The Aging Secrecy System Is “At a Crossroads”

Today’s national security classification system is unsustainable, says a new annual report to the President from the government’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). It is “hamstrung by old practices and outdated technology” and a new, government-wide technology strategy will be required “to combat inaccurate classification and promote more timely declassification.”

The secrecy system has expanded to the point that it is effectively unmanageable and often counterproductive, ISOO indicated.

“Too much classification impedes the proper sharing of information necessary to respond to security threats, while too little declassification undermines the trust of the American people in their Government. Reforms will require adopting strategies that increase the precision and decrease the permissiveness of security classification decisions, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of declassification programs, and use modern technology in security classification programs across the Government,” the report said.

“We are at a crossroads” wrote ISOO director Mark Bradley in a May 31 letter to the President transmitting the report, which was made public today.

ISOO’s sense of urgency is reflected in the annual report itself, which strives to be more forward leaning and policy-relevant than many past ISOO reports. It goes beyond the recitation of (often questionable) statistics on classification activity to present a series of findings and recommended actions that it says are needed to restore the integrity of the system.

In addition to a call for development of a comprehensive new technology strategy for classification and declassification, ISOO specifically recommends adding a new budget line item for security classification in agency budget requests to help regulate and justify expenditures, and adding a public member to the Information Security Classification Appeals Panel to represent the broad public interest in that Panel’s work on declassification.

Some of the other recommendations in the report flag problem areas rather than advance solutions, and tend to do so in the passive voice: “Policies must be revised to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of automatic declassification.” How exactly should the policies be revised? Adopt a “drop-dead date” for classification? Eliminate agency referrals for older documents? Grant broad declassification authority to the National Declassification Center? The report doesn’t say.

Much of the data traditionally reported by ISOO regarding classification activity is suggestive but not truly informative. Just as one cannot judge the overall health of the economy from stock market averages, changes in the volume of classification activity say nothing about its quality or legitimacy. In 2017, ISOO found that original classification activity (production of new secrets) increased for the first time in four years. At the same time, derivative classification decreased. The significance of these developments, if any, is unclear.

But other ISOO findings in the new report are more interesting.

ISOO said that last year there were again hundreds of classification challenges presented by government employees who disputed the classification of particular items of information. Most of the challenges were denied, but in 8% of the cases (a small but non-negligible number) they were upheld and the classifications in question were overturned. Such classification challenges “serve a critical role by uncovering information improperly classified in the first instance,” the ISOO report said, providing “an internal check on the system.” Because the challenges are now mostly localized in just a few agencies, this practice has the potential to have far more impact in combating overclassification if it can be adopted and encouraged more widely across the executive branch.

The ISOO report summarized the results of the latest Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which led to the cancellation of 221 security classification guides (out of 2,865 guides). The cancelled guides will no longer be available for use in classifying information.

ISOO also cast a favorable spotlight on the new approach to classification led by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. NGA now requires written justifications for original classification decisions, along with a description of the damage that would result from unauthorized disclosure, and an unclassified paraphrase of the classified information. The resulting NGA classification guidance currently represents a “best practice” in classification policy, ISOO said. That is to say, it represents a model that could constructively be applied elsewhere in agencies that classify national security information.

The ISOO report also addressed escalating classification costs (which reached a new high in 2017), growing backlogs of mandatory declassification review requests, and the contentious implementation of Controlled Unclassified Information policy, among other topics.

Fixing the classification system is a slow and uncertain process, and some people don’t want to wait.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) introduced legislation this week to accelerate the release of records concerning unsolved criminal civil rights cases from half a century ago. Some of those records, in his estimation, “remain classified unnecessarily.” So his bill (S. 3191) would work around that classification obstacle with an alternative approach. Modeled in part on the JFK Assassination Records Act of 1992, the bill would empower a panel of private citizens to review and decide on disclosure of the records.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense recently issued a “request for information” about technology that could aid in the classification process. The desired technology “must be able to make real-time decisions about the classification level of the information and an individual’s ability to access, change, delete, receive or forward the information.” (FBO, NextGov, ArsTechnica)

National Declassification Center Seeks Director

The National Declassification Center at the National Archives is looking for a director to help implement its declassification agenda.

The National Declassification Center was established by President Obama’s 2009 executive order 13526 “to streamline declassification processes,” and it has had some success in bringing order to an often arbitrary declassification environment. One of the Center’s recent “special projects” involves review of records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense with 1.3 million pages processed and 830 thousand pages declassified.

