Secrecy News

Senator’s Challenge to War Powers Secrecy Blocked

Last January the Trump Administration formally notified Congress under the War Powers Act of a US drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

But unlike all known prior War Powers Act notifications, the report on the Soleimani killing was classified in its entirety. (Previous reports sometimes included a classified annex together with the unclassified notification.)

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that was unacceptable. “There’s a veil being pulled over the foreign policy of this country,” he told the Washington Post. See “Six months later, Democrats keep working to unearth a big national security secret” by Greg Sargent, The Washington Post Plum Line, July 21, 2020.

Senator Murphy asked the White House to reconsider the classification. “It is critical that decisions regarding the use of force consistent with the War Powers Act be provided in unclassified form to the American people,” he wrote. He received no response.

So he turned to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), a group of executive branch agency representatives that is authorized by executive order to decide appeals of challenges to classification.

The initiative failed. Last month the ISCAP said that it would not consider such an appeal from Senator Murphy or from any other member of Congress.

The ISCAP refusal leaves the War Powers Act report on Soleimani fully classified and it keeps the public in the dark about the asserted legal and factual basis for killing him. But it highlights an important gap in classification policy that could be corrected in a new Administration and a new Congress.

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When information is classified improperly or unnecessarily, the opportunities for correcting such actions are quite limited.

A provision for government employees to formally challenge the classification of certain information was introduced in President Clinton’s 1995 executive order 12958 (section 1.9) and has remained in effect until the present (executive order 13526, section 1.8). The provision states:

“Authorized holders of information who, in good faith, believe that its classification status is improper are encouraged and expected to challenge the classification status of the information. . . .”

Importantly, this provision was not intended as a courtesy or a privilege. In fact, it was not intended for the sake of the challengers at all. Rather, the purpose of such classification challenges was to promote the integrity of the classification system and to help make the system self-correcting, as far as possible. That’s why potential challengers are “encouraged and expected” to present challenges even if they don’t personally care about the issue at all.

There were 954 such challenges in fiscal year 2016, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, and 167 of those resulted in the classification being overturned in whole or in part. In FY 2017, there were 721 challenges, 58 of which led to changes in classification.

No member of Congress had ever invoked this provision before. But Senator Murphy had some reason to believe that such a classification challenge could be effective in the case of the Soleimani war powers report.

The sticking point was the definition of “authorized holders of [classified] information,” who are the only ones that can present a classification challenge under the executive order.

One would suppose that a member of Congress who is in possession of a classified report that was officially provided to him or her by the executive branch would certainly qualify as an “authorized holder.” In fact, the executive branch has a binding legal obligation to provide certain classified defense and intelligence information to Congress.

But it turns out that the executive order (in section 6.1c) narrowly defines an “authorized holder of classified information” as one who has been vetted by an agency and found eligible for access. (Oddly, this limiting definition was only added in 2009.) Since Members of Congress are cleared for classified information by virtue of their office and do not undergo agency vetting, they are not “authorized persons” for purposes of the executive order.

This does not make any sense from a policy point of view. Just as executive branch employees and contractors are “encouraged and expected” to point out potential errors in classification, so should Members of Congress be, and for the same reasons.

But the classification challenge procedure is constrained by the language of the executive order, said Mark Bradley, director of the Information Security Oversight Office and executive secretary of the ISCAP.

“We have to do what the Order says, not what we want,” said Mr. Bradley, who early in his career served as an aide to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan.

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Mr. Bradley suggested that Senator Murphy could direct his challenge to the Public Interest Declassification Board, which unlike the ISCAP is specifically authorized to review congressional challenges to the classification of certain records.

But the PIDB is a much weaker body than the ISCAP. While the ISCAP can “decide” on classification challenges (subject to appeal), the PIDB can only review and “recommend.” And while the ISCAP has actually overturned existing classifications on numerous occasions, no PIDB recommendation has ever had the same effect.

The PIDB did previously handle one congressional request for declassification review, said John Powers of the ISOO and PIDB staff, in or around 2014. For the most part, the subject document in that case turned out to be properly classified, substantively and procedurally, in the PIDB’s view. But the Board forwarded a limited redaction proposal that would have allowed partial release to the Obama White House for consideration. The White House did not act on it.

Senator Murphy turned to the PIDB to request declassification review of classified intelligence concerning foreign interference in the upcoming US elections, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

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The statement by ISOO director Mark Bradley cited above — “We have to do what the Order says, not what we want” — is worth further consideration.

What he was saying is that those who are responsible for enforcing checks and balances have to follow a code of conduct and have to adhere to a set of principles, whether or not they personally agree with the outcome in a particular case.

The problem is that those who abuse the system to classify (or sometimes to selectively declassify) information improperly recognize no such constraint. This discrepancy is vexatious.

It means that the checks and balances of the current system are most effective when they are least necessary. When everyone is acting in good faith and with an honest commitment to shared (constitutional) values, most disagreements can be resolved over time. Some compromise is usually possible.

But when good faith and principled self-restraint are lacking, and one side aims to maximize its power at any cost, the current structure of checks and balances has proved to be largely helpless.

Even if the ISCAP had agreed to consider Senator Murphy’s classification challenge, and if it had actually agreed with him that all or part of the War Powers Act notification concerning the Soleimani killing was not properly classified, that might not have been the end of the story.

“Panel decisions are committed to the discretion of the Panel,” according to the executive order (sect. 5.3e), “unless changed by the President.” But that means that a hypothetical ISCAP decision to declassify the notification could be overruled by the same White House that classified the whole thing in the first place.

So while good policies are necessary, they are not enough. For our constitutional system of government to work, we also need officials who are, if not the “angels” that James Madison spoke of, at least dedicated public servants who share a common purpose.

Senator Murphy’s office said that he would soon introduce legislation to authorize and require the ISCAP to consider classification challenges from Congress.

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The current infrastructure for declassifying classified records that are no longer sensitive is already being overwhelmed by a deluge of historical records that are accumulating faster than they can be processed. This situation was discussed in a September 9 hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and is the subject of new legislation (S. 3733) introduced by Senators Wyden and Moran.

That is an issue of efficiency and productivity that probably has a technological solution, as the Public Interest Declassification Board has argued.

A harder problem is over-classification, in which information is classified improperly or unnecessarily, or at a higher level than is warranted. Such classification errors can be corrected, at least hypothetically, through classification challenges, Freedom of Information Act requests, and other means.

A still harder problem concerns information that is properly classified — in the sense that it meets the criteria of the executive order — but nevertheless belongs in the public domain because of its fundamental policy importance. Examples include classified reports of torture, mass surveillance, or foreign election interference.

To the extent that such information is “properly classified” in a formal sense, it is currently beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory declassification review, or classification challenges. When it does become public, that is often due to unauthorized disclosures. While agency heads may declassify classified information in the public interest as a matter of discretion (under section 3.1d of the executive order), they rarely do so and there is no mechanism for asking or inducing them to.

So along with adequate basic functionality and improved procedures for challenging improper classification, any future classification system also needs to tackle the problem of “properly classified” information that should not be classified.