History of Iran Covert Action Deferred Indefinitely

A declassified U.S. Government documentary history of the momentous 1953 coup in Iran, in which Central Intelligence Agency personnel participated, had been the object of widespread demand from historians and others for decades. In recent years, it finally seemed to be on the verge of publication.

But now its release has been postponed indefinitely.

Last year, “the Department of State did not permit publication of the long-delayed Iran Retrospective volume because it judged the political environment too sensitive,” according to a new annual report from the State Department Historical Advisory Committee (HAC). “The HAC was severely disappointed.”

“The HAC was unsuccessful in its efforts to meet with [then-]Secretary Kerry to discuss the volume, and now there is no timetable for its release,” the new report stated.

The controversy originally arose in 1989 when the State Department published its official history of US foreign relations with Iran that somehow made no mention of the 1953 CIA covert action against the Mossadeq government, triggering protests and ridicule.

That lapse led to enactment of a 1992 statute requiring the Foreign Relations of the United States series to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary history of US foreign policy. The State Department also agreed to prepare a supplemental retrospective volume on Iran to correct the record. The retrospective volume is what now appears to be out of reach.

In truth, a fair amount of documentation related to the events of 1953 in Iran has been declassified and released. It is unclear how much more of significance remains to be disclosed. (Those who have read the missing volume say there is at least some new substance to it.)

But the position taken by the Obama State Department that 60 year old policy documents are too politically sensitive to be released is disheartening in any case.

Instead of disrupting relations with Iran, which are already fraught, an honest official U.S. account of events in 1953 might actually have elicited a constructive response. But that argument, advanced by the Historical Advisory Committee and its Chairman, Prof. Richard H. Immerman, did not get the serious consideration it deserved.

More broadly, the new annual report of the HAC did identify a few bright spots. One volume of the Foreign Relations series that was released last year met the statutory deadline for publication within 30 years of the events it describes. That hasn’t happened for two decades.

Overall, however, “the declassification environment is discouraging,” the HAC report found.

Mandating Declassification in Congress

Last week a bill was introduced in the Senate “to require the Secretary of Defense to declassify certain documents related to incidents in which members of the Armed Forces were exposed to toxic substances.”

The bill (S. 726), introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), generally requires declassification of all “documents related to any known incident in which not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of a disability that a member of the medical profession has determined to be associated with that toxic substance.”

The bill is the latest example of congressional action to initiate, prioritize or override executive branch policy on declassification of national security records.

The new bill grants an exception from the declassification requirement “if the Secretary [of Defense] determines that declassification of those documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States.” This is a notably narrower exemption than that provided by the Freedom of Information Act, which deems records properly classified and therefore exempt if their disclosure would simply cause “damage” to national security.

The bill would not provide any new funding for declassification. So it would presumably be implemented at the expense of current declassification programs.

The Moran-Tester bill may or may not advance through the legislative process. But numerous other congressional declassification initiatives have been enacted into law over the years.

In a report last week, for example, the Senate Intelligence Committee recalled that it had successfully legislated “a requirement that the DNI complete a declassification review of information on the past terrorist activities of detainees transferred or released from Guantanamo, [and] make resulting declassified information publicly available.”  See SSCI Report on activities during the 114th Congress, S.Rpt. 115-13, March 29.

Declassification of Indonesia Files in Progress

Updated below

The National Declassification Center has completed declassification review of more than half of the classified files from the U.S. Embassy in Djakarta, Indonesia from the turbulent years of 1963-1966. The remainder of the task is expected to be completed by this summer.

So far, 21 of 37 boxes of classified Djakarta Embassy files have undergone declassification review, said Sheryl Shenberger, director of the National Declassification Center. Remarkably, the declassification of the Indonesia records was prioritized in response to public comments.

What new light will they shed on the past?

“As to the discovery of anything new, I leave that to you and the researcher community,” said Alex Daverede of the National Declassification Center, who is performing the declassification review.

“I think you will gain some insight about US perspectives on the 30 September Movement [military personnel who assassinated six Indonesian generals, triggering a campaign of mass killings]. You will also get some close observations about Sukarno and the cast of characters around him. You will also see the Embassy’s perspective on the awkward transition from Sukarno to Suharto. There is a lot of information on Indonesia’s economic woes in 1965-1966 and of the efforts to get food to what was a bankrupt country,” Mr. Daverede said.

In a 2014 draft resolution, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) pressed for declassification of U.S. records from this period.

“It is a painful history to recall. On October 1, 1965, six Indonesian Army generals were killed. According to scholars, these generals were killed by military personnel, but their deaths were blamed on Indonesia’s Communist Party, which was used to justify mass murders.”

“The next few months were horrific for the Indonesian people. The CIA has called it one of the worst periods of mass murder in the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Many others were imprisoned, tortured, raped, starved, and disappeared across the country. These individuals were targeted for their alleged association with communism, but they came from all walks of life, including women’s groups, teachers, intellectuals, and others. Most were unarmed, and none had due process of law.”

“The United States provided financial and military assistance during this time and later, according to documents released by the State Department, and General Suharto consolidated his power, ruling from 1967 to 1998,” Senator Udall noted. CIA also conducted covert operations in Indonesia during this time, though records of that activity may not be included in the Embassy files.

“Unfortunately, while Indonesia has made important economic and political strides since the systemic repression of the Suharto years, impunity for the horrific crimes of the 1960s and during the final years of the independence struggle in East Timor remain glaring examples of unfinished business that are inconsistent with a democratic society based on the principle that no one is above the law,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 2015.

“We need to recognize the role of our own government in this history, declassify relevant documents, and urge the Indonesian Government to acknowledge the massacres and establish a credible truth and justice mechanism,” he said.

Now some of those relevant records are being declassified and they should soon be released. Last month, Mr. Daverede wrote about an episode involving the detention of an American missionary in Indonesia in 1965 that was discussed in the files being declassified. See The Curious Case of Harold Lovestrand, NDC Blog, February 10.

The National Declassification Center was established by President Obama’s 2009 executive order 13526 to help coordinate and expedite declassification of historically valuable U.S. government records.

Update, 10 March 2017:

Another official weighs in:

Steve-

Just saw your piece on the declassification of the Indonesia embassy records. You asked the wrong person for a comment on what new light they will shed.

For the most part the embassy’s files will consist of the embassy’s files of its exchanges with the Department of State. The Department’s files of those very same documents are in the Department’s central files where they have been declassified and available for research for many years. There is, of course, always the possibility that there is something extraordinary in those files and there are often documents of a local nature that are only summarized to the Department. But, I think, by and large there will be no great revelations, just details around the edges.

As one example, the central files documents that tell the story of the Lovestrand family discussed in the NDC blog have been open to the public since the 1990s.

Deterring, and Relying Upon, Russia

In confronting Russia and rebutting its claims, the United States is hampered by unnecessary or inappropriate classification of national security information, according to former Pentagon official and Russia specialist Evelyn Farkas.

“We are not very good at declassifying and reclassifying information that is not propaganda, showing pictures of what the Russians are doing,” Dr. Farkas told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

“We did it a couple of times, and interestingly, the Open Skies Treaty was actually useful because, unlike satellites, that is unclassified data that is gleaned as a result of aircraft that take pictures for the purposes of our treaty requirements.”

“But in any event, I think that we can do more just by getting some information out. That is the minimum that the State Department could do and should do, together with the intelligence community. But it should also be a push, not a pull–not leaders like yourselves or executive branch members saying, ‘Declassify that,’ but actually the intelligence community looking with the State Department, ‘What should we declassify?’ not waiting for somebody to tell them to do it,” she said.

See Understanding and Deterring Russia: U.S. Policies and Strategies, House Armed Services Committee, February 10, 2016 (published January 2017).

The same hearing featured testimony from Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution. She has just been offered a position in the Trump White House as senior director for Europe and Russia, Foreign Policy reported today. See Trump Taps Putin Critic for Senior White House Position, by John Hudson, March 2.

“Putin is a professional secret service operative,” Ms. Hill told the House Armed Services Committee. “He is very unusual among world leaders at present. Putin has also been trained to conceal his true identity and intentions at all times. This is what makes him particularly difficult to deal with.”

Meanwhile, yesterday the National Reconnaissance Office successfully launched a new U.S. spy satellite aboard an Atlas V rocket — that was powered by a Russian RD-180 engine. (“All in a day’s work,” tweeted Bill Arkin.)

Though it might seem incongruous that U.S. intelligence collection would be dependent on Russian space technology, that is how things stand and how they are likely to remain for some time.

“Goodness knows we want off the Russian engine as fast as any human being on the planet,” said Gen. John E. Hyten of US Air Force Space Command. “We want off the Russian engine as fast as possible.”

But there is a but. “But, asking the American taxpayers to write a check for multiple billions of dollars in the future for an unknown is a very difficult thing to do, and for the Air Force, that will be a very difficult budget issue to work,” Gen. Hyten told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

Pentagon official Dyke Weatherington concurred: “The Department continues to be dedicated to ending use of the Russian manufactured RD-180 engine as soon as reasonably possible, but still believes that access to the RD-180 while transitioning to new and improved launch service capabilities is the optimal way forward to meet statutory and Department policy requirements for assured access to space in both the near and long term.”