2017 Nuclear Stockpile Total Declassified

The number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile dropped to 3,822 as of September 30, 2017, down from 4,018 a year earlier. (Retired weapons awaiting dismantlement are not included in the totals.)The totals do not include weapons that are retired and awaiting dismantlement.)

Meanwhile, 354 nuclear weapons were dismantled in 2017, up from 258 the year before.

These figures were declassified in response to a request from the Federation of American Scientists and were made public yesterday.

The declassification of the current size of the US nuclear arsenal was a breakthrough in national security transparency that was accomplished for the first time by the Obama Administration in 2010.

It was uncertain until now whether or when the Trump Administration would follow suit.

Because the stockpile information qualifies as Formerly Restricted Data under the Atomic Energy Act, its declassification does not occur spontaneously or on a defined schedule. Disclosure requires coordination and approval by both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, and it often needs to be prompted by some external factor.

Last October, the Federation of American Scientists petitioned for declassification of the stockpile numbers, and the request was ultimately approved.

“Your request was the original driver for the declassification,” said Dr. Andrew Weston-Dawkes, the director of the DOE Office of Classification. “We regret the long time to complete the process but in the end the process does work.”

Earlier this week, FAS requested declassification of the current inventory of Highly Enriched Uranium, which has not been updated since 2013.

Declassification News

The National Declassification Center released a listing of 134 record collections that have undergone declassification review in the past five months.

The collections include records on the Weapons System Evaluations Group (discussed here), a compilation of records assembled by Judge Merrick Garland when he was special assistant to the attorney general in 1979-81 (discussed here), embassy files from Indonesia, Iraq, and Burundi, and miscellaneous others.

Meanwhile, the Public Interest Declassification Board said that it will soon release a draft report on “modernization of the US national security classification and declassification system.” The Board said it will seek public comments and feedback on the draft report prior to its finalization.

Documenting the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group

The National Declassification Center is preparing to release a set of newly declassified records concerning a little-known Pentagon advisory group called the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG) that operated from 1948 to 1976.

The purpose of the WSEG was “to provide rigorous, unprejudiced and independent analyses and evaluations of present and future weapons systems under probable future combat conditions– prepared by the ablest professional minds, military and civilian, and the most advanced analytical methods that can be brought to bear,” according to its founding 1948 directive.

For at least part of its existence, the WSEG “occupied a preeminent position as the principal analytical support agency of its kind at the upper echelons of the DoD,” an official 1979 history of the organization said.

An overview of the upcoming release of declassified WSEG records was posted yesterday by Alex Daverede of the National Declassification Center.

The records include a broad range of topics on weapons systems and war fighting in the early cold war context, only a portion of which will actually be made public. One report, that apparently will remain classified, is entitled “Capabilities of Atomic Weapons for the Attack of Troop Targets.” Other studies address air defense, biological warfare, Soviet military systems, and more.

“I should be done with the declassification work by the end of the month, perhaps sooner,” Mr. Daverede said yesterday.

“This was not a big project for us–only 18 Hollinger [document storage] boxes,” he said. “Ten boxes hold documents that retained their classification after they were re-reviewed, so actual pages released would probably be closer to 5K pages.  Unfortunately there are multiple copies of each document, so in terms of unique pages declassified we are looking at considerably less than 5K.  The up side is that the whole series had been exempt before we re-examined it, so I feel pretty good about getting some records of this obscure organization out on the street.”

Some of the war-fighting topics considered by the WSEG were also on the mind of Daniel Ellsberg during some of the same years, as he discussed in his recent book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. The book has been widely and favorably reviewed in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, and Arms Control Today (by Robert S. Norris of FAS), among others.

Ellsberg did not mention the WSEG in his book, but the WSEG was well aware of him.

There was a “period of JCS retrenchment in SIOP-related studies after the Ellsberg incident,” according to the 1979 WSEG history. That is, there was a decline in nuclear targeting studies requested by the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the WSEG following Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon papers.

Suppressed Afghanistan War Data Now Published

In January, the Department of Defense ordered the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) not to publish certain data on areas of Afghanistan that were held by insurgents.

“This development is troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this is the first time SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked ‘unclassified’ to the American taxpayer,” the SIGAR said in its January 2018 report to Congress.

But the Department of Defense soon reversed course, saying it was an error to withhold that information.

