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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

Crisis of Credibility in Secrecy Policy

Obsolete secrecy procedures and growing political abuse have left the national security classification system in a state of disarray and dysfunction.

Most government agencies “still rely on antiquated information security management practices,” according to a new annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). “These practices have not kept pace with the volume of digital data that agencies create.”

“Agencies are not applying or testing advanced technologies that would enable more precise classification and declassification, facilitate information sharing, and improve national security,” the ISOO report to the President said. “Classification and declassification actions are still performed manually, which is neither sustainable nor desirable in the digital age.”

“As the volume of records requiring [declassification] review increases, agencies are making more errors, putting Classified National Security Information at risk and eroding trust in the system,” ISOO said.

As damning as these and other ISOO findings may be, they hardly begin to capture the crisis of credibility that is facing the classification system today.

An effective classification system depends on a presumption of good faith on the part of classifiers, checked by independent oversight, and some consensual understanding of the meaning of national security. All of these factors are in doubt, absent, or undergoing swift transformation. Meanwhile, classification today is openly wielded as an instrument of political power.

“Conversations with me, they’re highly classified,” said President Trump last week. “I told that to the Attorney General before. I will consider every conversation with me, as President, highly classified.”

That remark is a wild departure from previous policy. However broadly it may have been construed in the past, classification was always supposed to apply to information that was plausibly related to national security (a necessary condition, though not a sufficient one). Even the most sensitive conversations with the President about tax policy or health care, for example, could not have been considered classified information.

In this case, President Trump was objecting to the publication of the new book by former national security adviser John Bolton, which he dismissed at the same time as a “compilation of lies and made-up stories.”

But Bolton’s lies, if that’s what they were, would not normally qualify as classified information either.

In principle, it’s possible that “lies and made-up stories” could be classified, though only to the extent that they were generated by the government itself (perhaps in the form of cover stories, or other official statements of misdirection). But any lies that Bolton might tell on his own are beyond the scope of classification, since they are not “owned by, produced by or for, or. . . under the control of” the US Government, as required by the executive order on classification.

President Trump may or may not understand such rudiments of national security classification. But by twisting classification policy into a weapon for political vendettas, the President is discrediting the classification system and accelerating its disintegration.

As for Bolton, the astonishing fact is that he is the second of Trump’s national security advisors (after Gen. Michael Flynn) to be accused of lying and criminal activity.

“If the [Bolton] book gets out, he’s broken the law,” the President said. “And I would think that he would have criminal problems.” Indeed, a court said on Saturday that Bolton might have “expose[d] himself to criminal liability.”

Second only to the President, the national security advisor is really the principal author and executor of classification policy. So when NSAs like Flynn and Bolton are disgraced (or worse), their disrepute reflects upon and attaches to the classification system to some degree.

Ironically, Mr. Bolton was more attentive to and more engaged in classification policy than many of his predecessors. He makes a tacit appearance (unnamed) in the new ISOO annual report, which notes: “In FY 2018, the ISCAP [Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel] received a request from the National Security Advisor to resolve a declassification dispute between the Departments of Defense and State.” That action, to Bolton’s credit, freed up all or parts of 60 documents for publication in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, over the objections of the Department of Defense.

The way to begin restoring credibility to classification policy is not hard to envision, though it may be difficult or impossible to implement under current circumstances. Like law enforcement, the classification system needs to be insulated from partisan political interference. Classification policy needs to adhere to well-defined national security principles (though the scope and application of these principles will be debatable). A properly functioning classification and declassification system will prove its integrity by sometimes producing outcomes that are politically unwelcome or inconvenient to the Administration. And since errors are inevitable, the classification system also requires a robust oversight and error-correction process.

*    *    *

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee blocked an effort by Senator Ron Wyden to restructure and strengthen the declassification system. A Wyden amendment to the FY 2021 intelligence authorization act would have designated the Director of National Intelligence as the Executive Agent for declassification, tasking him to establish and carry out government-wide declassification requirements. The Wyden amendment failed 7-8 with all Republican members opposed.

By rejecting his amendment (without offering any alternative), the Committee “failed to reform a broken, costly declassification system,” Sen. Wyden said in a dissenting statement appended to the June 17 report on the intelligence bill.

*    *    *

While dismissing concerns about classification policy, the Senate Intelligence Committee roused itself to address the threat from unidentified flying objects, an issue that it said requires more focused government attention.