Even a new US-manufactured rocket engine will not suffice, Mr. Weatherington added. “Any new engine still has to be incorporated into a launch vehicle. The Department does not want to be in a position where significant resources have been expended on an engine and no commercial provider has built the necessary vehicle to use that engine.”

Their testimony was presented at a 2016 hearing on military and intelligence space programs that has recently been published. See Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request for National Security Space, House Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2016.

An Outgoing Wave of Disclosure

In the final days and weeks of the Obama Administration, intelligence officials took steps to promote increased transparency and made several noteworthy disclosures of intelligence policy records.

On January 9, DNI James Clapper signed a new version of Intelligence Community Directive 208, now titled “Maximizing the Utility of Analytic Products.” The revised directive notably incorporates new instructions to include transparency as a consideration in preparing intelligence analyses.

Thus, one way of “maximizing utility,” the directive said, is to “Demonstrate Transparency”:

“Analytic products should follow the Principles of Intelligence Transparency for the Intelligence Community, which are intended to facilitate IC decisions on making information publicly available in a manner that enhances public understanding of intelligence activities, while continuing to protect information, including sources and methods, when disclosure would harm national security. The degree to which transparency will be applied depends upon the nature and type of the analytic product.”

Interestingly, the revised directive was issued without any public notice or press release. Though unclassified and published online, it appears to be genuinely inner-directed rather than a mere public relations gesture.

*    *    *

The Central Intelligence Agency posted more than 12 million declassified pages (930,000 documents) from its CREST archive on the CIA website. The CREST (CIA Records Search Tool) database had previously been accessible only to those researchers who visited the National Archives in person.

By making the records broadly available online, their utility and the benefits of their declassification are multiplied many times over.

Release of the CREST database had been sought by researchers and advocates for many years. It was advocated internally by the CIA Historical Review Panel and the Panel’s chair, Prof. Robert Jervis. It was recently the subject of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Muckrock news site.

Joseph Lambert, CIA Director of Information Management, said that online access to CREST recently became possible only after technical limitations on the CIA website were “dissolved.” He said that the quality of the online search engine would not be inferior to that on the original CREST system.

One experienced researcher disputed that. Based on an initial survey, “I think it is safe to say that the level of functionality for searching is less than CREST,” the researcher said. From his perspective, “the losses are very significant.” A detailed comparison was not immediately available.

In any case, Mr. Lambert said that newly declassified records, and less redacted versions of previously redacted records, would be periodically added to the online collection.

*    *    *

Also last week, the CIA released updated guidelines for the collection, retention and dissemination of U.S. person information. The Agency also posted declassified documents concerning its interrogation program, released in response to FOIA litigation by the ACLU.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an updated report on counterterrorism strikes outside of areas of active hostilities, a report on equal opportunity and diversity in the Intelligence Community, and a paper on the Domestic Approach to National Intelligence describing the organization of U.S. intelligence. ODNI published the remainder of the captured bin Laden documents that have been declassified, the third annual SIGINT progress report, and three semi-annual reports on compliance with Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

*    *    *

With the exception of records released in response to litigation or legislation, these moves and these disclosures were voluntary. They seem to represent a realization that increased transparency, though occasionally awkward in the short term, serves the long-term interests of U.S. intelligence.

“Today, whether you are a U.S. citizen or a non-U.S. citizen abroad, you now have more confidence about what the United States does and does not do with regard to signals intelligence collection because of steps this Administration has taken to provide an unprecedented level of transparency regarding these activities,” according to an Obama Administration report on privacy that was briefly published on the White House web site last week.

This posture of increased transparency, if not these specific disclosures, can be easily reversed or abandoned. But an infrastructure of disclosure has been established, along with a pattern of releases, that will generate expectations for the future and a certain momentum that may yet be sustained and developed.

Improving Declassification: Not Yet

A new report on improving declassification procedures in the U.S. intelligence community implicitly suggests that no such improvements are likely to emerge any time soon.

The report, published yesterday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to congressional direction, is largely devoid of new ideas and instead calls for greater “integration” and “coordination.”

“Improving the declassification process across the Community will require an integrated and multifaceted set of initiatives fully coordinated with organizations that have AD [automatic declassification] programs. No single step will suffice in addressing satisfactorily the areas for improvement that have been identified in this report.”

