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Issue Number 50
July 1995

House Committee Attacks Declassification

In a breathtaking assault on President Clinton's efforts to open up the secret history of the cold war era, the House Intelligence Committee has moved to restrict funding for the declassification of documents that are more than 25 years old.

The House version of the 1996 Intelligence Authorization Act would prohibit each intelligence agency from spending more than $2.5 million to declassify old intelligence documents. And the permitted spending is supposed to be used "to assess the scope and cost of the declassification program." (H. Rep. 104-138, pt.1).

"The Committee believes that the potential costs associated with the declassification programs required by executive order 12958 have not been fully evaluated," the House report stated.

Belying its supposed concern about controlling costs, however, the Committee did not place any limits at all on classification activity, even though it is vastly more expensive than declassification, consuming perhaps $10 billion per year government-wide. Overall, the Committee authorized 5% more spending for the National Foreign Intelligence Program than was appropriated last year, and 1.3% more in total intelligence spending than the President requested.

The Committee also directed that a specific line item for declassification be included in future budget submissions, rendering future declassification efforts vulnerable to further targeted cutbacks.

The Committee attack on declassification was precipitated by a mischievous suggestion from then-DCI James Woolsey that complying with the President's declassification order could cost $500 million over 5 years.

This inflated figure assumed page by page review (not automatic declassification) at a rate 15 times longer per page than needed by reviewers at the National Archives, according to one official. In a June 9 memorandum to the Moynihan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Steven Garfinkel of the Information Security Oversight Office described the CIA estimate as "a preliminary, unofficial and non-scientific survey" resulting in an overestimate of costs.

But the House Committee, which opposes public disclosure of nearly anything concerning intelligence, seized upon the CIA estimate as a pretext to restrict declassification activity. Instead of serving as an instrument of public accountability, the Committee has now become an obstacle to it. One might easily conclude that openness and accountability would be enhanced if it did not exist.

The only good news here is that the Committee seems to have misunderstood the terms of the President's executive order, which requires automatic declassification over a five year period "whether or not the records have been reviewed." Congressional opponents of openness can reduce or eliminate funding for declassification review, but declassification remains the prerogative of the President.

A copy of House Report 104-138, part 1, may be requested from the House Document Room at 202-225-3456.

Air Force Classifies and Ex-Employee Dies

In the latest of a series of dubious legal maneuvers, the Air Force has retroactively classified a widely-circulated manual describing security procedures at the unacknowledged military facility near Groom Lake, Nevada.

The action came in the course of a precedent-setting lawsuit against the Air Force alleging environmental crimes at the site. The ongoing lawsuit was filed by Prof. Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, in cooperation with the Project on Government Oversight, on behalf of six anonymous plaintiffs, one of whom died last month of illnesses he attributed to his employment at the Groom facility.

Classification policy has figured prominently in the lawsuit, with the government warning of "exceptionally grave damage to national security" if even the most trivial detail about the site- - such as its official name-- were to be acknowledged. (See "Suddenly, Your Briefcase is Classified," by Benjamin Wittes, Legal Times, 6/26/95, which also includes a fine photo of the secret base credited to Agent X.)

Instead of addressing the pattern of illnesses suffered by the plaintiffs, who are former employees at the site, and either settling or disproving their claims, the government has opted to play legal games using classification as a litigation tactic.

Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall said that disclosing the name of the site or the fact that jet fuel or similar materials are on location "increases the risk to the lives of United States personnel and decreases the probability of successful mission accomplishments." (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 5/5/95).

But the Air Force's laudable concern with hypothetical dangers to life apparently does not extend to the actual dangers alleged by the plaintiffs, two of whom have now died from what they claimed were work-related exposures to toxic materials.

In the lawsuit, Professor Turley submitted a copy of the Air Force security manual from the facility as evidence that much of what the government claimed was classified was actually unclassified (albeit for official use only) and in the public domain. After the government classified the manual (and Turley's pleading) in response, the manual was promptly posted on the Internet by Glenn Campbell of the Area 51 Research Center.

The manual itself, which contains considerable information about the facility structure and security procedures, does not have great public interest value. But its widespread dissemination is significant as a resounding vote of no confidence in government classification policies.

Secrecy Continued to Expand in 1994

The expansion of the government secrecy system continued in 1994 but at a substantially slower rate than in past years, according to the latest annual report of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).

The total number of classification "actions" dropped by 26% to 4.7 million, the lowest ever reported by ISOO in its 15 annual reports. (Each "action" represents the classification of a unit of information, whether it is a single word or a thousand page report.)