The Committee called on the Director of National Intelligence to provide detailed reporting on “unidentified aerial phenomena (also known as ‘anomalous aerial vehicles’), including observed airborne objects that have not been identified.”

“The Committee remains concerned that there is no unified, comprehensive process within the Federal Government for collecting and analyzing intelligence on unidentified aerial phenomena, despite the potential threat,” the new Committee report said.

PIDB Urges Modernization of Classification System

How can the national security classification and declassification system be fixed?

That depends on how one defines the problem that needs fixing. To the authors of a new report from the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), the outstanding problem is the difficulty of managing the expanding volume of classified information and declassifying a growing backlog of records.

“There is widespread, bipartisan recognition that the Government classifies too much information and keeps it classified for too long, all at an exorbitant and unacceptable cost to taxpayers,” said the PIDB, a presidential advisory board. Meanwhile, “Inadequate declassification contributes to an overall lack of transparency and diminished confidence in the entire security classification system.”

The solution to this problem is to employ technology to improve the efficiency of the classification and declassification processes, the PIDB said.

“The time is ripe for envisioning a new approach to classification and declassification, before the accelerating influx of classified electronic information across the Government becomes completely unmanageable,” the report said. “The Government needs a paradigm shift, one centered on the adoption of technologies and policies to support an enterprise-level, system-of-systems approach.”

See A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernization of the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification System, Public Interest Declassification Board, May 2020.

The report’s diagnosis is not new and neither is its call for employing new technology to improve classification and declassification. The PIDB itself made similar recommendations in a 2007 report.

Recognizing the persistent lack of progress to date, the new report therefore calls for the appointment of an Executive Agent who would have the authority and responsibility for designing and implementing a newly transformed classification system. (The Director of National Intelligence, who is already Security Executive Agent for security clearance policy, would be a likely choice.)

Those who care enough about these issues to read the PIDB report will find lots of interesting commentary along with plenty to doubt or disagree with. For example, in my opinion:

*    The useful idea of appointing an Executive Agent is diminished by making him or her part of an Executive Committee of agency leaders. The whole point of creating a “czar”-like Executive Agent is to reduce the friction of collective decision making and to break through the interagency impasse. An Executive Committee would make that more difficult.

*    The PIDB report would oddly elevate the Archivist of the United States, who is not even an Original Classification Authority, into a central role “in modernizing the systems used across agencies for the management of classified records.” That doesn’t make much sense. (An official said the intended purpose here was merely to advance the mission of the Archives in preserving historical records.)

*    The report equivocates on the pivotal question of whether or not (or for how long) agencies should retain “equity” in, or ownership of, the records they produce.

*    The report does not address resource issues in a concrete way. How much money should be invested today to develop the recommended technologies in order to reap savings five and ten years from now? It doesn’t say. Who should supply the classified connectivity among classifying agencies that the report says is needed? Exactly which agency should request the required funding in next year’s budget request? That is not discussed, and so in all likelihood it is not going to happen.

But the hardest, most stubborn problem in classification policy has nothing to do with efficiency or productivity. What needs updating and correcting, rather, are the criteria for determining what is properly classified and what must be disclosed. And since there is disagreement inside and outside government about many specific classification actions — e.g., should the number of US troops in Afghanistan be revealed or not? — a new mechanism is needed to adjudicate such disputes. This fundamental issue is beyond the scope of the PIDB report.

The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a virtual public meeting on June 5 at 11 am.

Pentagon Must Produce Plan for Declassification

The Department of Defense must explain by early next year how it is going to meet its obligations to declassify a growing backlog of classified records, Congress said this week.

A provision (sect. 1759) in the new House-Senate conference version of the FY2020 national defense authorization act requires the Pentagon to prepare a report including:

*     a plan to achieve legally mandated historical declassification requirements and reduce backlogs;

*     a plan to incorporate new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that would increase productivity and reduce the cost of implementing such a plan;

*     a detailed assessment of the declassified documents released in the past three years along with an estimate of how many will be released in the next three years;

*     other policy and resource options for reducing backlogs of classified documents awaiting declassification.

While the new legislative language is a welcome acknowledgment of a persistent problem, it does not by itself significantly advance a solution. In particular, the legislation does not authorize any new funds for declassification or for development of new declassification technologies, which are not yet mature. Nor does it define an alternative in the event that DoD proves unable to meet its declassification obligations.

In a prior draft adopted by the House of Representatives, the CIA and the State Department would also have been required to prepare similar reports. But those requirements were dropped in the final bill.