See Improving the Intelligence Community’s Declassification Process and the Community’s Support to the National Declassification Center, ODNI, December 2016.

The core of the report is in a section entitled “Proposals to Improve the IC’s Declassification Process.” But it does not actually present any declassification policy proposals. Instead, in a near-parody of a government report, it calls for establishment of new working groups to write other reports and generate further recommendations.

Thus, the “Proposal on Process” calls for “a Declassification Improvement Working Group (DIWG) to conduct a zero‐based study of the IC’s AD process and prepare a report–by a specified deadline– that includes recommended actions to increase the program’s effectiveness and efficiency across the Community.”

The “Proposal on Electronic Records” says that “A joint task force […] should be formed to aggressively pursue the identification, development, and validation of technological capabilities — tools and infrastructure — for incorporation in the AD [automatic declassification] process.” (Aggressively!)

This is not helpful. In fact, it is practically a declaration of helplessness.

The new report is lacking in specific actionable proposals that could be evaluated, debated, perhaps modified and ultimately adopted in practice. It does not ask or answer any penetrating questions. Such as:

*  What if agency “equity” in older records, requiring review by those agencies, simply lapsed at some point in time, eliminating the need for such review?

*  What if certain defunct intelligence compartments could be altogether excused from multi-agency referral and review?

*  What if a fixed fraction of agency information security expenditures were routinely and predictably allocated to performing declassification?

*  What if new metrics could be devised to measure the success of declassification programs based on requester demand and disclosure impact, not just on number of pages processed?

*  Fundamentally, what if intelligence community tolerance for risk were recalibrated to facilitate more expeditious declassification of both current and historically valuable records?

Interestingly, the report notes that agencies favor numerous revisions to President Obama’s executive order 13526 on classification policy, so that “updating the E.O. will be a major undertaking.”

But those revisions mainly seem geared toward relaxing existing declassification requirements, not strengthening them. So, for example, IC officials believe they could place increased emphasis on declassifying historical records of broad public interest if they could be assured that other records of lesser interest would not be automatically declassified as they become 25 years old, as the Obama order nominally directs.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

Overclassification, Declassification At Issue

The enduring problem of overclassification and the challenge of effective declassification are the subject of two public events this week.

The House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), will hold a hearing on Wednesday, December 7 on “examining the costs of overclassification on transparency and security.” The witnesses include former Information Security Oversight Director Bill Leonard, National Security Archive director Tom Blanton, Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight, and myself.

The Public Interest Declassification Board, chaired by Prof. Trevor Morrison, will hold a meeting on Thursday, December 8 to discuss potential changes that could be adopted in a future executive order on classification. More information, including advance copies of several presentations to be made at the meeting, can be found here.

CIA Will Place Its CREST Database Online

The Central Intelligence Agency said this week that it will post its database of declassified CIA documents online, making them broadly accessible to all interested users.

The database, known as CREST (for CIA Records Search Tool), contains more than 11 million pages of historical Agency records that have already been declassified and approved for public release.

Currently, however, CREST can only be accessed through computer terminals at the National Archives in College Park, MD. This geographic restriction on availability has been a source of frustration and bafflement to researchers ever since the digital collection was established in 2000. (See CIA’s CREST Leaves Cavity in Public Domain, Secrecy News, April 6, 2009; Inside the CIA’s (Sort of) Secret Document Stash, Mother Jones, April 3, 2009).

But that is finally going to change.

The entire contents of the CREST system will be transferred to the CIA website, said CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani on Tuesday.

“When loaded on the website they will be full-text searchable and have the same features currently available on the CREST system at NARA,” he said.

CIA was not able to provide a date for completion of the transfer, but “we are moving out on the plan to make the transition,” Mr. Trapani said.

In the meantime, “The CREST database housed at NARA will remain up and running at least until the website is fully functioning,” he said.

Nuclear Weapons Secrecy Policy Relaxed, a Bit

The fact that a now-retired nuclear weapon was once located at a now-closed location in the United States shall no longer be considered classified information, the Department of Defense announced last week.

This may seem so trivial and insignificant as to be hardly worth deciding or announcing, but it could have positive practical consequences for current and future declassification efforts.

“The repeated discoveries of this kind of [information] in numerous records [have] impeded the prompt declassification of many documents,” the National Declassification Center said last week, praising the move.

So with the categorical declassification of such information, the declassification of some historical records should now be facilitated and accelerated.

“Secrecy itself is more dangerous than the possession of atomic weapons,” said Edward Teller in a 1989 presentation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Department of Energy posted a transcript of his remarks last week.