Secrecy News

Revisiting Intelligence History

Earlier this month the Director of National Intelligence asked intelligence community historians to recommend topics in the history of intelligence which, if declassified and disclosed, “would help the public better understand the work of the IC and contribute to a public dialogue surrounding significant historical events.”

DNI James R. Clapper directed that historical topics shall be provided to the DNI for proposed declassification review “on a semi-annual basis.” IC historians are to “collaborate with other public historians or private subject-matter experts to solicit input for such topics,” he wrote in a December 9 memorandum.

In itself, this DNI directive is not a very significant step. It does not make any specific commitments, it is not enforceable, and it does not allocate any new resources. Above all, it does not set forth new criteria for declassification of historical materials. This is a serious omission, since records which qualify for declassification under existing criteria are supposed to be declassified anyway, without the need for a new procedure.

Nevertheless, the latest memorandum adds at least a dash of momentum to a series of steps that have been taken by DNI Clapper to advance intelligence-related transparency, and that cumulatively may help to keep it alive as a topic of policy deliberation. Those other steps include the creation of IC on the Record (where the new memorandum first appeared), the issuance of IC “Transparency Principles,” the creation of an IC Transparency Council, and especially the DNI’s active embrace of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review process, which should pay dividends in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, “over-classification” has recently been flagged by the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board as an issue requiring the attention of the next Administration.

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These days, intelligence history is not just for historians. One historical topic that is timely and that might be fitting for comprehensive treatment by declassifiers concerns the role of intelligence agencies in tampering with foreign elections.

“The United States cannot in good faith decry what has been done to its decent citizens until it is ready to face what it did so often to the equally decent citizens of other nations,” wrote Ariel Dorfman, referring to the CIA intervention in Chile’s elections in the 1970s (“Now, America, You Know How Chileans Felt,” New York Times, December 16).

“The C.I.A. got its start trying to influence the outcome of Italy’s elections in 1948, as the author Tim Weiner documented in his book ‘Legacy of Ashes,’ in an effort to keep Communists from taking power,” wrote David Sanger, also in the Times. The US went on to interfere in elections in Iran, Guatemala, and Japan, he noted.

In Indonesia, the CIA reportedly made a pornographic film in 1957 featuring an actor disguised as the disfavored leader Sukarno that was intended to embarrass him, according to the 1976 book Portrait of a Cold Warrior by former CIA officer Joseph Burkholder Smith.

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The current classification system “is broken,” wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Washington Post. It is too complicated, too expensive, and rewards overclassification.

“We… must do what we can to change incentives to further encourage government personnel to classify at the lowest appropriate levels and for the shortest durations,” she wrote. See “How to rethink what’s ‘top secret’ for the Internet age,” December 16.

While official attention to classification policy is most welcome, the fact that a senior legislator like Sen. Feinstein would resort to writing an op-ed on the subject might be understood as a tacit signal that a legislative solution is currently out of reach.

But that is not necessarily true. I suggested some (comparatively) easy incremental steps that Congress could take to begin to combat overclassification in a statement presented at a hearing of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee on December 7.