“The U.S. government’s system for declassifying and processing historical records has reached a state of crisis,” wrote William Burr of the National Security Archive lately. See “Trapped in the Archives,” Foreign Affairs, November 29, 2019.

Wyden Bill Requires Declassification, No Exceptions

A bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden would require the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence to declassify “any and all information” regarding actions by the government of Saudi Arabia to assist Saudi nationals who are accused of crimes in the United States to flee the country.

As Senator Wyden explained last week, the bill was prompted by multiple cases — 19 over the past 7 years, according to The Oregonian newspaper — in which Saudi nationals who were awaiting trial on charges such as manslaughter and sexual assault were able to flee the U.S. and escape trial.

The bill is categorical in its requirements. It does not “ask” for declassification. It does not call for “declassification review” or allow for any exercise of discretion. It does not mention any possible exceptions to declassification for intelligence sources and methods, foreign government information, or other national security-related material. None of that.

Instead, it quite simply states: the FBI and the DNI “shall declassify any and all information” related to the possible role of the Saudi government in this matter.

The bill, known as the Saudi Fugitive Declassification Act (S. 2635), was passed by the full Senate on October 17 and now awaits consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.

Modernization of Secrecy System is Stalled

Today’s national security classification system “relies on antiquated policies from another era that undercut its effectiveness today,” the Information Security Oversight Office told the President in a report released yesterday.

Modernizing the system is a “government-wide imperative,” the new ISOO annual report said.

But that is a familiar refrain by now. It is much the same message that was delivered with notable urgency by ISOO in last year’s annual report which found that the secrecy system is “hamstrung by old practices and outdated technology.”

The precise nature of the modernization that is needed is a subject of some disagreement. Is it a matter of improving efficiency in order to cope with expanding digital information flows? Or have the role of secrecy and the proper scope of classification changed in a fundamental way?

Whatever the goal, no identifiable progress has been made over the past year in overcoming those obsolete practices, and no new investment has been made in a technology strategy to help modernize national security information policy. In fact, ISOO’s own budget for secrecy oversight has been reduced.

Even agencies that are making use of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics in other areas have not considered their application to classification or declassification, ISOO said. “These technologies remain untapped in this area.”

At some point, the failure to update secrecy policy becomes a choice to let the secrecy system fail.

“We’re ringing the alarm bells as loud as we can,” said ISOO director Mark A. Bradley.

Trump Demotes DNI to Empower AG Barr

President Trump issued a memorandum last week that transfers to the Attorney General the authority of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify intelligence information concerning the 2016 election.

The memorandum effectively amends Executive Order 13526 on classification on national security information, but in a highly customized way: It applies only to Attorney General William Barr (not any successors) and only to the investigation of the 2016 presidential campaigns. The memorandum was published in the Federal Register today.

Even so, the move represents a functional demotion of the Director of National Intelligence and a partial transfer of his authority to the Attorney General.

Executive Order 13526 gave sweeping authority over declassification of intelligence information to the DNI, who was authorized to “declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence relating to intelligence sources, methods, or activities.” (sect. 3.1c)

The new presidential memorandum adopts the same language but modifies the provision to state that it is Attorney General Barr who may now “declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence that relates to the Attorney General’s review.”

No rationale for the change was provided, though it was understood to support the Attorney General’s investigation into what he called U.S. government “spying” on the Trump campaign.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) warned that the move threatened to politicize intelligence. “Selectively declassifying sources and methods in order to serve a political agenda will make it harder for the intelligence community to do their jobs protecting this country from those who wish to do us harm,” he said.

For his part, DNI Dan Coats said that “I am confident that the Attorney General will work with the IC in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk.”

*    *    *

There is some precedent for overriding the judgment of the DNI concerning the protection of sources and methods.

A 1999 decision of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the presidentially-established Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel could declassify intelligence information over the objections of the Director of Central Intelligence.

While it is true that the DCI, and now the DNI, is obliged by the National Security Act to protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure, the Director’s authority in this area is not absolute or exclusive.

Specifically, “If the President concludes that information concerning intelligence sources and methods should not be classified, the disclosure of such information simply is not ‘unauthorized’ within the meaning of the [National Security Act],” wrote Randolph D. Moss of the Office of Legal Counsel in his 1999 opinion.

