DoD Seeks New FOIA Exemption for Fourth Time

For the fourth year in a row, the Department of Defense has asked Congress to legislate a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act in the FY2019 national defense authorization act for certain unclassified military tactics, techniques and procedures.

Previous requests for such an exemption were rebuffed or ignored by Congress.

The Defense Department again justified its request by explaining that a 2011 US Supreme Court decision in Milner v. Department of the Navy had significantly narrowed its authority to withhold such information under FOIA.

“Before that decision, the Department was authorized to withhold sensitive information on critical infrastructure and military tactics, techniques, and procedures from release under FOIA pursuant to Exemption 2,” DoD wrote in a legislative proposal that was transmitted to Congress on March 16 and posted online yesterday by the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel.

“This proposal similarly would amend section 130e to add protections for military tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and rules of engagement that, if publicly disclosed, could reasonably be expected to provide an operational military advantage to an adversary.”

In a new justification added this year, DoD further argued that the exemption was needed to protect its cyber activities. “The probability of successful cyber operations would be limited with the public release of cyber-related TTPs. This [FOIA exemption] proposal would add a layer of mission assurance to unclassified cyber operations and enhance the Department of Defense’s ability to project cyber effects while protecting national security resources.”

New FOIA exemptions are often unpopular and are not always routinely approved by Congress, which has repeatedly dismissed this particular proposal.

DoD has circumscribed the proposed exemption in such a way as to limit its likely impact and to make it somewhat more palatable if it were ever adopted. It would not apply to all TTPs, many of which are freely disclosed online. It would require personal, non-delegable certification by the Secretary of Defense that exemption of particular information was justified. And it would include a balancing test requiring consideration of the public interest in disclosure of information proposed for exemption.

But many FOIA advocates said the proposal was nonetheless inappropriate. It “would undermine the FOIA, creating an unnecessary and overbroad secrecy provision at odds with FOIA’s goal of transparency and accountability to the public,” they wrote in a letter objecting to last year’s version of the proposal.

Missile Defense Flight Test Secrecy May Be Reversed

Some members of the House Armed Services Committee want the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to return to its previous practice of publicly disclosing information about planned flight tests of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems and components.

Earlier this year, the Department of Defense said that information about BMD flight tests, objectives and schedules was now classified, even though such information had routinely been made public in the past. (DOD Classifies Missile Defense Flight Test Plans, Secrecy News, March 5, 2018).

But in their initial markup of the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, members of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee said that the new secrecy was unacceptable, at least with respect to the test schedule.

They directed that “Together with the release of each integrated master test plan of the Missile Defense Agency, the Director of the Missile Defense Agency shall make publicly available a version of each such plan that identifies the fiscal year and the fiscal quarter in which events under the plan will occur.”

The pending provision would “require that MDA make the quarter and fiscal year for execution of planned flight tests unclassified.” (h/t Kingston Reif)

Aside from the merits of the House language, it represents a noteworthy legislative intervention in national security classification policy.

Under other circumstances, the executive branch might consider it an intolerable infringement on its authority for Congress to require information to be unclassified over and against an agency’s own judgment or preference.

But in the context of the context of the ambitious and contentious defense authorization act — which among other things would establish a new U.S. Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command — this particular dispute over classification authority recedes into comparative insignificance.

Somewhat relatedly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have updated DoD doctrine on space operations, with an expanded discussion of natural and man-made threats.

“Our adversaries’ progress in space technology not only threatens the space environment and our space assets but could potentially deny us an advantage if we lose space superiority.”

The doctrine describes general approaches to defending against threats to space-based assets, including defensive operations, reconstitution, and enhanced resilience through distribution, proliferation and deception. See Joint Publication (JP) 3-14, Space Operations, 10 April 2018.

Growing Pentagon Secrecy Draws Questions

In just the last few weeks and months, U.S. military officials imposed new restrictions on media interviews and base visits, at least temporarily; they blocked (but later permitted) publication of current data on the extent of insurgent control of Afghanistan; and they classified previously unclassified information concerning future flight tests of ballistic missile defense systems.

“We’ve seen multiple instances in the past year where the [military] services have sought to be more guarded in their transparency and accessibility to the media,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “Part of that’s understandable, but I think transparency is needed now more than ever.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in response that he didn’t exactly disagree.

“I want more engagement with the media, [but] I want you to give your name, I don’t want to read that somebody spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak,” Mattis said.

“I have yet to tell anyone they’re not authorized to speak. So if they’re not willing to say they know about the issue and give their name that would concern me. If they’re giving background, they should just be a defense official giving background information authorized to give it.”

