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SECRECY & GOVERNMENT BULLETIN

Issue Number 51 -- August 1995

Congress May Eliminate Secrecy Oversight

Efforts to block reform of the cold war secrecy system gained momentum in July with a move in the House of Representatives to eliminate the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which is the linchpin of President Clinton's new classification system.

Under last April's Executive Order 12958 on secrecy reform, ISOO was directed to "oversee agency actions to ensure compliance with this order and its implementing directives." Along with general oversight, ISOO was assigned to review and approve implementation of declassification programs, conduct on-site inspections, address challenges to classification, coordinate interagency secrecy policy, and enforce prohibitions against improper classification and declassification.

But the Treasury appropriations bill for 1996, which passed the House on July 19, deleted ISOO's $1.5 million budget and disestablished the sixteen year old organization (see House Report 104-183, p. 60). This action, if sustained by the Senate, would undo much of the reform activity of the recent years and could render the President's new classification system unworkable.

As is so often the case in the current Congress, the move was not based on a serious deliberative process. Certainly there were no hearings on the subject, and there are no traces of any debate or even any clear understanding of the consequences of the action.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Treasury suggested rather off-handedly that "functions previously performed by [ISOO] can be picked up by the National Archives or other appropriate agencies such as the Department of Defense." As if the CIA or other agencies were going to submit their classification programs to the National Archives for approval and oversight. In any event, no money was allocated for this function.

The proposed elimination of ISOO comes on the heels of an attempt by the House Intelligence Committee to impose tight limits on spending for declassification under the new executive order [S&GB 50]. (In that case, the spending limits were a compromise solution that was actually sponsored by Democrats, since the Republican majority wanted to prohibit all funding for declassification.)

The motivation for the assault on secrecy reform is difficult to discern. It will end up costing money, not saving it, and will expand a bloated government bureaucracy, not reduce it. The House Subcommittee may have had some lingering resentment towards ISOO because of its refusal to require expensive new locks for security containers a few years ago, according to one source. Or the whole thing may just reflect a desire to tweak the Clinton Administration and frustrate its policies.

But if the motivation is "conservative," the probable effect of the House action is anarchist. It suggests that cautious, incremental reforms are not possible and that catastrophic failure of the classification system is the only way out. Government vaults will continue to overflow with obsolete secrets. Public contempt for excessive secrecy will spread to the security officials themselves, as they realize they are perpetuating an antiquated, dishonest system. Before too long, the whole national security information system could simply unravel.

VENONA Decrypts Released

The National Security Agency on July 11 declassified 49 Soviet messages from the 1940s that had been intercepted and decrypted in a program codenamed VENONA. The release was announced in a ceremony at the CIA in which participants in the program were honored.

This is "another tremendous intelligence success," said DCI John Deutch. "I'm proud that the VENONA program can now take its place in history."

NSA historian in residence David Kahn said VENONA ranked among the half dozen most important intelligence revelations of the century, along with the decryption of the Zimmermann Telegram, the ULTRA program to decode Nazi messages, and the use of imagery in the Cuban Missile Crisis. "The VENONA revelations are on that level and belong on that list," Mr. Kahn said.

The released messages were pre-selected and packaged to emphasize Soviet espionage against the early U.S. nuclear weapons program and the role of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in particular. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan made an effort to remind the audience that there was a bigger picture here. The perception that "the secret of the universe had been stolen from us" by the Soviets had enormous social and political consequences that are still reverberating in today's secrecy system, he said. But little attention was paid to any such larger issues.

It seemed that DCI Deutch was taking a leaf from Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's playbook. In his first few months he has chosen to preside over two high profile declassification actions: the recent conference on the CORONA spy satellite program and now VENONA. (CORONA, VENONA-- let's call the whole thing off.) However, where O'Leary disclosed some of the less appealing aspects of her agency's history, Deutch has so far focused exclusively on highly successful programs. And while O'Leary established an ongoing process for continuing disclosures, no comparable process is evident at CIA, although the remainder of the 2200 VENONA intercepts are to be released over the coming year.

Dr. Deutch did not respond to a question about the House Intelligence Committee's efforts to curtail future declassification activity. But he affirmed that he is committed to complying with the President's executive order. "The intelligence community is absolutely dedicated to declassifying as much as we can with the greatest speed that we can as long as we do not in any way endanger sources and methods," he said.

That sounds fine-- but it's not, since the CIA's concept of sources and methods is infinitely elastic. For example, a recent FOIA request for intelligence budget numbers dating back to 1947 was denied on grounds that it would endanger sources and methods. This is worse than ludicrous, since it casts doubt on CIA's competence to make rational national security judgments.

A hardcopy set of all 49 VENONA intercepts (80 pages) is available from S&GB for $10 to support our habit.

A Framework for Intelligence Reform

"The major reason for the nation to mandate reform of the Intelligence Community is that for many years it has not performed well. The reason is not the demise of the Soviet regime. Taxpayers have not been and are not getting their money's worth from this part of government."