Still, this OLC conclusion may not be correct (said a non-lawyer) because “declassification” is not the same as “disclosure.” Even intelligence information that is declassified or unclassified may still be, and often is, protected from public disclosure by the DNI under the provisions of the National Security Act.

The new presidential memorandum does not address the question of disclosure at all.

Pentagon Blocks Declassification of 2018 Nuclear Stockpile

For the first time in years, the Department of Defense has denied a request to declassify the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

“After careful consideration. . . it was determined that the requested information cannot be declassified at this time,” wrote Andrew P. Weston-Dawkes of the Department of Energy in a letter conveying the DoD decision not to disclose the number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal at the end of Fiscal Year 2018 or the number that had been dismantled.

The Federation of American Scientists had sought declassification of the latest stockpile figures in an October 1, 2018 petition. It is this request that was denied.

Because the current size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile constitutes so-called “Formerly Restricted Data,” which is a classification category under the Atomic Energy Act, its declassification requires the concurrence of both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. In this case, DOE did not object to declassification but DOD did.

 *    *    *

The size of the current stockpile was first declassified in 2010. It was one of a number of breakthroughs in open government that were achieved in the Obama Administration. (Until that time, only the size of the historic stockpile through 1961 had been officially disclosed, which was done in 1993.)

“Increasing the transparency of our nuclear weapons stockpile, and our dismantlement, as well, is important to both our nonproliferation efforts and to the efforts we have under way to pursue arms control that will follow the new START treaty,” said a Pentagon official at a May 2010 press briefing on the decision to release the information.

In truth, the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile was not such a big secret even when it was classified. Before the 2009 total of 5,113 warheads was declassified in 2010, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of FAS had estimated it at 5,200 warheads. Likewise, while the 2013 total turned out to be 4,804 warheads, their prior open source estimate was not too far off at 4,650 warheads.

But even if it is partly a formality, classifying stockpile information means that officials cannot publicly discuss it or be effectively questioned in public about it.

*    *    *

But why now? Why is the Pentagon reverting to the pre-Obama practice of keeping the total stockpile number and the number of dismantled weapons classified? Why could the FY 2017 total (3,822 warheads) be disclosed, while the FY 2018 total cannot?

No reason was provided in the latest denial letter, and none of the decision makers was available to explain the rationale behind it.

But another official said the problem was that one of the main purposes of the move to declassify the stockpile total — namely, to set an example of disclosure that other countries would follow — had not been reciprocated as hoped.

“Stockpile declassification has not led to greater openness by Russia,” the official said.

“Anyway, it’s not a bilateral world anymore,” he said. And so DoD would also be looking for greater transparency from China than has been realized up to now.

Have new U.S. nuclear weapons programs played a role in incentivizing greater secrecy? “I doubt it,” this official said. “If anything, it’s the reverse. The US government has a motive to make it clear where it’s headed.”

*    *    *

“I think we should have more communication with Russia,” said U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the retiring Supreme Allied Commander Europe. “It would ensure that we understand each other and why we are doing what we’re doing.”

But for now, that’s not the direction in which things are moving, and not only with respect to stockpile secrecy. See “US-Russia chill stirs worry about stumbling into conflict” by Robert Burns, Associated Press, April 14.

Declassified U2 Photos Open a New Window into the Past

Updated below

Archaeologists are using declassified imagery captured by U2 spy planes in the 1950s to locate and study sites of historical interest that have since been obscured or destroyed.

This work extends previous efforts to apply CORONA spy satellite imagery, declassified in the 1990s, to geographical, environmental and historical research. But the U2 imagery is older and often of higher resolution, providing an even further look back.

“U2 photographs allowed us to present a more complete picture of the archaeological landscape than would have otherwise been possible,” wrote archaeologists Emily Hammer and Jason Ur in a new paper. See Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial ImageryAdvances in Archaeological Practice, published online March 12, 2019.

The exploitation of U2 imagery required some ingenuity and entrepreneurship on the authors’ part, especially since the declassified images are not very user-friendly.

“Logistical and technical barriers have for more than a decade prevented the use of U2 photography by archaeologists,” they noted. “The declassification included no spatial index or finding aid for the planes’ flight paths or areas of photographic coverage. The declassified imagery is not available for purchase or download; interested researchers must photograph the original negatives at the NARA II facility in College Park, Maryland.”

Since no finding aids existed, the authors created them themselves. Their paper also contains links to web maps to help other researchers locate relevant film cans and order them for viewing in College Park.

