Number of New Secrets in 2016 At New Low

Last year executive branch agencies created the fewest new national security secrets ever reported, according to an annual report published today by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).

The number of new secrets — or “original classification decisions” — was 39,240 in 2016, an all-time low. The previous low of 46,800 was set in 2014. By comparison, more than 230,000 new secrets a year were being generated a decade ago. Since such record-keeping began in 1980, the total number never dropped below 100,000 until 2012. See 2016 Annual Report to the President, Information Security Oversight Office, July 2017.

While interesting and welcome from an open government viewpoint, the reported reduction in new secrets cannot bear too much interpretive weight. The figures cited by ISOO represent a compilation of dozens of estimates provided by individual agencies, based on sampling methods that are inconsistent and not always reliable.

Moreover, this statistical approach to secrecy oversight implies that all classification decisions are of equal significance. In actuality, some secrets may be of profound importance — politically, morally, historically, or otherwise — while many other secrets (such as administrative or technical details) will have little or no public policy interest. A simple numerical count of the number of classification decisions does not capture their relative meaning or value.

Still, assuming that the uncertainties and the ambiguities in the data have been more or less constant over time, the reduction in new secrets to a record low level is likely to reflect a real reduction in the scope of national security secrecy in the Obama years.

Classification Costs at a Record High

Meanwhile, however, the annual costs incurred by the classification system reached record high levels in 2016, the ISOO report said.

“The total security classification cost estimate within Government for FY 2016 is $16.89 billion,” ISOO reported, compared to $16.17 billion the year before. Classification-related costs within industry were an additional $1.27 billion.

Classification Challenges

Because decisions to classify information often involve subjective judgments about the requirements of national security and the potential of particular information to cause damage, such decisions are sometimes disputed even within the government itself. The classification system allows for classification challenges to be filed by authorized holders of classified information who believe that the information is improperly classified.

Last year, there were 954 such classification challenges, the ISOO report said, about the same number as the year before. Classification of the information was overturned in only about 17% of those challenges, however, compared to over 40% that were overturned the year before.

The classification challenge procedure is a potentially important internal oversight mechanism that is not yet fully mature or widely utilized. For some reason, the majority of classification challenges (496) last year originated at US Pacific Command, while only a single one emerged from the Department of Justice. In fact, ISOO found that about a quarter of all agencies do not even have a classification challenge program, though they are supposed to.

If such challenges could be promoted and accepted as a routine element of classification practice, they could serve to invigorate classification oversight and to provide an useful internal self-check.

The ISOO annual report also presented new data on declassification activity, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, agency self-inspections, controlled unclassified information (CUI), and other aspects of national security information policy.

ISOO director Mark A. Bradley, whose tenure as director began this year, told the President that in the next reporting cycle, “ISOO will focus on improving our methodology in data collection and will begin planning and developing new measures for future reporting that more accurately reflect the activities of agencies managing classified and sensitive information.”

NSA Records Languish at National Archives for Now

Last year, the National Archives (NARA) acquired a large number of historically valuable National Security Agency records. But they remain inaccessible to researchers, at least for the time being.

David Langbart of NARA described the situation at a closed meeting of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee late last year. According to recently published minutes of that meeting:

“The [NSA] records consist of approximately 19,000 folders without any real arrangement. These records mostly consist of technical, analytical, historical, operational, and translation reports and related materials. Most of the records date from the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but there are also documents from the 1920s and 1930s and even earlier. The NSA reviewed the records for declassification before accessioning and most documents and folder titles remain classified. Langbart concluded that the finding aid prepared by NSA was the only practical way to locate documents of interest for researchers, but it is 557 pages long and is classified.”

The National Archives confirmed that this description remains accurate today.

So not only are these thousands of half-century-old records still classified or otherwise unavailable, but the finding aid that would enable researchers to locate specific documents of interest is itself a classified document.

The Federation of American Scientists asked NSA officials to voluntarily declassify the 557-page finding aid as a first step towards making the NARA collection useful to researchers.

They agreed to do so.

