Nuclear Weapons

A New Executive Order on Intelligence Activities

08.01.08 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Following a lengthy interagency review process, the White House yesterday unveiled its amendments to Executive Order 12333, the foundational document on “United States Intelligence Activities” that was originally issued by President Reagan in 1981.

The new executive order reflects institutional changes that have occurred in recent years. In particular, it reinforces the authority of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee, coordinate and direct the activities of the sixteen-member intelligence community.

The ACLU found reason to criticize the revised order, which it said weakened protections against domestic spying. Members of Congress objected because they said they were not adequately consulted. To me, the changes seemed unexpectedly minor and in some cases positive.

The new executive order affirms, for example, that “The United States Government has a solemn obligation… to protect fully the legal rights of all United States persons, including freedoms, civil liberties, and privacy rights guaranteed by Federal law.” Such a statement, in a presidential order that is intended to direct a rule-driven bureaucracy, is not nothing.

The old Reagan order did not even mention the words “civil liberties” or “privacy.” (Nor did it mention the term “covert action,” which the new order uses instead of the old euphemism “special activities.”)

To criticize (or praise) the provisions of the new executive order is to presume its status as a controlling document and a definitive source on intelligence policy. But a more troubling question is how much the order actually matters.

At a White House press briefing yesterday, one unnamed reporter [update 8/4/08: it was Pamela Hess of the Associated Press] asked: “What do you have to say to folks that say, essentially, it’s nice that you have this stuff in the executive order, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything when a President gets it into his mind that he needs or wants to do something that some people would find outside of those bounds?”

A “senior administration official” replied: “I think what we would say to that is that the executive order reaffirms the nation’s longstanding commitment to protecting civil liberties. It maintains all of the protections that are in place to do so. It requires that all procedures have to be approved by the Attorney General.”

But the question seems to be better than the answer, particularly since the Bush Administration’s so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program may have violated the terms of this very executive order on intelligence activities.

“The administration’s warrantless wiretapping program not only violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; it was inconsistent with several provisions of Executive Order 12333, the longstanding executive order governing electronic surveillance and other intelligence activities,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, who was briefed on the program as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Apparently, the administration believed its actions constituted a tacit amendment of that Executive Order. And who knows how many other Executive Orders have been secretly revoked or amended by the conduct of this Administration,” he said.

The new Feingold/Whitehouse bill described above that prohibits secret modifications or waivers of published executive orders would close this loophole. In so doing, it would also bolster the integrity and credibility of intelligence directives like Executive Order 12333.

See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons, and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987.. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

05.08.23 | 1 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Video Indicates that Lida Air Base Might Get Russian “Nuclear Sharing” Mission in Belarus

On 14 April 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence released a short video of a Su-25 pilot explaining his new role in delivering “special [nuclear] munitions” following his training in Russia. The features seen in the video, as well as several other open-source clues, suggest that Lida Air Base––located only 40 kilometers from the Lithuanian border and the […]

04.19.23 | 7 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Was There a U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accident At a Dutch Air Base? [no, it was training, see update below]

A photo in a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) student briefing from 2022 shows four people inspecting what appears to be a damaged B61 nuclear bomb.

04.03.23 | 7 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
STRATCOM Says China Has More ICBM Launchers Than The United States – We Have Questions

In early-February 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) had informed Congress that China now has more launchers for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) than the United States. The report is the latest in a serious of revelations over the past four years about China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the deepening […]

02.10.23 | 6 min read
read more