“These [U2] photographs are a phenomenal historical resource,” said Professor Ur. “Have a look at Aleppo in 1959 and Mosul in 1958. These places are now destroyed.”

Update: Related work involving declassified aerial imagery in the UK was described in “Use of archival aerial photographs for archaeological research in the Arabian Gulf” by Richard N. Fletcher et al, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 48 (2018): 75–82:

    Summary
    A valuable archaeological and historical resource is contained within recently declassified aerial imagery from the UK’s Joint Aerial Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC), now held at the National Collection of Aerial Photography in Edinburgh (NCAP). A project at UCL-Qatar has begun to exploit this to acquire and research the historical aerial photography of Qatar and the wider Gulf region. The JARIC collection, comprising perhaps as many as 25 million photographs from British intelligence sources in the twentieth century, mainly from Royal Air Force reconnaissance missions, is known to include large quantities of aerial photography from the Gulf that have never been seen outside intelligence circles, dating from 1939 to 1989. This paper will demonstrate how others may gain access to this valuable resource, not only for the Gulf but for the entire MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. We will explore the research value of these resources and demonstrate how they enrich our understanding of the area. The archive is likely to be of equal value to archaeologists and historians of other regions.

Israel’s Official Map Replaces Military Bases with Fake Farms and Deserts

Somewhat unexpectedly, a blog post that I wrote last week caught fire internationally. On Monday, I reported that Yandex Maps—Russia’s equivalent to Google Maps—had inadvertently revealed over 300 military and political facilities in Turkey and Israel by attempting to blur them out.

In a strange turn of events, the fallout from that story has actually produced a whole new one. 

After the story blew up, Yandex pointed out that its efforts to obscure these sites are consistent with its requirement to comply with local regulations. Yandex’s statement also notes that “our mapping product in Israel conforms to the national public map published by the government of Israel as it pertains to the blurring of military assets and locations.”

The “national public map” to which Yandex refers is the official online map of Israel which is maintained by the Israeli Mapping Centre (מרכז למיפוי ישראל) within the Israeli government. Since Yandex claims to take its cue from this map, I wondered whether that meant that the Israeli government was also selectively obscuring sites on its national map.

I wasn’t wrong. In fact, the Israeli government goes well beyond just blurring things out. They’re actually deleting entire facilities from the map—and quite messily, at that. Usually, these sites are replaced with patches of fake farmland or desert, but sometimes they’re simply painted over with white or black splotches.

Some of the more obvious examples of Israeli censorship include nuclear facilities:

  • Tel-Nof Air Base is just down the road from a suspected missile storage site, both of which have been painted over with identical patches of farmland.

 

 

  • Palmachim Air Base doubles as a test launch site for Jericho missiles and is collocated with the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, which is rumoured to be responsible for nuclear weapons research and design. The entire area has been replaced with a fake desert.

 

 

  • The Haifa Naval Base includes pens for submarines that are rumoured to be nuclear-capable, and is entirely blacked out on the official map.

 

 

  • The Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona is responsible for plutonium and tritium production for Israel’s nuclear weapons program, and has been entirely whited out on the official map.

 

 

  • Hatzerim Air Base has no known connection to Israel’s nuclear weapons program; however, the sloppy method that was used to mask its existence (by basically just copy-pasting a highly-distinctive and differently-coloured patch of desert to an area only five kilometres away) was too good to leave out.

 

 

Given that all of these locations are easily visible through Google Earth and other mapping platforms, Israel’s official map is a prime example of needless censorship. But Israel isn’t the only one guilty of silly secrecy: South Korea’s Naver Maps regularly paints over sensitive sites with fake mountains or digital trees, and in a particularly egregious case, the Belgian Ministry of Defense is actually suing Google for not complying with its requests to blur out its military facilities.

 

 

Before the proliferation of high-resolution satellite imagery, obscuring aerial photos of military facilities was certainly an effective method for states to safeguard their sensitive data. However, now that anyone with an internet connection can freely access these images, it simply makes no sense to persist with these unnecessary censorship practices–especially since these methods can often backfire and draw attention to the exact sites that they’re supposed to be hiding.

Case studies like Yandex and Strava—in which the locations of secret military facilities were revealed through the publication of fitness heat-maps—should prompt governments to recognize that their data is becoming increasingly accessible through open-source methods. Correspondingly, they should take the relevant steps to secure information that is absolutely critical to national security, and be much more publicly transparent with information that is not—hopefully doing away with needless censorship in the process.