from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 52
June 15, 2009

Secrecy News Blog:


President Obama has still not appointed anyone to the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), Secrecy News has learned.

The PIAB has broad responsibility for conducting internal executive branch oversight of intelligence, and it is specifically charged with alerting the President to intelligence activities that may be unlawful or contrary to executive order or presidential directive. Although the PIAB rarely releases its findings to the public, it is positioned to play a potentially important role in the intelligence oversight process. Its actual performance seems to depend on the qualifications of Board members, which have sometimes been minimal, as well as the receptivity of an Administration to the oversight process.

Without any members, the PIAB is "kind of running on autopilot," said Homer Pointer, counsel to the Board. But he added that "day to day intelligence oversight marches on," particularly since the Director of National Intelligence and relevant department heads are required by executive order to report to the Board on a regular basis.

The Boston Globe reported last year that President Bush had "stripped the Board of much of its authority" ("President weakens espionage oversight" by Charlie Savage, March 14, 2008) but Mr. Pointer disputed that assessment.

News reports in January 2009 indicated that President-elect Obama had asked former DNI J. Michael McConnell to serve on the PIAB. But for whatever reason, a formal appointment of Mr. McConnell has not yet been made, Mr. Pointer said, nor have any other members of the Board been designated.

"We are hopeful that a new Board will be named soon," Mr. Pointer said.


Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) placed two "sensitive but unclassified" (SBU) State Department documents in the Congressional Record last week, illustrating the informal, non-binding character of this information control marking.

Rep. Wolf took to the House floor to express his views on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy organization that he said had unacceptable links to terrorist groups. CAIR ( has generally disputed such allegations.

But what is of interest here is Rep. Wolf's willingness to introduce two State Department cables that are specifically marked "sensitive" and "SBU" and to place them in the public record. Doing so might annoy the State Department and violate unofficial norms of confidentiality, but it breaks no law.

The problematic aspect of SBU and similar labels is that anyone can mark anything "sensitive" or "for official use only" for any reason. The system is completely unregulated. But the flip side is that records bearing such markings are not rigorously protected and in fact are often openly distributed.

As the government moves to replace all kinds of SBU markings with a more uniform "controlled unclassified information" (CUI) system, the expectation is that the standards for applying controls on sensitive but unclassified records will be more clearly articulated, limited and enforced. By the same token, however, the freewheeling disclosure of such records may grind to a halt. It's hard to know in advance if the benefits in terms of public access to government information will exceed the costs.


Gen. Stanley McChrystal was confirmed by the Senate last week to be the new commander of U.S. (and NATO) forces in Afghanistan, a role that he assumed today. But his nomination was opposed by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) who objected to the General's advancement on unspecified "classified" grounds.

"I oppose the nomination of LTG Stanley McChrystal to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan for two reasons," Senator Feingold said on June 11. "The first relates to a classified matter about which I have serious concerns. I have conveyed those concerns in a letter to the President."

The second reason cited by Sen. Feingold was McChrystal's embrace of interrogation techniques that went beyond those authorized in the Army Field Manual on the subject.


Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News include the following.

"Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Updated 'Safeguards' and Net Assessments," June 3, 2009:

"The Role of the Department of Defense During a Flu Pandemic," June 4, 2009:

"Congressional Oversight and Related Issues Concerning International Security Agreements Concluded by the United States," June 2, 2009:

"The President's Office of Science and Technology Policy: Issues for Congress," updated June 3, 2009:

"Landsat and the Data Continuity Mission," May 22, 2009:

"Geospatial Information and Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Current Issues and Future Challenges," June 8, 2009:


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

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