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The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has modified its classification policies in favor of heightened secrecy, withholding budget records that were previously considered releasable and redesignating certain unclassified budget information as classified.

NRO is the U.S. intelligence agency that builds and operates the nation’s intelligence satellites.

Since 2006, and for most of the past decade, the NRO has released unclassified portions of its budget justification documents in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

But in a January 23, 2017 letter, the NRO said it would no longer release that unclassified budget information, which it now deems classified.

“The NRO has determined that a series of unclassified items in the [FY 2016 budget justification] document in the aggregate reveals associations or relationships not otherwise revealed in the unclassified items individually; thus, in the aggregate, this information meets the standard for classification under E.O. 13526 Section 1.7(e),” wrote Patricia B. Cameresi, NRO FOIA Public Liaison, in her FOIA denial letter.

As a purely technical matter, the latter claim is probably a misreading of the Executive Order, which states in Section 1.7(e):

“Compilations of items of information that are individually unclassified may be classified if the compiled information reveals an additional association or relationship that:  (1) meets the standards for classification under this order; and (2) is not otherwise revealed in the individual items of information.”

Properly understood, the fact that various unclassified items reveal additional information in the aggregate does not mean that those items meet the standard for classification. That requires a separate determination which, in any case, is discretionary. Classifying compilations of unclassified budget information is a threshold which was never crossed in the past and which has not been explicitly justified by NRO here.

The NRO also invoked a statutory exemption in 10 USC 424, which says that NRO (along with DIA and NGA) cannot be compelled to disclose “any function” at all.

The upshot is that the NRO is abandoning the budget disclosure practices of the past decade, and is positioning itself to withhold anything and everything that it prefers not to release.

An administrative appeal of the NRO FOIA denial was filed yesterday.