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Issue Number 55
January 1996


In a few extraordinary cases, covert action has played a positive and constructive role in U.S. policy. Support for Solidarity in Cold War Poland and the rescue of Chinese dissidents following the Tienanmen Square massacre come to mind.

But the covert action program against Iran-- recently bolstered by Congressional authorization of an unrequested $20 million-- may be a milestone in the history of U.S. intelligence policy because it is such a terrible idea from every point of view. Specifically:

  • It is a contradiction in terms. By definition, covert actions are supposed to be conducted in such a way "that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." But the Iran initiative has already been widely reported across the globe and has given Iran a rare propaganda victory. Instead of achieving "plausible deniability," the U.S. has created a situation where every attack on the Iranian government is plausibly attributable to covert U.S. intervention!

    It undermines the rule of law. All covert actions potentially or actually violate nominal international standards of behavior. But the highly publicized Iran program explicitly contradicts U.S. obligations to the United Nations Charter and the 1981 Algiers Declaration agreed to by Washington and Teheran. This is a reckless path. As a Teheran radio commentary put it, "If measures such as those adopted by America against Iran were to turn into conventions dominating international relations, then no country will be immune from its harm.... Is the world moving toward a kind of anarchy?"

  • It legitimizes subversion and invites retaliation. As an overt covert action, the Iran initiative practically demands a response. "Islamic Iran cannot remain indifferent to all this and sit back idly, hoping that America will abandon its crimes and terrorist acts through guidance, advice, and warnings," an Iranian editorial stated. Although the Washington Post (12/22/95) reported that the U.S. program is aimed at "moderating," not overthrowing the Iranian regime, this distinction is lost on the Iranian government itself. In an initial response, Iran has allocated 25 million rials "in order to defuse and uncover U.S. plots," lodged a complaint with the United Nations, and withdrawn the Iranian entry for the Oscar for best foreign film. More ominously, the Iranian News Agency declared that "Washington better remember that there are many volunteer groups in the world willing to put U.S. interests throughout the world in jeopardy." And fundamentally, frontal assaults by the U.S. on the legitimacy of the Iranian government may help to explain why Iran feels it needs a nuclear weapons program.

  • It is gratuitous. The U.S. is already placing enormous (though not notably effective) political pressure on the Iranian regime through its unyielding trade embargo, announced by the President on April 30, 1995, and through pending sanctions against foreign companies that invest in the Iranian oil industry. "In the two weeks following the embargo's announcement, the Iranian rial fell to its lowest level against the dollar since the revolution," notes the Canadian Security Intelligence Service publication Commentary (Nov. 1995). A few million dollars worth of covert threats politically and morally weakens the U.S. position without increasing its leverage over Iran.

  • It has no satisfactory resolution. The U.S. program is big enough to wreak a certain degree of havoc, but insufficient to fundamentally alter official Iranian behavior, particularly given that the far more ambitious overt forms of pressure have failed to make much of an impact. Moreover, there is no obvious successor or alternative to the Iranian government, which faces no serious domestic opposition. The most probable outcome of a massive U.S. destabilization program would be some form of military dictatorship, which is hardly a desirable outcome, even if it were achievable.

    In short, the intensified Congressional covert action against Iran is unlikely to achieve any legitimate objective, and it is already generating negative consequences for the U.S., with worse perhaps yet to come. Because it has been so widely reported, the President should publicly and explicitly renounce the Iran covert action program. If this is politically or psychologically impossible, that would be another compelling reason to prohibit covert action altogether.


    Within a few weeks after President Clinton's executive order 12958 on national security information took effect last October, nearly a million pages of 25 year old documents were declassified... by the Department of Transportation. Although most other agencies have not been as diligent, there has been some measurable progress to report in the implementation of the new order.

    In the first three months of the current fiscal year, the National Archives alone efficiently declassified 16 million pages under the executive order, according to Assistant Archivist Michael Kurtz. That is more than was declassified by the entire government in any single year between 1982 and 1994, and puts the Archives well on the way to achieving the required declassification of 15% of its 25 year old records by next October.

    Other agencies have been less forthcoming. The initial Air Force declassification plan estimated that there are 176 million pages of 25 year old classified Air Force documents and claimed that 175 million of them contain information that may be exempt from declassification. The Navy said it has more than 500 million pages and warned that "calculated at $1.00 per page," declassification review could cost more than $500 million. (By practicing selective bulk declassification, the Archives has lowered its costs to about 3 cents per page declassified in recent months.)

    Resources for the declassification process are an issue in many agencies, even though funding for classification is practically unconstrained. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has ordered an internal reprogramming of funds in order to achieve Energy's 15% declassification target for 1996 and to respond to Congressional concern about the asserted problem of nuclear weapons information in other agencies' records [S&GB 54]. But for unknown reasons, Secretary O'Leary's directions have not been implemented by her staff.

