An attempt by the CIA-dominated Security Policy Board (SPB) to seize control of all secrecy policy is the latest obstacle to completion of the long-delayed executive order establishing a new classification system.
President Clinton called for a new classification system in his Presidential Review Directive 29, dated April 26, 1993. Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) director Steven Garfinkel acknowledged with some chagrin that nearly two years have passed since then, and yet the new order is still not finished.
"There is a remote possibility that we will celebrate [sic] the second anniversary without a new order, but we will not go much beyond that," Mr. Garfinkel said at a meeting at DOE headquarters on March 16. "No substantive issue remains to be decided. There is only a turf issue." Although he declined to elaborate, the turf issue in question is the SPB's attempt to take over the management of the classification system, a function that is currently exercised by ISOO.
The Security Policy Board was created last year by Presidential Decision Directive 29 to coordinate the nation's disparate security policies, which were widely perceived to be fragmented and incoherent.
But so far the SPB has been functioning like some wayward Eastern European bureaucracy, untainted by any hint of democratic principles or fair play. In a seeming violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the SPB has invited defense industry lobbyists to participate actively in its deliberations while preventing other members of the public any access whatsoever. This is poor strategy since it needlessly antagonizes concerned citizens whose interests may not precisely coincide with those of defense contractors.
The National Security Council is taking the position that the SPB is a CIA-based entity and therefore exempt from the normal legal provisions for fair and equal access by all interested parties. And indeed, six of the Board's eighteen staff members are CIA employees, including staff director Peter Saderholm, who has been a CIA imagery analyst, staff officer, and collection manager. The NSC position in effect places the CIA in charge of all security-related policies government-wide.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington public interest group, filed a lawsuit against the NSC in early March, seeking access to SPB documents. EPIC is particularly concerned about the SPB's declared intention to assume responsibility for security of unclassified computer information systems-- in apparent violation of the Computer Security Act of 1987, which assigned that responsibility to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
"This is a battle over the accountability and oversight of government computer policy," said EPIC director Marc Rotenberg. "These decisions must be made in the bright light of day."
The CIA says that a separate body called the Security Policy Advisory Board has been created specifically to represent "the non-governmental and public interest perspective." The appointees to that Advisory Board have not yet been named by the President. But the list of potential nominees that was sent to the White House did not include critics of government secrecy, civil libertarians or privacy activists. Instead, the SPB staff recommended that the public interest be represented by retired intelligence community officials and industry lobbyists.
The struggle over who will control the classification system is "a crisis for the security community," declared John Elliff, a senior Pentagon counterintelligence official who favors total SPB control of security policy. But it is also a crisis for concerned members of the general public. If the SPB gambit is successful, interested citizens could be effectively shut out of official security policy deliberations.
As part of its ongoing Openness Initiative, the Energy Department has undertaken what it said is the first comprehensive examination of its classification policies in nearly fifty years. The Fundamental Classification Review will take a year to reevaluate the basis for classification of defense-related nuclear information "with the objective of promptly releasing all information no longer warranting such protection."
The review group, chaired by Dr. Al Narath of Sandia National Labs, will be comprised of some fifty experts mainly from government and the national labs. Seven working groups will focus on information in the categories of weapons science, weapons design, materials production, weaponization, weapons production and military utilization, military reactors, and safeguards and security. A DOE fact sheet on the initiative is available from S&GB.
At the first meeting of the review group on March 16, the need for a fundamental classification review was roundly endorsed by invited speakers from several public policy, nonproliferation, and environmental advocacy groups as well as government officials and prominent scientific figures.
Edward Teller called the DOE Openness Initiative "the most successful undertaking of the present Administration."
Dr. Teller, who for decades has taken an extreme position against secrecy, generally urged the review group to adopt a very short duration for classification. "I think there should be a time limit of five years. Maybe of two years. In principle, what is known today will be accessible to practically everybody who goes after it in a short time. And by stretching the time limit, we only give ourselves an unrealistic view of the actual situation. So my suggestion to you is to consider, even in the dangerous areas of weapons, a short time period."
He did allow that some weapon design details should remain classified. "I am worried about design information when it goes into that kind of detail which I will need at least seven weeks to understand. But what is not hard to explain is not worth keeping secret."
Dr. Teller specifically urged "complete openness" concerning U.S. plutonium and tritium stockpiles, as well as the current size of the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons. ("I can tell you openly, we have more than we need," he said.)
Dr. Wolfgang Panofsky, who chairs the long-delayed National Academy of Sciences study on DOE classification policy (now expected in May), expressed his opinion that "very high fences should remain around truly important sensitive subjects, but that classification and dissemination restrictions on a large volume of less sensitive material should be removed entirely."