At the same time, ISOO says, "1994 was a banner year for declassification" with some 11.2 million pages declassified, an increase of 70% from the previous year. (The November 1994 bulk declassification of 44 million pages is not included in the total for fiscal year 1994 which ended September 30.)

Despite these significant changes, however, the secrecy system continued to expand. This fact is obscured in the report, which measures classification in "actions" and declassification in "pages." But ISOO Director Steven Garfinkel confirmed that classification continued to outpace declassification.

The exploding inventory of secret government documents was bemoaned by the new Archivist of the United States, John W. Carlin, at an impressive appearance before the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy on June 20.

Mr. Carlin noted that the backlog of 25 year old documents awaiting review at the National Archives had nearly quadrupled from 126 million pages ten years ago to 450 million pages today.

"Unless the new executive order [requiring automatic declassification of most 25 year old documents] is successful, the situation will only get worse," Carlin said. "Not only do we have a serious problem today, it is accelerating."

Mr. Carlin explained to the Commissioners that bulk declassification of old documents can be performed very inexpensively. He noted that when the President ordered the declassification of some 44 million pages of World War II and other records last November, the cost of implementing the order was a mere $386 per million pages declassified.

A copy of the 1994 ISOO Annual Report, which contains the text of several recent executive orders on classification and other useful data, may be requested from the Information Security Oversight Office, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington, DC 20408.

President "Distressed" by Leaks

As the credibility of the classification system continues to erode, President Clinton condemned the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and warned that leakers could be subject to criminal prosecution.

"I have been extremely distressed by several recent, deliberate and unauthorized disclosures of highly sensitive, national security information. Such disclosures cannot and will not be treated as innocent 'leaks' of Government information. They compromise serious national security secrets and put at risk lives and vital U.S. interests. Such disclosures also violate U.S. law, and will be referred to the Department of Justice for investigation, as appropriate, and prosecution," the President wrote in a May 2 memorandum to Cabinet Secretaries.

The memorandum was first reported in the Washington Times (6/5/95, p. A4) which also reported the existence of two intelligence community components that track leaks. The Unauthorized Disclosure Analysis Committee "has analysts who read newspapers looking for classified information and try to determine its source.... The committee also maintains a database of reporters' names and the number of leaks attributed to them," the Times said.

A copy of the memorandum, which was obtained from an official who asked not to be identified, may be found at the FAS Website.

Lukewarm Documents

The following documents are available at the secrecy or intelligence reform homepages at the FAS Website.

  • "Security Policy Board Goals and Accomplishments," May 19, 1995, 12 pp. of viewgraphs. This briefing package presents a rosy self-portrait of the secretive interagency Security Policy Board, which has in fact accomplished one or two useful things. Some of the representations in the document are questionable, however, such as the 1995 goal to "foster and facilitate a national dialogue on information systems security vulnerabilities that encompasses both classified and sensitive but unclassified systems." In reality, the Board has tended to suppress any such dialogue by rebuffing press inquiries and closing its meetings to members of the public (except for defense contractor lobbyists). Otherwise, the Board's primary contribution on this topic has been an impressive volume of unauthorized disclosures. The briefing also does not mention that the Board is in violation of the spirit and probably the letter of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) which requires open meetings. The Board cannot claim the FACA exemption for groups that are established by the CIA, according to a Justice Department attorney, because it was established by Presidential directive.

  • "Classification Management Committee Charter," May 9, 1995 (draft). This new committee was established by the Security Policy Board "to coordinate, formulate and evaluate the US government's classification management policy," etc. Having failed to usurp ISOO's responsibility for classification management under the new executive order, the Security Policy Board did the next best thing and appointed the ISOO Director to be chairman of its classification management committee, thereby subjecting ISOO to the Board's authority. Someone's been reading Machiavelli.

  • "Guidance for Agency Development of Automatic Declassification Plans," ISOO, June 8 (draft). This is a draft for comment describing agency responsibilities for implementing the automatic declassification requirements of the new executive order.

  • "Security and Safeguards Estimates," Security Policy Board, 21 April 1995. This document outlines the many different categories of security activities and provides a framework for reporting secrecy and security related costs. It is supposed to be used as a template in fiscal year 1997 budget documents.

  • Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community, "Scope of the Commission's Inquiry," 6 June 1995, 27 pages. This is the "work plan" for the Commission that was headed by the late Les Aspin. It consists of lots of broad, open-ended questions with passing reference to the need for improved oversight, openness and accountability.
    Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a 50 year old public interest organization of natural and social scientists concerned with issues of science and society. The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the HKH Foundation and the CS Fund. This publication may be freely reproduced.

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