“We can have a redacted version for you by September,” wrote Dr. David J. Sherman of NSA. “We of course will provide one to NARA as well.”

Dr. Sherman noted that the collection includes documents of widely varying complexity. “Judging by their titles, some almost certainly require significant training in mathematics and engineering to understand.  Others appear to have been written for more general audiences.”

Furthermore, although the collection as a whole is maintained as classified, “just under one third of the folders appear to be unclassified in full,” he estimated.

Under the circumstances, classifying the entire set of records along with its descriptive catalog was obviously not optimal, he agreed.

“I take the point about this foreclosing any possibility for researchers to know what might be available in the collection and agree it is something we should have addressed in this instance and need to fix in the future,” Dr. Sherman said.

Therefore, he added, “in any similar situations in the future — i.e. ones where we are transferring large, mixed collection such as this — we’ll make it standard practice to consider whether the percentage of unclassified materials is high enough to provide NARA with a redacted finding aid at the time of the transfer.”

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown: A Reassessment

The role of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in managing the Pentagon, boosting the military and confronting the Soviet Union during the Jimmy Carter Administration is examined in a new Department of Defense historical volume that was declassified and published this month.

It was during Secretary Brown’s tenure that the Carter Administration reversed a decline in defense spending and began a military buildup that is usually associated with the Reagan Administration. Stealth aircraft, precision bombs, cruise missiles and other new weapons programs were championed by Brown, a physicist, and brought into production.

“Unlike previous secretaries of defense, Brown faced the Soviet Union at the apex of its Cold War military might,” wrote historian Edward Keefer in the new DoD volume. “Flush from new discoveries of oil and natural gas in an era of high energy prices, the Soviet Union of the Carter years came closer to matching the United States in strategic power than it had in any other period. By most reckonings, the Kremlin held advantages over the West in conventional weapons and forces in central Europe. Brown and his staff worked diligently and creatively to offset the formidable Soviet military challenge. Yet the achievements Brown amassed as secretary have been overshadowed by one horrendous failure, the Iran hostage rescue mission. As a result, history has paid scant attention to his successes. Similarly, it has ignored the foundation that the Carter administration built for the Reagan revolution in defense. This volume aims to remedy the oversight.”

“This is an authorized history, but not an official one,” wrote DoD Chief Historian Erin R. Mahan. “There is a distinction.” That is, it is based on authorized access to classified source materials and underwent internal peer review, but it represents the author’s own judgment.

Among other areas of friction and public controversy, Secretary Brown defended the nuclear weapon targeting policy set forth in Carter’s Presidential Directive 59. “To liberal arms control advocates, such as the Federation of American Scientists, PD 59 seemed warlike and dangerous,” the Pentagon history said.

See Harold Brown: Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977-1981, Office of the Secretary of Defense, June 2017, 840 pages.

The new volume is the latest in a series of scholarly histories of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and one of several new publications from the OSD History Office.

NRO: We Are “Forward Leaning” on Declassification

The National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. intelligence agency that builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, says it is all for increased openness, within certain boundaries.

“The NRO takes very seriously its commitment to greater openness and transparency, and makes every effort, in all of its information review and release programs, to release as much information as we can while still protecting our sensitive sources and methods from harm,” the NRO wrote in a newly disclosed report.

But there are practical limits on what can be accomplished, NRO said:

“While the goal of increasing discretionary declassification decisions is a noble one, we believe that such an effort requires a program separate and distinct from the existing systematic, automatic, mandatory, and other release programs; that establishing a new program is counterproductive given our current resource constraints; and that such an endeavor is unnecessary given our current declassification efforts.”

See NRO Responses on Feasibility of Certain Classification Policy Reforms, February 28, 2017, released last week under the Freedom of Information Act. The NRO document was prepared in response to questions posed last year by then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr.

While currently operational reconnaissance programs are excluded from declassification review, NRO says it “already examines all [other] classified material that comes up for review for declassification regardless of its age, or under what circumstances it has been requested. If we determine that we cannot articulate harm in release, we consider it for declassification and release.”

