A recent article in Secrecy News indicated that the classified annexes that accompany the annual intelligence authorization bills are legally binding and constitute “secret law” (A Growing Body of Secret Intelligence Law, May 4).
Robert S. Litt, the General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote in last week to dispute that characterization:
I read your piece on secret law and the classified annex to the Intelligence
Authorization bills with interest. I thought it was worth responding to let you know
that I believe you are incorrect in saying that the classified annex has the force of
law. Each year’s Intelligence Authorization Act contains a provision — usually
Section 102 in recent years — that provides that the amounts authorized to be
appropriated are those set out in the schedule of authorizations in the classified
annex. It is only that schedule of authorizations that has the force of law. The
remainder of the annex is report language explaining the positions of the committee
on a variety of issues, and has no more force than any other committee report. That
is to say, it expresses the views of the Congress, and it therefore would ordinarily be
followed as a matter of comity, but does not have the force of law.
In this regard, it is worth noting that the unclassified Joint Explanatory Statement
accompanying the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2015 states (160 Cong. Rec.
S6464, Dec. 9, 2014):
“This joint explanatory statement shall have the same effect with respect to the
implementation of this Act as if it were a joint explanatory statement of a
committee of conference.
“This explanatory statement is accompanied by a classified annex that contains
a classified Schedule of Authorizations. The classified Schedule of
Authorizations is incorporated by reference in the Act and has the legal status of
In short: The schedule of authorized amounts that is contained within the classified annex does have the force of law, but the rest of the classified annex does not.
We accept the correction.
A congressional intelligence committee staff member concurred.
“The majority of the classified annexes are distinct from the schedules of authorization and are where the Committees opine on and direct various things,” the staff member said. “As a technical point, I believe that Bob is correct — they don’t have the force of law as they are not incorporated in the same way as the schedules.”
“That said, we very much expect that the Executive Branch will follow them, which in fact it does. I don’t know that this matters much, though. While it may not be secret law, it is secret text that the Congress approves and is presented to the President at the time of his signature and that we believe is binding in practical terms,” the staff member added.
Thus, even if they do not entirely qualify as “secret law,” the classified annexes still have normative force, helping to shape the direction and execution of intelligence policy.
They therefore retain their significance for government accountability, including congressional accountability. And yet as a category of documents, the annexes are completely withheld from the public even decades after they are produced. Unfortunately, that remains undisputed.
* * *
Its specific content aside, Mr. Litt’s message is noteworthy as an uncommon act of official participation in public dialog.
In an open society, government officials ought to be reasonably accessible to the members of the public whom they ostensibly serve. But with some exceptions, they are not. Either they are insulated by layers of security, or they are isolated by hierarchical bureaucratic structures that make them unreachable. The secrecy-intensive culture of intelligence only aggravates the problem. Even an open government law like the Freedom of Information Act creates a procedural buffer that often impedes any kind of direct dialog.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Mr. Litt has been willing to engage with members of the public with some frequency. You can ask him a question. You can argue with him. He will argue with you. The point is that he is available to non-governmental interlocutors in a way that should be ordinary but is in fact unusual and exemplary. (See, for example, here, here and here.)
Mr. Litt’s attentiveness to the nuances of an article in Secrecy News brings to mind a passage from Robert M. Gates’ 1996 CIA memoir From the Shadows that is dear to the heart of small newsletter writers. The author was recalling Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey whom he described as an omnivorous consumer of information from even the most obscure sources.
“Bill Casey was one of the smartest people I have ever known and certainly one of the most intellectually lively,” Gates wrote (p. 217). “He subscribed to newsletters and information sheets that I sometimes thought couldn’t have more than five readers in the world, and then he would ask if I had seen one or another item in them.”