Last week, the SIGAR published an addendum to its January report that provided the previously suppressed data. In addition, a detailed control map and the underlying data for each of Afghanistan’s 407 districts were declassified and published. See Addendum to SIGAR’s January 2018 Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, February 26, 2018.

The basic thrust of the new data is that Afghan government control of the country is at its lowest reported level since December 2015, while insurgency control is at its highest.

“The percentage of districts under insurgent control or influence has doubled since 2015,” the SIGAR addendum said.

Classified Presidential Library Records to be Moved to DC

The National Archives said last week that it will gather tens of millions of pages of classified historical records from Presidential Libraries around the country and will bring them to Washington, DC for declassification review.

“We are making this change to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the safeguarding and the declassification of this material and in light of resource challenges,” said NARA chief operating officer William J. Bosanko. “Researchers are expected to benefit from efficiencies we can gain in the declassification process.”

“It is important to stress that this change in physical location of the records is temporary and that the records will be returned to the Presidential Libraries as they are declassified,” he wrote in a March 1 message.

Is it really necessary to physically move the records to DC in order to declassify them? Isn’t there at least a subset of classified records at presidential libraries that could be readily declassified on site?

“My personal opinion is yes (although the size of the subset changes greatly from Library to Library),” replied Mr. Bosanko by email today.  “However, this comes back to age-old issues around declassification authority and third-agency referrals.  With the policies that are in place, in a practical sense, the answer is no (and, the status quo has not realized the sort of declassification I think is at the heart of your question).  And, bringing them here makes it much easier to address long-standing challenges such as certain topics that cut across more than one Administration.”

There are approximately 75 million pages of classified records at presidential libraries that will be affected by the move, Mr. Bosanko said. Duplicate copies will not be kept at the libraries during the declassification review.

“We are just starting the planning process and many details must still be worked out,” he wrote.

Selective Declassification and the Nunes Memo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing of the Guard: Recent Retirements

Several government officials who collectively represent much of the public face of the national security secrecy system have retired recently. They include:

*    Sheryl Shenberger, Director of the National Declassification Center

*    Stephen Randolph, Historian of the State Department

*    David J. Sherman, NSA Associate Director for Strategy, Plans, and Policy

*    Joseph Lambert, CIA Director of Information Management

In various ways they have all been significant collaborators — or at least partners in debate — with public advocates of greater openness, and they have all contributed to a gradual increase in public access to national security information.

Their diverse activities and achievements are not fully known to me and cannot be summarized here. But from my own limited vantage point, each one made a positive difference.

After I raised the question of declassifying US records regarding Indonesia in the 1960s (at a June 2016 meeting of the Public Interest Declassification Board), Sheryl Shenberger approached me to ask for more information, which I provided. It turned that this task was ideal for the National Declassification Center, especially since it involved a set of records that were both historically important and relatively limited in volume. She saw to it that the collection was declassified and released last year.

Stephen Randolph helped advocate for the release of the long-suppressed Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume on the 1953 coup in Iran, which was finally published last year. Under his leadership, the Historian’s Office was strengthened, productivity was increased, and FRUS began to be published within its mandated 30-year deadline for the first time in decades.

David Sherman helped foster internal and external discussion of changes to government secrecy policy. And when I pointed out that a “finding aid” to historical NSA records at the National Archives was unhelpfully classified, he conceded that was a mistake and expedited its declassification.

Joseph Lambert (who retired early last year) had the difficult task of defending CIA classification policies. But he was always willing to discuss the subject, to acknowledge errors and to correct them.

In fact, the accessibility of these officials — their willingness to engage with members of the public — was perhaps their single most admirable feature. For my part, I think each of them helped me to see problems of disclosure from a government perspective, to understand what might be feasible and what was not, and to formulate proposals for change that could be acted upon by their respective bureaucracies.

Last JFK Assassination Records May Be Released Soon

The nominal deadline for release of the last remaining records concerning the assassination of President Kennedy under the terms of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 is October 26, 2017.

Agencies have an opportunity to request postponement of release, beyond the deadline, of a few thousand records that are still being withheld, subject to Presidential approval. Officials would not say if any such requests have been forwarded to the White House, but so far none are known to have been approved by President Trump.

In a resolution introduced in the Senate last week, Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy called for full release of all remaining assassination records.

They urged the President of the United States to “reject any claims for the continued postponement of the full public release of those records.”

Further background from the Congressional Research Service can be found in President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection: Toward Final Disclosure of Withheld Records in October 2017, CRS Insight, May 26, 2017.