ISCAP Directs NSA to Release COMINT History

07.27.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In 2005, the National Security Agency released a partially declassified (pdf) 1952 history of communications intelligence prior to Pearl Harbor with several passages censored.  But this month, the NSA released the complete text (pdf) of the document after the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) determined that there was no justification for continued classification of the withheld portions.

During World War II, “Collaboration with the BRITISH COMINT organization got off to a bad start so far as the Navy was concerned…,” according to one newly declassified paragraph from the official history. “For several months U.S. Navy COMINT personnel thought they had been double-crossed by the British and were reluctant to go ahead with collaboration in direction finding and other matters which were greatly to England’s advantage throughout 1941.”  Subsequent cooperation, however, proved “harmonious.”  Now it can be told.

The NSA document was released in response to a mandatory declassification review request, followed by an appeal to ISCAP, submitted by researcher Michael Ravnitzky.  See “A Brief History of Communications Intelligence in the United States” by Captain Lawrence Safford, USN, 21-27 March 1952.

The new disclosure illustrates once again the efficacy of the ISCAP in overcoming the reflexive secrecy of executive branch agencies, including those that are represented on the ISCAP itself.  More often than not, the ISCAP has released information that one of its own member agencies said must remain classified.

Fundamentally, the ISCAP’s experience over the past decade or so demonstrates the importance of extending declassification authority beyond the original classifying agency.  Left to their own devices, agencies will adhere to past classification practices indefinitely.  But when such practices are critically examined by others, including others within the executive branch, they often wither before the scrutiny.

If there is a solution to “the problem of overclassification,” as requested by President Obama in a May 27, 2009 memorandum, it is bound to involve this kind of independent, external review of agency classification and declassification practices.