“What I don’t want is pre-decisional information, or classified information or any information about upcoming military movements or operations, which is the normal lose lips sink ships kind of restriction.”

“Pre-decisional, we do not close the president’s decision making maneuver space by saying things before the president has made a decision. But otherwise, I want more engagement with the military, and I don’t want to see an increase in opaqueness about what we’re doing.”

“We’re already remote enough from the American people by our size and by our continued focus overseas. We need to be more engaged here at home,” Secretary Mattis said.

Part of that is understandable, as Rep. Gallagher said. But it does not correspond to, or justify, the way that DoD conducts itself in practice, which has certainly produced “an increase in opaqueness.”

Last week, for example, DoD published its regular quarterly report for December 2017 on the number of US troops deployed abroad — but now with the number of troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan deleted. See Pentagon strips Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria troop numbers from web by Tara Copp, Military Times, April 9. (Previously disclosed numbers in prior quarterly reports were also deleted but then reposted last week.)

Citing the new secrecy, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said “I’m very concerned about that. I think that there’s no combat advantage to obfuscating the number of U.S. service members that were in these countries three months ago. And, furthermore, the American public has a right to know. Do you intend to restore that information to the website?,” she asked Secretary Mattis at last week’s hearing.

“I’ll certainly look at it,” he replied. “I share your conviction that the American people should know everything that doesn’t give the enemy an advantage.”

Social Media in Security Clearance Investigations

Members of Congress are urging the executive branch to update and expand the security clearance process by examining the social media presence of individuals who are being considered for a security clearance for access to classified information, which is now being done only on a limited and uneven basis.

“I put more effort into understanding who my interns are” than the security clearance process does in granting clearances, said Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr at a hearing yesterday. “You go to the areas that you learn the most about them — social media is right at the top of the list.”

“I can’t envision anyone coming into the office that you haven’t thoroughly checked out everything that they’ve said online,” Sen. Burr said.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to promote the use of social media in security clearance investigations.

“It may be hard to believe, but the Federal Government often fails to conduct a simple internet search on individuals before they are trusted with a security clearance,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).

“Publicly available social media is one of the best ways to understand an individual’s interests and intentions, but our investigatory process still focuses on interviewing the applicant’s family, friends, and neighbors,” he said.

In fact, then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper issued a directive in 2016 authorizing — but not requiring — the use of social media in security clearance background investigations. See Security Executive Agent Directive 5 on Collection, Use, and Retention of Publicly Available Social Media Information in Personnel Security Background Investigations and Adjudications, May 12, 2016.

But the practice has apparently been adopted unevenly and on a limited basis.

“For example, the Army initiated a pilot program that found that while checking social media is a valuable tool, it can be costly and may raise some legal issues,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA).

The bill passed by the House this week would require the OMB to report on current use of social media in background investigations, legal impediments to such use, the results of any pilot programs, and options for widespread implementation.

The bill “is a much needed first step in modernizing federal security clearance background investigations,” said a House Committee report on the bill. “In recent years, there have been several cases in which federal contractor employees with security clearances leaked classified information after previously sharing suspicious posts on publicly available social media sites.”

Selective Declassification and the Nunes Memo

If Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee want to publicly release a classified memo that they prepared on alleged misconduct in the FBI, what could be wrong with that?

Quite a lot, actually. Even if the risks of disclosing classified information in this case are small (a point that is disputed), the selective disclosure of isolated claims is bound to produce a distorted view of events. The suppression of dissenting views held by Democratic members of the Committee only aggravates the distortion.

“Deliberately misleading by selectively declassifying is an established technique, and it is one that is both shady and dangerous,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“This business of selectively cherry-picking things out of classified information to spread a false narrative has a very unpleasant echo for me because this is what the Bush administration was up to when it was trying to defend the torture program. They selectively declassified, for instance, that Abu Zubaydah had been the subject of what they called their enhanced interrogation techniques program and that he had produced important, actionable intelligence. What they did not declassify was that all the actionable intelligence he gave them had been provided before they started on the torture techniques.”

Sen. Whitehouse said that the practice resembled Soviet and Russian information warfare activities that were used “to poison the factual environment.”