    The Defense Department to its credit has established an Historical Records Declassification Advisory Panel, at the request of a group of eminent historians, to advise and oversee the declassification process. The Panel, whose scope and influence remain to be determined, will hold its first public meeting February 1 at the National Archives.


    "The Internet is clearly a significant long term strategic threat to authoritarian regimes, one that they will be unable to counter effectively," writes Charles Swett of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict in a July 1995 internal paper entitled "Strategic Assessment: The Internet."

    "The Internet will play an increasingly significant role in international conflict" and is "a potentially lucrative source of intelligence useful to DoD," observes Mr. Swett. In addition to its utility for collection of intelligence and counterintelligence data, "The U.S. might be able to employ the Internet offensively to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives," including psychological operations and covert action.

    Among other recommendations, Mr. Swett advises that intelligence analysts should routinely monitor Internet newsgroups related to their responsibilities. This is already taking place to some degree, and the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service has recently started reprinting items from newsgroups such as soc.culture.tamil and others.

    Mr. Swett emphasizes that the views expressed in his paper are personal opinions and not necessarily DoD policy. Moreover, he stresses that his recommendations "should be carried out only in full compliance with the letter and the spirit of the law, and without violating the privacy of American citizens."

    A copy of "Strategic Assessment: The Internet" is available from S&GB for $5 or online at http://www.fas.org/cp/swett.html. The FAS website, incidentally, and the government secrecy homepage in particular have both been rated among the top 5% of all sites on the Internet by Point Communications .


    In a dramatic display of global media might, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman unilaterally broke an Israeli media taboo and revealed the name of the outgoing head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli General Security Service (1/11/96, p. A24).

    Israeli censorship rules, comprised of 41 broad categories of information that are supposed to be submitted to the government censor prior to publication, prohibited publication of the Shin Bet chief's name-- Carmi Gilon-- but once it had been published abroad, the prohibition was nullified. (Further investigative reporting has revealed that Mr. Gilon smokes Marlboros and likes Chinese food.)

    Concealment of Mr. Gilon's name under the initial "Kaf" was widely ridiculed within Israel, particularly since his name was already public knowledge among many Israelis, Palestinians, and hoodlums of various political persuasions. The Post's disclosure, which enabled publication of Mr. Gilon's name and photograph in the Israeli press, was almost universally applauded in Israel as a necessary first step towards improved oversight of Israeli security services.

    But one respected columnist, Amir Oren of Ha'aretz (1/19/96), suggested that the Washington Post was hypocritical. He cited a recent article by the Post's Walter Pincus which clearly identified the CIA station chief in Paris down to the facial wound he suffered during service in Africa, but stopped short of mentioning his name because it is classified by law. "All of a sudden the Washington Post obeys the classification laws!" snapped Mr. Oren.

    In any case, he wrote, "Just as American law does not prohibit Gellman from revealing the name of the head of the Israeli Shin Bet, Israeli law does not prohibit publication of the name of the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv."

    Therefore, mimicking Mr. Gellman's published conversation with an Israeli telephone operator about Carmi Gilon's phone number, Mr. Oren transcribed his own conversation with an operator at the American Embassy who unwittingly revealed the name of the CIA station chief. "Half a minute on the telephone-- and the information is available to anyone who wants it."

    Mr. Oren refrained from disclosing the name of the CIA station chief but inferred from it that he is a Jew. In an earlier column (1/12/96) Mr. Oren noted quizzically that both the (former) head of Russian intelligence Yevgeni Primakov and the Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch have a Jewish father- - "although not the same one."

    The multifarious constraints on freedom of the press in Israel, including official secrecy, are explored in a masterful new book by Moshe Negbi entitled Chofesh Ha'itonut B'yisrael [Freedom of the Press in Israel] published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Moshe Negbi writes an influential, not entirely predictable column on law and civil liberties in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv.

    In 1996, Israel may adopt a freedom of information law and thereby join the handful of advanced democracies that recognize a legally enforceable public right to government information. Public support for the new law has been led by the Coalition for Freedom of Information (c/o Shatil, P.O. Box 53395, Jerusalem 91533, Israel) which has done an exemplary job of analysis and advocacy.


  • The Baltimore Sun published an unusually informative six-part series about the National Security Agency by Tom Bowman and Scott Shane beginning on December 3. Descriptive information is available at (http://www.sunstore.com/sunsource/nsag1.htm) and a reprint of the entire series may be ordered for the bargain price of $3.95 by calling (410)332-6962.

  • Russian classification policies have recently been revamped with the issuance of Presidential Edict No. 1203 Approving the List of Information Classified as State Secrets, signed by President Yeltsin on November 30, 1995. A copy of the Edict and a recent Department of Energy memorandum describing current Russian classification policies are available through the FAS secrecy homepage.

    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.

    For further information contact Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists, 307 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, tel. (202)675-1012, or send email to saftergood@igc. apc.org.

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