Dr. Panofsky also suggested that "DOE does not know very well how big their job really is." He noted that last year's estimate of a backlog of 32 million pages awaiting declassification review has recently been revised upward to 130 million pages.
Congressional oversight of covert action has failed to screen out programs that are "unwise" and inappropriate, says a former CIA official. The failure of existing covert action oversight mechanisms dictates that an "external" non-governmental review process should be established, according to David Gries, who retired from the CIA in 1994 after 33 years in intelligence operations and analysis.
Mr. Gries presented his views in an article entitled "A New Look for Intelligence" in the British academic journal Intelligence and National Security, vol. 10, no. 1, January 1995, pp. 170-183.
"Since the late 1970s, the [intelligence] community has employed elaborate internal review procedures for covert actions requested by policy-makers, and the National Security Council and Congressional intelligence committees have required equally rigorous reviews," Mr. Gries noted. Nevertheless, "Despite these measures, a small number of unwise and unworkable covert action plans continue to gain intelligence community support as well as presidential and Congressional approval. These lapses argue strongly for external review."
Mr. Gries asserted that spending on covert action has been reduced to less than one percent of the intelligence community's budget. Still, "To assure that the remaining covert actions are truly needed and do not violate basic American values, the intelligence community-- or at least CIA, which is responsible for conducting covert action at the direction of the President-- should consider seeking advice from experts outside government before asking the President and Congress to authorize and fund new operations."
Although Mr. Gries did not specify which covert actions he believes should have been blocked by Congress, it is difficult to doubt the basic validity of his criticism, particularly since he is not a "dissident" seeking absolution for his sinful past.
On the other hand, it is easy to question the value of his proposed solution. Even if another "advisory committee" were set up, neither the intelligence community nor Congress would be likely to tolerate meaningful external review on an ongoing basis.
In any event, few alert Americans look to Congress anymore for serious intelligence oversight, due to its failure to end unnecessary budget secrecy, as well as its handling of the NRO building fiasco and other delinquencies. For better or worse, the most important intelligence oversight is now being done by a small corps of investigative journalists and national security reporters, notably at the New York Times and the Washington Post. In an implicit confirmation of their growing impact, Acting CIA Director Studeman has recently written letters to the editor at both the Times (3/4/95) and the Post (3/17/95), taking exception to some recent news reports.
The secrecy surrounding spy satellite programs is preventing an accurate official assessment of their vulnerability and hindering the adoption of needed structural reforms, according to a newly published study.
"The organizations and practices which grew up around national security space systems during the Cold War are now a serious impediment to analyzing and meeting the challenges which will face us in the coming years and decades," writes Allen Thomson in "Satellite Vulnerability: A Post-Cold War Issue?" published in the journal Space Policy, vol. 11, no. 1, February 1995. The author served as a CIA analyst from 1972 to 1985.
Mr. Thomson writes that excessive secrecy in the spysat field has become a "full-blown organizational dysfunction," preventing a full understanding by policymakers of the growing vulnerability of spy satellites and the options for restructuring the overhead reconnaissance program. This secrecy needs to be substantially reduced, he argues.
"At a minimum," Thomson writes, "the special `security' channels and compartments associated with overhead reconnaissance should be reexamined, the principal missions and characteristics of reconnaissance satellites declassified, and planning for future systems opened to general discussion and critique, much as is the case for other weapons systems."
The paper Mr. Thomson wrote was reviewed and approved for publication by the CIA, as required. However, the National Reconnaissance Office attempted to block release of the paper, delaying its publication for more than a year.
* A March 2 draft of the pending executive order on Access to Classified Information (security clearances) is a marked improvement over earlier drafts generated by the secretive Security Policy Board (S&GB 45). For the first time, the order would grant government employees whose clearance is denied or revoked an opportunity to appear personally before an adjudicative panel, along with other modest improvements in due process. Available from S&GB for $2.
* A report prepared for the DOE Office of Counterintelligence takes a close look at the difficulties of protecting economically valuable information from foreign collection at government laboratories. "A Vulnerability Assessment: Protecting Key Technologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory" (November 1994) contains some interesting case studies and thoughtful analysis. "The openness of investigation in the United States may be the key to development of many fertile areas. Other countries that shepherd their research and protect it may hamper its ultimate development. No wonder so many countries turn to the United States for ideas to turn into products!" On the other hand, "The Internet, which is accessible worldwide, is starting to be a major vulnerability." And, says the counterintelligence report, "A lot of good science is at risk from FOIA." A copy of the unreleased report (marked "official use only") is available from S&GB for $5. US citizens only.