In sum, “while we do not look proactively for new items to declassify, we do take a forward-leaning approach to performing declassification reviews by going beyond the ‘can we protect this?’ question to asking ‘do we really need to protect this?'”

NRO said that it could do still more to increase disclosure by reviewing classification guidance, anticipating recurring requests, and improving classification management practices. “We believe these measures, over time, will help eliminate over-classification and make much more material available for public release,” NRO said.

Considering that even the name of the National Reconnaissance Office was considered classified information 25 years ago, until it was declassified by former NRO director Martin Faga in September 1992, the NRO has come quite some distance into the daylight.

It has a substantial presence online, with an electronic reading room featuring numerous declassified records of historical interest. NRO is also the first U.S. intelligence agency to successfully undergo a financial audit.

DNI Clapper had specifically asked last year whether intelligence agencies could do more, consistent with 32 CFR 2001.35, to “declassify information when the public interest in disclosure outweighs the need for continued classification.”

This is harder than it sounds, NRO replied. It presumes that the public interest in disclosure and the need for classification can each be measured, or “weighed,” and then meaningfully compared to determine which is the weightier factor. Neither of those presumptions may be correct. For agency officials, the decision whether or not to declassify is likely to be more of a judgment call than a calculation.

“The CFR does not provide a threshold to assist organizations in determining at what point ‘public interest in disclosure outweighs the need for continuing classification’,” NRO wrote. “The NRO would require clarification and further guidance to assist us in gauging when the public interest outweighs the need to protect our currently classified programs.”

In fact, it is probably not realistic to expect agencies such as NRO to second-guess their own classification decisions on behalf of the public interest. Rather, the authority to exercise a public interest override of classification decisions should be vested in a higher-level body such as the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel that would be empowered to consider and to act on broad national and public interests. If that were done, then new procedures would also be needed for interested members of the public to present a public interest argument to that higher-level body for its consideration.

Intelligence Budget Requests for FY2018 Published

The Trump Administration requested $57.7 billion for the National Intelligence Program in Fiscal Year 2018, up from a requested $54.9 billion in FY 2017.

The Administration requested $20.7 billion dollars for the Military Intelligence Program in FY 2018, up from a requested $18.5 billion in FY 2017. (The amounts actually appropriated in FY 2017 have not yet been disclosed.)

The intelligence budget request figures were published last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and by the Department of Defense.

The annual disclosure of the requested amount for the National Intelligence Program was mandated by Congress in the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2010. So disclosure is required regardless of the preferences of the current Administration. “As directed by statute,” wrote DNI Dan Coats this year in advance of his confirmation hearing, “I will ensure that the public release of figures representing aggregate funds requested by and appropriated for the IC is completed annually.”

Interestingly, however, there is no corresponding statutory requirement for disclosure of the requested amount for the Military Intelligence Program. The practice of voluntarily disclosing the MIP budget request was initiated by Gen. James R. Clapper when he was Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence).

“I did that,” said then-DNI Clapper in December 2015. “I thought the public had a right to know.”

Iran 1953 Covert History Quietly Released

The Department of State yesterday released a long-suppressed volume of historical records documenting the role of the United States in the 1953 coup against the Iranian government of Mohammad Mosadeq.

“This retrospective volume focuses on the evolution of U.S. thinking on Iran as well as the U.S. Government covert operation that resulted in Mosadeq’s overthrow on August 19, 1953,” the Preface says. See Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1952-1954, Iran, 1951-1954.

“This volume includes National Security Council and Presidential materials that document the U.S. decision to proceed with the operation against Mosadeq, and the operational files within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that document the implementation of the operation, codenamed TPAJAX.”

Some of the relevant records were destroyed long ago.

“The original CIA cables relating to the implementation of the covert action TPAJAX no longer exist. The original TPAJAX operational cables appear to have been destroyed as part of an office purge undertaken in 1961 or 1962, in anticipation of Near East (NE) Division’s move to the Central Intelligence Agency’s new headquarters.”

However, “Department of State historians obtained hand-typed transcriptions of microfilmed copies of these cables” and “twenty-one are published in this volume and an additional seven are referenced in footnotes.”

