from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2004, Issue No. 67
July 19, 2004


In response to expanding government controls on a poorly defined category of unclassified information called "sensitive security information" (SSI), a new coalition of journalism advocacy organizations is calling upon government agencies to preserve public access to what it terms "critical oversight information" (COI).

"What is COI? It is, most simply, any information a citizen might use to judge whether his or her public servants are serving well," the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government wrote.

"It is information that speaks to the quality and integrity of their performance as policy makers, managers or employees of our seaports, airports and transit systems. It is budget information and details on revenue and spending. It is information about personnel and their qualifications, training and performance. It is information about the construction and maintenance of new public assets, including the myriad change orders that seem an inevitable feature of the government contract process. It is information about deals with carriers and suppliers and vendors and tenants. It is also information about public convenience and use of the public areas -- and about personal safety."

"Without restraint exercised by those given the authority to mark information as SSI, much that is COI could be withheld or withdrawn from public inspection."

The comments were submitted to the Transportation Security Agency and the Department of Transportation, which recently adopted new regulations that would expand the application of the "sensitive security information" marking.

"We are deeply concerned that unrestricted use of the Sensitive Security Information (SSI) designation -- a process with no review for efficacy or propriety -- will have a seriously adverse impact on traditional citizen and media oversight of the governance of our seaports, airports and transit systems," the Coalition stated.

The new Coalition includes member organizations such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Newspaper Association of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, and several other major media advocacy groups.

The text of the July 16 Coalition comments, written by Pete Weitzel, may be found here:


The history and operation of military tribunals in U.S. military law from the Revolutionary War to the present is elucidated in a major new report from the Congressional Research Service

See "Military Tribunals: Historical Patters and Lessons" by Louis Fisher, Congressional Research Service, July 9, 2004:


Some other recent Congressional Research Service reports on Middle East-related topics include:

"Palestinians and Middle East Peace: Issues for the United States," updated July 8, 2004:

"Israeli-United States Relations," updated July 9, 2004:

"Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance," updated July 12, 2004:

"Islam: Sunnis and Shiites," February 23, 2004:

"The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya," December 22, 2003:

And unrelated to the Middle East but just for good measure, "The Federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program: Funding Issues and Activities," updated July 1, 2004:

Online public access to Congressional Research Service reports like these is not authorized by the present congressional leadership.


Secrecy News missed some nuances and included some errors in the discussion last week of the simmering controversy over whether the name of the South Korean President should be written "Roh Moo-hyun," as the South Korean government prefers, or "No Mu-hyun," as the CIA World Fact Book would have it. (SN, 07/16/04).

Tom Emerson, a computational linguist specializing in Chinese, Korean, and Arabic natural language processing, helped set us straight.

"The pronunciation of the President's name sounds like 'Roh', so a _transcription_ of his name would use this, as it reflects the sounds heard," Mr. Emerson explained.

"However, if you transliterate the actual Korean letters used to write his surname, you will literally get 'No' in all extant transliteration systems, including the McCune-Reischauer [not 'Reischauser'] system" and half a dozen others.

"The CIA is using a transliteration of the native hankul spelling of the President's name, which is perfectly valid," Mr. Emerson said.

"The objections coming from the Koreans stem, I expect, from the fact that 'No' carries semantic baggage that is detrimental to the public image of their President."

"Interestingly enough," he added, "Roh's name is spelled differently in North Korea than it is in South Korea. If you take North Korea's spelling and transliterate into Latin you would have 'Lo'."

"You can imagine the complexities of dealing with names when searching for people on watch-lists and the like."


Another linguistic challenge for intelligence agencies arises from the distortions that are introduced by translation and then exacerbated further by retranslation into a third language or even back into the original source language.

Thus, a recent story from the Beijing daily newspaper Keji Ribao, translated into English by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), reports that "the latest generation of US military surveillance satellites" includes systems named "Wine Jug" and "Folding Chair."

But there are no such systems.

What happened here is that, as in a child's game of "telephone," the original content was altered in each translation and transmission until it became practically unrecognizable.

Allen Thomson, a former CIA analyst and specialist in national security space, was able to pierce the linguistic veil.

"Folding Chair," he explained, must be a reference to the satellite program"Jumpseat," as it is known in the open literature. Likewise, "Wine Jug" is a retranslation of the codename "Magnum."

It is clear from the context, though not to the FBIS translator, that allusions in the same article to the French surveillance spacecraft "Cherry" and "Zenong" actually refer to the CERISE and Xenon systems.

See the article "Reconnaissance Satellites Can Peek Into Your Privacy" by Hou Jing, originally published in Keji Ribao, May 26, 2004, and published in translation by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service last week:

Of further interest, the article states that China has "successfully launched 17 individual surveillance satellites."


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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