Make no mistake about it, that is so broad it could cover unclassified information. It does not lay out any limits on this extraordinarily broad term that I have described.”

“My hope is we can get this corrected because I think it is going to have a chilling effect on intelligence professionals who simply want to talk about unclassified matters on important national security issues– such as how to reform domestic surveillance or whether our country should go to war,” Sen. Wyden said on June 12.

The new IC media policy was discussed on the NPR program On the Media on June 13.

 

Overclassification: Is There a Limit?

Is there any act of overclassification that is so egregious that the classifier would be held accountable for abusing his classification authority?

The answer is unknown, since no one has ever been held accountable in such a case.

As far as can be determined, no classifier has ever been found to have willfully or culpably defied the rules set forth in the President’s executive order on national security classification.

In a complaint filed last year with the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), a Marine Corps officer argued that private video recordings and related “trophy images” including one depicting Marines urinating on human remains in Afghanistan had been classified in violation of the executive order.

Major James W. Weirick asked ISOO Director John F. Fitzpatrick to render a judgment that the urination video and related images had been improperly classified. Among other reasons, Major Weirick wrote that they originated as private documents, that one video had been posted online and that all were outside of the control of the U.S. Government, a prerequisite for classification.

“This video was captured on a personal video recorder and only became known to the U.S. Government after it surfaced on YouTube, and other media outlets, in January 2012. The Government could never account for all the copies of this information and made no attempt to account for this information,” Major Weirick wrote in his November 14, 2013 complaint.

In a May 30 response, ISOO Director John P. Fitzpatrick said he took the complaint seriously and that he had undertaken a review of the matter, but that he ultimately decided that it did not require corrective action.

Mr. Fitzpatrick “met with all USMC officials directly involved in the decision to classify” as well as with Major Weirick. He determined that the video that had been uploaded to YouTube had in fact been specifically excluded from the original classification decision (although dozens of other, similar videos and photographs were classified).

“I spoke at length with the original classification authority (OCA) who made the classification decision. I am convinced that the primary motivation for the classification decision was the safety of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and the protection of specific tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment,” Mr. Fitzpatrick wrote in his May 30, 2014 response to Major Weirick.

J. William Leonard, who was Mr. Fitzpatrick’s predecessor as ISOO Director, expressed dismay at the ISOO decision not to pursue the matter further.

He said that the classified images could not be properly classified because they were not under effective or exclusive U.S. government control. “The USG had control of copies of the images, but not the images themselves,” which had been freely and informally exchanged for months. “The same rationale that applied to not classifying the YouTube video also applied to the other images as well since there were undoubtedly other copies beyond the government’s control.”

“Even if you accepted the claim regarding the need to protect sensitive TTP [tactics, techniques and procedures], the troubling claim of both USMC and ISOO is that it was entirely appropriate to classify images and video that depicted nothing more than Marines posing with corpses, i.e. the ‘trophy’ photos.  Such photos depicted nothing more than unlawful conduct in a war zone,” Mr. Leonard said.

“I am extremely concerned that the integrity of the classification system continues to be severely undermined by the complete absence of accountability in instances such as this clear abuse of classification authority,” Mr. Leonard wrote in an endorsement of Major Weirick’s complaint.

“The provisions of the [executive] order establishing accountability are more feckless than the 55 mph speed limit on the Capital Beltway,” Mr. Leonard said. “At least on the Beltway, if you go fast enough you’ll eventually get a ticket. In the classification system, by virtue of never holding anyone or any agency accountable for abusing the system, we really don’t know how far you can go.”

    *    *    *

A 2012 classification guide issued by U.S. Central Command authorizes classification of information if its disclosure would “embarrass any Coalition members” (at pp. I-4 to I-5).

This provision appears to be inconsistent with Executive Order 12356, Section 1.7, which states: “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to: [...] prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”

Secrecy System Shows New Signs of Contraction

In 2012, the number of newly created national security secrets (or “original classification decisions”) dropped by a startling 42% from the year before, according to the Information Security Oversight Office. It was the largest annual drop ever reported by ISOO, yielding the lowest annual production of new secrets since such numbers began to be collected in 1979. (Secrecy System Shows Signs of Contraction, Secrecy News, June 25, 2013).

Now it seems that this 2012 decline in the production of new secrets was not merely a fluke, but perhaps the start of a trend. The latest ISOO annual report indicates that in 2013 the number of reported new secrets continued to decline by an additional 20% to 58,794 original classification decisions, another new record low.

For the first time in a decade, the number of “derivative classification decisions” in which previously classified information is incorporated into new records also declined in 2013, ISOO reported.

“Agencies reported a total of 80.12 million derivative classification decisions in FY 2013, a decrease of 16 percent from FY 2012. Although we can not pinpoint a single cause for this decrease, we do know it was due in part to the refinement and correction of estimation practices employed by some agencies. Other possible contributing factors could be the recent emphasis on proper classification procedures coming from the expanded agency self-inspection requirements, the inspector-general reviews conducted in response to the Reducing Over-Classification Act, and the Fundamental Classification Guidance Reviews that all agencies conducted in 2012,” the ISOO report said.

The Information Security Oversight Office, housed at the National Archives, reports to the President of the United States on national security classification policy and oversees the operation of the classification system.