A small portion of the 1,000-page collection remains classified.

“The declassification review of this volume, which began in 2004 and was completed in 2014, resulted in the decision to withhold 10 documents in full, excise a paragraph or more in 38 documents, and make minor excisions of less than a paragraph in 82 documents,” the editors wrote. Without knowing for certain, some of the withheld information may pertain to discussion of British involvement in the operation, as well as technical details such as cryptonyms.

Rectifying a “Fraud”

The release of the Iran history volume is the culmination — and apparently the resolution — of decades of controversy that began in 1989 after the Department published a FRUS volume on US-Iran relations between 1951 and 1954 that neglected to mention any covert operation against the Iran government. That earlier volume was widely denounced by US historians and others.

“The omissions combine to make the Iran volume in the period of 1952–54 a fraud,” wrote historian Bruce R. Kuniholm in 1990.

“This is ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark — or the ghost,” the New York Times editorialized back then.

Over time, the State Department itself came to agree with that critical assessment.

“The Department’s self-censorship exemplified, but also obscured, the restrictive impulses toward historical transparency that prevailed throughout the U.S. Government” at the time, according to a candid and thoughtful State Department history of the Foreign Relations series. “FRUS historians could have been more assertive in their efforts to promote greater openness in the 1980s. They should have recognized that the [1989] Iran volume was too incomplete to be published without damaging the series’s reputation.”

On the plus side, “Academic criticism of the [1989] ‘Iran Volume’ and the restrictions placed on [advisory committee] access to classified material raised public and congressional awareness of the erosion of transparency in the 1980s.”

This in turn led to enactment in 1991 of a new statutory requirement that the FRUS series must provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy.”

But at the end of the Obama Administration, and as recently as April of this year, release of the Iran retrospective volume seemed to be indefinitely blocked.

In 2016, “the Department of State did not permit publication of the long-delayed Iran Retrospective volume because it judged the political environment too sensitive,” the Department’s Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) wrote in its latest annual report. “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.”

And then yesterday, all of a sudden and with minimal notice, it was posted online. The publication was welcomed by the chair of the Historical Advisory Committee, Temple University historian Richard H. Immerman.

“As it expressed in last year’s annual report, the HAC was repeatedly frustrated–and disappointed–by Secretary Kerry’s refusal to allow the volume’s publication,” Prof. Immerman said yesterday. “In this regard the change in State’s perspective from the Obama to Trump administration is dramatic.”

There is no known evidence that Secretary of State Tillerson participated in the decision to permit publication. But, an official said, “there is no question that receiving approval to publish the volume was much less difficult with the change of administrations. Indeed, it encountered remarkably little resistance.”

Evidently wishing to downplay its significance, however, the State Department buried an announcement of the new volume at the bottom of a June 15 press release. After listing 16 other publications, it briefly mentioned that the Iran retrospective volume had “also” been released, making no mention of the decades-long controversy leading up to its publication.

Needless to say, the sky has not fallen due to the disclosure, and is not expected to. US relations with Iran will remain as fraught in the near future as they have been in the recent past. (The Senate voted yesterday 98-2 in favor of sanctions on Iran in connection with that country’s “ballistic missile program, support for acts of international terrorism, and violations of human rights.”)

But a pointless and misleading omission in the historical record has now been rectified.

“The public and scholarly community owes a great debt to not only the remarkable effort and perseverance of literally generations of State Department historians and the [History] Office’s leadership, but also their collective commitment to historical accuracy and transparency,” said Prof. Immerman.

Latest Nuclear Weapon Declassifications

The fact that a particular nuclear weapon has (or does not have) a “dial-a-yield capability” enabling the selection of a desired explosive yield was declassified earlier this year, in a joint decision of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.

Last year, the Department of Energy also declassified the thickness of the “getter nickel plating” used in tritium production. (A “getter” here means the reactive material that sustains a vacuum by capturing gas atoms.)

These and several other recent DOE declassification decisions were recorded in memoranda that were released last week under the Freedom of Information Act. Copies are available, along with the records of prior DOE declassification actions, here.

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.