So says John A. Gentry in a remarkable new monograph entitled "A Framework for Reform of the U.S. Intelligence Community." This comprehensive, if highly opinionated, treatment of intelligence reform issues is addressed primarily to the Congressional intelligence committees and the Aspin Commission on Intelligence Roles and Missions.

Mr. Gentry, who served for 12 years as a CIA analyst until his resignation in 1990, seems to be motivated by two factors: a devotion to the profession of intelligence and a profound disillusionment with the culture of the intelligence community, which he says has suffered from serious management problems and ethical lapses since the 1980s. "It is difficult to overemphasize the extent of unhappiness of CIA employees about their management," he writes.

He thus represents a perspective that is not often heard in public and which leads to his most drastic proposal: While the CIA must not be eliminated, it should be decapitated by massive turnover of senior personnel. "The total number of individuals removed for cause probably should eventually number in the low hundreds. Surgical removal of any fewer will not eliminate the core of the ethical cancer that is eating away CIA-- and it would not indicate a serious effort to eliminate management problems." He singles out CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz for failing to address numerous employee complaints.

Aside from his various proposals, Mr. Gentry also records numerous incidental observations of interest. For example, in early 1995, he says, the CIA Office of Security was disqualifying an astonishing 80% of CIA job applicants because they failed to pass a polygraph test. And he says that the CIA nullified the value of its own Parallel Estimates Project (in which outside contractors were asked to prepare estimates on the same topics as CIA analysts [see S&GB 43]) by canceling the CIA part of the experiment.

It is doubtful that many will agree with all of Gentry's recommendations. But he performs a real public service by providing an orderly analysis with explicit premises and clear arguments, helping readers to think for themselves about the future of intelligence.

A copy of the Gentry paper (149 pp.) is available from S&GB for $10. It was first reported in OSS Notices (Open Source Solutions, Oakton, VA ).

Nuclear Navy Secrecy Assailed at DOE

The naval nuclear propulsion program at the Department of Energy is practicing an indiscriminate secrecy policy that borders on a coverup of important public safety information, according to an internal July 10 memorandum from Kenneth E. Baker of DOE's Office of Nonproliferation and National Security.

Current policy at the DOE Office of Naval Reactors "has a significant chilling impact which causes health, safety, and environmental information to be thoroughly classified in practice." Classification of this kind of information "would be considered a coverup if classified by other DOE programs," the memo stated.

All sorts of nuclear navy data are routinely and improperly classified. Among several other examples, the memo notes that "foreign ports of call for nuclear powered surface ships are classified.... However, the ports of call can be and are available in foreign news media, but not to the American public."

Baker recommends that naval reactor secrecy policy be integrated into the ongoing Fundamental Classification Policy Review in order to make it consistent with overall DOE policy. A copy of the unreleased memorandum (2 pp.) is available from S&GB.

NSA Model Homepage Now Online

The message coming out of the House Intelligence Committee is that if you want more openness and accountability in intelligence --you're on your own! To help meet that challenge, FAS has established a model homepage on the World Wide Web for the National Security Agency.

The NSA model homepage includes sections on NSA structure, functions, facilities, operations, and budget. It is intended to provide the information that is necessary for a minimal level of government accountability as well as a baseline for informed public discussion of intelligence policy issues.

The site may be accessed through the FAS intelligence reform homepage at http://www.fas.org/irp/. This is a work in progress. Users are invited to submit comments, corrections, and supplementary materials. FAS model homepages for a dozen other U.S. intelligence agencies are in preparation and will be posted over the next several months.

Heavy traffic at this site indicates that there is indeed a public thirst for intelligence-related information that is unmet by official sources. In fact, efforts of this type may turn out to be the nucleus of a new form of public oversight of intelligence.

To its credit, the NSA has established its own authentic homepage at http://www.nsa.gov:8080 which is worth visiting but very thin on content.

"Give a Hoot-- Read a Book"

*The third edition of The U.S. Intelligence Community by Jeffrey T. Richelson has recently been published by Westview Press (Boulder, CO, 524 pp.). It is an essential, encyclopedic reference for anyone concerned with intelligence and public accountability.

*The libertarian Cato Institute has just published The Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment by Ted Galen Carpenter (Wash, DC, 315 pp.). It presents a critical history and overview of government-media relations with a chapter on "The Cult of Secrecy."

*Westview Press has also recently published a massive (1032 pp.) volume entitled National Security Directives of the Reagan & Bush Administrations: The Declassified History of U.S. Political & Military Policy, 1981-1991, edited by Christopher Simpson. This extraordinary collection of declassified Presidential directives represents the secret foundation of U.S. national security policy in the 1980s. It is very expensive ($120 in hardcover), but a copy belongs in every self-respecting library of public affairs.


Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a 50 year old public interest organization of natural and social scientists concerned with issues of science and society.

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the HKH Foundation and the CS Fund. This publication may be freely reproduced.

For more information, send email to [email protected].


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