from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2014, Issue No. 58
September 10, 2014
Secrecy News Blog: http://fas.org/blogs/secrecy/
- NEW EXEMPTIONS FROM 50 YEAR DECLASSIFICATION APPROVED
- "INGENUITY" COULD NOT PREVENT ATOM BOMB ESPIONAGE
- COURT URGED TO REVIEW STATE SECRETS DOCS
- THE CONSTITUTION'S TAKE CARE CLAUSE, AND MORE FROM CRS
NEW EXEMPTIONS FROM 50 YEAR DECLASSIFICATION APPROVED
Most of the national security agencies in the executive branch have now been granted approval to exempt certain 50 year old classified information from automatic declassification.
The national security classification system normally requires declassification of classified documents as they become 25 years old, with several specified exemptions to allow continued classification up to 50 years.
Only "in extraordinary cases," says President Obama's 2009 executive order 13526, may agency heads propose to exempt information from declassification even when it is 50 years old. They must request and receive approval from the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP).
So it was somewhat disconcerting to see an updated Notice from the Information Security Oversight Office last week indicating that dozens of executive branch agencies have now been granted exemptions from declassification for 50 year old information, including all of the major national security agencies. The United States Mint was even granted an exemption for 75 year old classified information.
It appeared that the extraordinary had become quite ordinary.
But that initial impression is not correct, said John P. Fitzpatrick, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the national security classification system.
In the first place, the exemptions from declassification are limited to specific categories of information that the ISCAP was persuaded "would clearly and demonstrably cause damage to national security."
"Blanket exemptions were not approved," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
And proposed exemptions for particular categories of information were critically reviewed by the ISCAP members, he said. "They often required agencies to make specific changes to their proposed declassification guide before granting approval."
Because the ISCAP is a presidential body (of which he is the Executive Secretary), Mr. Fitzpatrick said he could not provide detailed information about its deliberative process. But he responded to several questions on the subject in general terms.
"During the evaluation of agency exemptions the ISCAP required that certain agencies significantly narrow their submissions," he said. "In some cases, the ISCAP required that an agency remove a requested exemption element."
Moreover, exemption from "automatic declassification" does not necessarily mean exemption from declassification altogether. Individual "records exempted from automatic declassification remain subject to mandatory declassification review," he noted.
Why does the U.S. Mint need an exemption from declassification for 75 year old information? Is it some sort of anti-counterfeiting issue? No, he said, that's not it.
The U.S. Mint declassification exemption, "which is perhaps the most [narrowly] targeted of all ISCAP-approved exemptions," applies solely to "security specifications from the U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, which was built in the late 1930s," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
"Think 'Goldfinger'," he said.
"INGENUITY" COULD NOT PREVENT ATOM BOMB ESPIONAGE
When the internal history of the Manhattan Project was written in 1944, officials still believed -- mistakenly -- that the atom bomb program had evaded the threat of foreign espionage.
"Espionage attempts were detected but it is felt that prompt action and intensified investigative activity in each case prevented the passing of any substantial amount of Project information," according to a previously overlooked page from the Manhattan District History that was declassified yesterday.
Although declassification of the official history was thought to have been completed in July of this year ("WWII Atom Bomb Project Had More Than 1,500 Leaks," Secrecy News, August 21), a single page had been inadvertently withheld from disclosure.
When its absence was pointed out to Department of Energy classification officials, they expeditiously retrieved the missing page (page 2.4 of Volume 14), declassified it and incorporated it in the published online document.
The newly disclosed page presents a flattering view of Manhattan Project counterintelligence efforts.
"The CIC [Counterintelligence Corps] Special Agents assigned to espionage cases became proficient in all phases of investigation technique. Many of them displayed skill and ingenuity unsurpassed by the most experienced investigators," the document said.
"Agents impersonated men of all occupations in order to obtain information that would enable them to evaluate a suspect properly. An agent worked as a hotel clerk for over two years while another became bell captain in the few months he worked as a bell hop. Agents have posed as electricians, painters, exterminators, contractors, gamblers, etc."
Yet their skill and ingenuity were inadequate to the task. It later became clear that the Manhattan Project had been effectively penetrated by a number of Soviet intelligence agents and sympathizers.
The Department of Energy's publication of the 36-volume Manhattan Project history itself required an extra measure of devotion. First, the tens of thousands of individual pages, many of them on second- or third-generation carbon paper, were painstakingly reviewed. The Public Interest Declassification Board noted with approval that "these records received a line by line declassification review, rather than being subjected to simple pass/fail determinations." Then, once that process was completed, each page had to be manually scanned for online publication by the Department of Energy.
Except for a few passages stubbornly redacted by the CIA, the whole document has now emerged from the purgatory of sealed government archives and is now available to anyone who cares to read it.
COURT URGED TO REVIEW STATE SECRETS DOCS
It is entirely proper for a court to conduct in camera review of documents and testimony that the government asserts are subject to the state secrets privilege, said the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the "no fly" list.
The Justice Department had argued that judicial review of privileged documents was "inappropriate" and asked Judge Anthony J. Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia to reconsider his order requiring such review. ("Gov't Resists Court Review of State Secrets," Secrecy News, August 27.)
But "the state secrets privilege... was never intended to provide the federal government with a blank check to usurp the rights of Americans in novel and profound ways," countered Gadeir Abbas, attorney for Gulet Mohamed, who is challenging the "no fly" procedure.
"This Court's August 6th Order [requiring in camera review of the contested documents] is an appropriate exercise of its authority to subject the federal government's limiting-principle-free assertion of the state secrets privilege to some scrutiny," Mr. Abbas wrote in his September 5 response.
A ruling from the Court is pending.
Whether the government's argument prevails or not, Mr. Abbas noted that the 2013 Watchlisting Guidance which the government sought to withhold has been published online by The Intercept.
Attorney General Holder "had asserted the state secrets privilege over this document, but because it is now publicly available, the Court can consider it in its entirety," he wrote.
THE CONSTITUTION'S TAKE CARE CLAUSE, AND MORE FROM CRS
The so-called Take Care Clause in the U.S. Constitution (requiring that the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed....") "would appear to stand for two, at times diametrically opposed propositions--one imposing a 'duty' upon the President and the other viewing the Clause as a source of Presidential 'power'," according to a new study from the Congressional Research Service.
See "The Take Care Clause and Executive Discretion in the Enforcement of Law," September 4, 2014:
Other recent CRS products obtained by Secrecy News include the following.
The Doctrine of Constitutional Avoidance: A Legal Overview, September 2, 2014:
Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, updated September 8, 2014:
Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy, updated September 8, 2014:
Asylum and Gang Violence: Legal Overview, September 5, 2014:
Defense Surplus Equipment Disposal, Including the Law Enforcement 1033 Program, updated September 5, 2014:
Aviation War Risk Insurance: Background and Options for Congress, September 5, 2014:
Medal of Honor: History and Issues, updated September 5, 2014:
Protection of Trade Secrets: Overview of Current Law and Legislation, September 5, 2014:
China's Leaders Quash Hong Kong's Hopes for Democratic Election Reforms, CRS Insights, September 5, 2014:
Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.
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