“You start with the selective release of classified material that the public can’t get behind because the rest is classified, the false narrative that the ranking member has pointed out that that creates, the partisan and peculiar process for getting there, the ignoring of warnings from their own national security officials about how bad this is, the convenient whipping up of all of this in far-right media at the same time, the amplification of that actually by Russian bots and other sources, and the fact that this is all pointed, not coincidentally, at the agency and officials who are engaged in investigating the Trump White House and the Trump campaign, it is so appallingly obvious what the game is that is being played here.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Whitehouse said, Congress has taken no action to protect against foreign interference in U.S. elections.

“We are warned that a hostile foreign power is going to attack our 2018 election. Where is the legislation to defend against that? Where is the markup of the legislation? Where is the effort to do what needs to be done to defend our democracy? Here we are just a few months out from the election. We are 9 months out. Do I have the math right? It is 9 months between here and there. Nothing.”

Yesterday, the FBI put out a brief statement noting that “we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

But as far as is known, no similar concerns have been expressed by intelligence community leaders.

“It is stunning to me,” Sen. Whitehouse said, “that we have heard nothing–at least I have heard nothing– […] from our Director of National Intelligence, DNI Coats, and I have heard nothing from CIA Director Pompeo for–how long it has been?”

Yesterday, coincidentally, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced that DNI Coats had directed the declassification of classified intelligence records concerning the Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnamese forces in January 1968.

An ODNI posting said that it is part of a “New Transparency Effort To Share Historical Information of Current Relevance.”

Any declassification of historical information is welcome. But for all of its historical gravity, the Tet Offensive could hardly have less “current relevance.”

What is an Act of War in Cyberspace?

What constitutes an act of war in the cyber domain?

It’s a question that officials have wrestled with for some time without being able to provide a clear-cut answer.

But in newly-published responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon ventured last year that “The determination of what constitutes an ‘act of war’ in or out of cyberspace, would be made on a case-by-case and fact-specific basis by the President.”

“Specifically,” wrote then-Undersecretary of Defense (Intelligence) Marcel Lettre, “cyber attacks that proximately result in a significant loss of life, injury, destruction of critical infrastructure, or serious economic impact should be closely assessed as to whether or not they would be considered an unlawful attack or an ‘act of war.'”

Notably absent from this description is election-tampering or information operations designed to disrupt the electoral process or manipulate public discourse.

Accordingly, Mr. Lettre declared last year that “As of this point, we have not assessed that any particular cyber activity [against] us has constituted an act of war.”

See Cybersecurity, Encryption and United States National Security Matters, Senate Armed Services Committee, September 13, 2016 (published September 2017), at p. 85.

See related comments from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford in U.S. National Security Challenges and Ongoing Military Operations, Senate Armed Services Committee, September 22, 2016 (published September 2017), at pp. 56-57.

In January 2017, outgoing Obama DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson for the first time designated the U.S. election system as critical infrastructure. “Given the vital role elections play in this country, it is clear that certain systems and assets of election infrastructure meet the definition of critical infrastructure, in fact and in law,” he wrote. It follows that an attack on the electoral process could now be considered an attack on critical infrastructure and, potentially, an act of war.

“Russia engaged in acts of war against America, not with bullets and bombs, but through a modern form of warfare, a cyberattack on our democracy,” opined Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, in a letter published in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

Not so fast, replied Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg: “The US is not now in a legal state of war with Russia despite that country’s attempts to affect the 2016 election.”

The current issue of the US Army’s Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin (Oct-Dec 2017) includes an article on Recommendations for Intelligence Staffs Concerning Russian New Generation Warfare by MAJ Charles K. Bartles (at pp. 10-17).

Senate Intelligence Authorization Report Filed

Do the security clearance procedures that are used for granting access to classified information actually serve their intended purpose?

To help answer that question, the Senate Intelligence Committee mandated a review of security clearance requirements, including “their collective utility in anticipating future insider threats.”

See the Committee’s new report on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, filed September 7, 2017.

The report summarizes the content of the pending intelligence authorization bill (S. 1761), which was filed last month, and adds Committee comments on various aspects of current intelligence policy.

So, for example, “The Committee remains concerned about the level of protection afforded to whistleblowers within the IC and the level of insight congressional committees have into their disclosures.”

The central point of contention in the bill is a provision (sec. 623) declaring a sense of Congress “that WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.”

The provision had originally stated that WikiLeaks and its leadership “constitute” a non-state hostile intelligence service. But this was amended to replace “constitute” with “resemble”. That move might have attenuated the provision’s significance except that it went on to say — whether WikiLeaks constitutes or merely resembles a non-state hostile intelligence service — that the U.S. should treat it as such.

A hostile state-based intelligence service would presumably be subject to intense surveillance by the US. A competent US counterintelligence agency might also seek to infiltrate the hostile service, to subvert its agenda, and even to take it over or disable it.

Whether such a response would also be elicited by “a non-state hostile intelligence service” is hard to say since the concept itself is new and undefined.

“The Committee’s bill offers no definition of ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ to clarify what this term is and is not,” wrote Sen. Kamala Harris, who favored removal of this language, though she said WikiLeaks has “done considerable harm to this country.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, who likewise said that WikiLeaks had been “part of a direct attack on our democracy,” opposed the bill due to the WikiLeaks-related provision.

“My concern is that the use of the novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets,” Sen. Wyden wrote in minority views appended to the report. “The language in the bill suggesting that the U.S. government has some unstated course of action against ‘non-state hostile intelligence services’ is equally troubling.”

Special Ops, Counter-Propaganda, Overclassification

The House Armed Services Committee took a retrospective look at US special operations forces earlier this year, thirty years after the establishment of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

“SOCOM has a lot of missions it is responsible for, and has had several new ones added to it,” said Rep. Elise M. Stefanik (R-NY) at a hearing earlier this year. “Are there any of those missions that should go away or be reassigned?”

SOCOM Commander Gen. Raymond A. Thomas was ready with the answer: “There are no missions that should go away or be reassigned.”

See Three Decades Later: A Review and Assessment of our Special Operations Forces 30 Years After the Creation of U.S. Special Operations Command, House Armed Services Committee, May 2, 2017.

Some other notable congressional hearing volumes that have recently been published include:

Crafting an Information Warfare and Counter-propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment, House Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2017

Examining the Costs of Overclassification on Transparency and Security, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, December 7, 2016

OLC Nominee: Every Member of Congress Can Do Oversight

The nominee to lead the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel acknowledged that all members of Congress have the authority to conduct oversight of the executive branch, and that agencies have a responsibility to accommodate requests by members for information needed to perform their oversight function.

That might seem like a statement of the obvious. But the Office of Legal Counsel issued a controversial opinion earlier this year that took a much more limited view of congressional oversight power:

“The constitutional authority to conduct oversight — that is, the authority to make official inquiries into and to conduct investigations of executive branch programs and activities — may be exercised only by each house of Congress or, under existing delegations, by committees and subcommittees (or their chairmen),” the OLC opinion said. “Individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have the authority to conduct oversight in the absence of a specific delegation by a full house, committee, or subcommittee.”  See Authority of Individual Members of Congress to Conduct Oversight of the Executive Branch, Office of Legal Counsel, May 1, 2017.

Objecting to this narrow OLC conception of oversight, Sen. Chuck Grassley placed a hold on the nomination of Steven A. Engel to become the new Assistant Attorney General in charge of the OLC until Mr. Engel provided an acceptable response to Grassley’s concerns on the matter.

Yesterday, Senator Grassley withdrew his hold after Mr. Engel admitted, in written responses to questions from Grassley entered into the Congressional Record, that the OLC opinion was defective.

“Mr. Engel’s responses, both in writing and in person, indicate that he agrees each Member, whether or not a chairman of a committee, is a constitutional officer entitled to the respect and best efforts of the executive branch to respond to his or her requests for information to the extent permitted by law,” Sen. Grassley said.

“I am satisfied that Mr. Engel understands the obligation of all Members of Congress to seek executive branch information to carry out their constitutional responsibilities and the obligation of the executive branch to respect that function and seek comity between the branches. Therefore, I agree a vote should be scheduled on his nomination, and I wish him the very best in his new role,” he said.

See Removal of Nomination Objection, Congressional Record, July 19, 2017, pp. S4077-4079.

The Fifth Amendment in Congressional Investigations

Individuals have a broad right to refuse to testify before Congress by invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Congressional Research Service explained last week.

“Even a witness who denies any criminal wrongdoing can refuse to answer questions on the basis that he might be ‘ensnared by ambiguous circumstances’.”

On the other hand, the scope of the Fifth Amendment privilege applies more narrowly when it comes to a congressional demand that a witness produce documents. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the mere fact that the contents of a document may be incriminating does not mean that the document is protected from disclosure under the Fifth Amendment.”

See The Fifth Amendment in Congressional Investigations, CRS Legal Sidebar, May 26, 2017.

Other new and updated products from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

President’s FY2018 Budget Proposes Cuts in Public Health Service (PHS) Agency Funding, CRS Insight, May 24, 2017

President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection: Toward Final Disclosure of Withheld Records in October 2017, CRS Insight, May 26, 2017