from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 64
July 27, 2009

Secrecy News Blog:


In 2005, the National Security Agency released a partially declassified 1952 history of communications intelligence prior to Pearl Harbor with several passages censored. But this month, the NSA released the complete text 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.


A new report from the Congressional Research Service examines the government's use of "grand challenges" or monetary prizes to provide incentives for technological advancement. In quite a few cases, such incentives have inspired or accelerated new technology breakthroughs -- in lightweight power supplies and autonomous unmanned vehicles, for example. In other cases, the proffered prizes have gone unclaimed because the challenge was not met, as in a recent competition to generate breathable oxygen from simulated lunar soil. In any case, it seems likely that the new CRS report is the best thing ever written on the subject. See "Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes," June 29, 2009:

Another new CRS report considers the mundane but significant fact that the US Postal Service may soon close thousands of post office branches and stations due to declining demand and volume. This exhaustive report, once again, is almost certainly the best, most informative treatment of its chosen subject. See "Post Office and Retail Postal Facility Closures: Overview and Issues for Congress," July 23, 2009:

Despite the efforts of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sen. John McCain and a few others, there appears to be little near-term prospect that Congress will permit direct public access to CRS reports like these. Fortunately, routine unauthorized disclosures of the reports continue to meet the need fairly well. See also, lately:

"Issues Regarding a National Land Parcel Database," July 22, 2009:

"Federal Research and Development Funding: FY2010," July 15, 2009:

"The U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition," July 8, 2009:

"Agricultural Conservation Issues in the 111th Congress," July 7, 2009:


Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has suggested that the time may have come to undertake a comprehensive review of U.S. intelligence agency activities and operations on the scale of the 1976 Church Committee investigation. See "Holt Calls for Next Church Committee on CIA" by Spencer Ackerman, The Washington Independent, July 27, 2009:

The corrosive tendency of government agencies to classify historical information that is already in the public domain is made vividly clear in a collection of erroneously redacted documents compiled by William Burr of the National Security Archive. See "More Dubious Secrets: Systematic Overclassification of Defense Information Poses Challenge for President Obama's Secrecy Review," July 17, 2009:

A 2008 intelligence community policy memorandum on "Connection of United States and Commonwealth Secure Telephone Systems," which was almost entirely redacted and withheld from disclosure, is posted here:

Some 700 classified images of Arctic sea ice have been declassified and released, the Department of Interior announced in a July 15 news release. "It reportedly is the largest release of [imagery] information derived from classified material since the declassification of CORONA satellite images during the Clinton Administration," the DOI said. The release followed a National Research Council report that said the release of such classified imagery was needed to support climate change research.

Persistent concerns over the government's use of the state secrets privilege to curtail civil litigation were aired at a June 9, 2009 hearing before Rep. Jerrold Nadler's House Judiciary Subcommittee. The record of that hearing, with abundant supporting materials submitted for the record, has just been published. See "State Secret Protection Act of 2009":


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

See also "Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works" by Steven Aftergood, Yale Law and Policy Review, vol. 27, no. 2, Spring 2009:

The Secrecy News blog is at:

To SUBSCRIBE to Secrecy News, go to:


OR email your request to [email protected]

Secrecy News is archived at:

SUPPORT the FAS Project on Government Secrecy with a donation here: