A wealth of emerging public information resources may soon render many government controls on information obsolete or irrelevant. Information systems that were once the sole possession of the intelligence community are becoming accessible to the public, with the potential to transform relations between the citizenry and the government, and to significantly enhance non-governmental public interest activities.
The revolution in access to intelligence-type resources is perhaps most evident in the field of satellite imagery.
In a dramatic development that could come to pass as early as the end of 1997, "publicly available imagery intelligence capabilities will surpass those that were available to the U.S. intelligence community in the first decades of the Cold War," observed John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. Mr. Pike has prepared an on-line introduction to public intelligence resources and applications under the rubric "Public Eye" that is available at http://www.fas.org/eye/.
"Publicly available commercial images will have resolutions better than one meter, and will be available within a few hours after they are acquired. The U.S. intelligence community did not obtain such high resolution systems until the advent of the KH-7 satellites in 1966, and near-real time capabilities were not realized until the launch of the first KH-11 in 1976," said Mr. Pike.
"The availability of such imaging intelligence will provide non-governmental organizations with an unprecedented ability to present compelling and credible evidence to assist in the interpretation of current events," he noted.
For example, U.S. intelligence has been criticized for being laggard in reporting evidence of Serb atrocities in Bosnia. (See, e.g., "Bosnia: What the CIA Didn't Tell Us," New York Review of Books, May 9, 1996).
But in the near future, public dependence on official collection priorities and disclosure policies will be radically reduced, to the benefit of the public interest. Thus, said Mr. Pike, "If a human rights organization had been in a position to obtain and publicize images of the Bosnian killing fields, governments would have been forced to act in a more timely fashion, perhaps saving many lives."
High resolution commercial images will not be cheap, and will require a certain skill in their interpretation. But access to such imagery will have countless public interest applications for independent monitoring of military conflicts, human rights violations, relief operations, environmental crises, arms control violations, and so on. Moreover, aside from commercial imagery, impressive new resources in open source intelligence and even signals intelligence are becoming publicly available, as described on the "Public Eye" website.
The same qualities of precision and timeliness that make imagery such a powerful tool for the public interest sector will also create novel security concerns and aggravate foreign sensitivities. Recently, the Government of Israel complained about the release of thirty year old CORONA spy satellite imagery, which was declassified last year, because it includes 133 medium resolution shots of Dimona, the site of an Israeli nuclear facility (Ha'aretz, 6/6/96, p. B4). Israel urged the U.S. to prevent the release of newer, higher resolution images of its territory.
For fifty years, the U.S. secrecy system concealed evidence of extortion by Nazi Germany throughout occupied Europe and suppressed documentation of stolen funds that were deposited in Swiss banks. Classification also hid bank account records that would have enabled Holocaust survivors or their heirs to claim assets that have laid dormant and inaccessible in Swiss banks since World War II.
"We have in our possession recently declassified documents that shed new light on this issue," said Senator Alfonse D'Amato, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which held hearings on the subject on April 23. The documents were generated in Operation Safe Haven, a U.S. government activity conducted after the War to search for Nazi assets. "One of these documents, dated July 12, 1945, shows 182 accounts totalling $2 million. Adjusted for inflation, these accounts today would be worth in the area of $20 million."
Senator D'Amato cited another recently declassified 1942 document that detailed the transfer of gold thought to have been looted from Nazi-occupied countries in Europe. "This is just one transfer, and it involves 21 tons of German gold. We've got I don't know how many crates of these [newly declassified] documents that we are just beginning to go through."
Yet another declassified intelligence document uncovered by Senator D'Amato describes a Swiss account specifically set up to hold the plundered assets of European Jews. (Congressional Record, 6/5/96, p. S5791).
The good news is that the belated declassification of these documents may finally allow the recovery of millions of dollars of private assets from Swiss banks, which for decades have refused to acknowledge claims on the money, or even the existence of any such funds.
"The release of secret U.S. documents made pressure on the Swiss intolerable," according to The Jerusalem Report (5/30/96), and led to the recent establishment of an independent commission to investigate the status of Holocaust-era deposits in Switzerland.
The bad news is that U.S. secrecy policy, by maintaining the classification of these documents for fifty years with no valid justification, has drastically diminished the possibility of rectifying an old injustice.
"The reason that it has taken fifty years for any action to take place on this is that files which were classified secret have suddenly become opened," said Edgar M. Bronfman, President of the World Jewish Congress. "Unfortunately, the survivors don't have all that much time left to them."
The U.S. House of Representatives voted May 22 to reduce spending for declassification of 25 year old intelligence documents by more than fifty per cent next year, at the same time that it authorized a billion dollar increase in the intelligence budget.
The House Intelligence Committee had previously cut funding for declassification in its markup of the 1997 intelligence authorization bill, imposing a ceiling of $25 million for the entire intelligence community to implement the declassification provisions of executive order 12958. This is the same amount as for 1996, though less than was requested for 1997. (House Report 104-578, part 1).
But when the bill came to the House floor, Rep. Curt Weldon proposed an amendment to cut the declassification budget by an additional 50% in order to increase funding for an environmental program that had also been cut by the House Committee. The amendment was approved, leaving only $12.5 million for all dozen intelligence agencies to carry out declassification requirements. (Congressional Record, 5/22/96, p. H5398).
The assault on declassification was just one of a series of House actions that illustrate the dominant influence in Congress of intelligence agencies and contractors and, conversely, the negligible impact of larger public interest considerations.
While slashing funds for declassification, the House found it possible to increase the total authorization for intelligence by 6.5 percent, or more than a billion dollars, over this year's budget. A week after Defense Week reported that the National Reconnaissance Office had accumulated nearly $4 billion in unspent money, the House soundly rejected an amendment by Rep. Pat Schroeder to freeze the NRO budget at current levels-- the majority felt that the NRO needed an even larger budget next year. The House also added broad new language that would exempt unclassified information about NRO and DIA "organization" and "function" from the Freedom of Information Act, noted James X. Dempsey of the Center for National Security Studies in a June 14 memo.
And of course, the House voted down an amendment to require declassification of the total intelligence budget.
Even though proponents of budget secrecy solemnly invoked the demands of national security, "Everyone understands that intelligence budget disclosure is not a national security issue," one legislative branch official told S&GB. "It's a turf issue." Specifically, he asserted, an unclassified intelligence budget could be subject to a separate rule by the Budget Committee, thereby limiting the authority of the Intelligence Committee. This hypothesis, however, does not explain why Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich also voted against budget disclosure.
Irrespective of Congressional hostility, the declassification program is in considerable disarray. The funding made available for intelligence declassification in 1996 "has largely been spent for infrastructure," rather than actual declassification, according to the House Intelligence Committee. "The CIA, NSA, DIA and NRO have all created offices and staffs to support this program [declassification]."
The CIA has focused its efforts on the creation of a "redaction factory," in which documents to be declassified would be scanned into electronic form and processed on-line for release.
But "The CIA's initiative to begin work on the declassification of 40 million sensitive documents is behind schedule," the Committee noted. "A software program, on which the CIA had rested its hopes for automating declassification, is not adaptable to its needs. The CIA must therefore start from scratch, and is only now beginning pilot testing of a new software program."
It is also unclear whether the output of the automated redaction process would have the status of a "primary source," or whether it would be viewed by scholars as a fabrication whose reliability would need to be confirmed against the original document.
Many agencies throughout the government appear to be in violation of the letter or spirit of the declassification provisions of executive order 12859, claiming that up to 100% of their 25 year old records are exempt from automatic declassification.
The Army, for example, "is sitting on its hands," according to one official observer. "They're waiting for someone to give them half a billion dollars before they will start declassifying." The Navy is doing only marginally better. Air Force officials, however, "are reviewing lots of their Top Secret documents for declassification. I would give them an A," the observer said.
In contrast to that largely grim picture, the National Archives, with a mere $2 million annual budget for declassification and a positive attitude, has already declassified an impressive 60 million pages so far this year.
Over the past year, the Washington Times has published more classified information than you can shake a stick at, making the newspaper required reading for students of national security. On May 14, for example, the Times reprinted the entire summary of a controversial 1995 National Intelligence Estimate on ballistic missile defense that was classified Secret.
National security reporter Bill Gertz regularly quotes classified documents in his stories, prompting official attempts to identify and curb his remarkable sources.
"The Washington Times appears to be illegally in possession of a classified document," said White House spokesman Michael McCurry following one story by Mr. Gertz earlier this year. "It will be up to law enforcement officials to investigate any wrongdoing." (Washington Times, 3/28/96).
Mr. McCurry subsequently modified his remarks to emphasize that it was the leaker who was at fault, not the newspaper. "We're not suggesting anything improper or illegal was done by The Washington Times. We're a free press and you're entitled to print whatever falls into your hands." (Strictly speaking, this is an overstatement of First Amendment freedoms.)
Most of the classified leaks published by the Times fit a familiar and even traditional pattern: they reflect minority or dissenting views in policy disputes within the Administration, or are otherwise at odds with declared White House positions, often to the point of official embarrassment.
What is extraordinary, however, is the frequency of the leaks of classified information, which appears to exceed anything in the recent past and suggests a new degree of dysfunction is the classification system. "There is a much greater rate of leakage from the agencies than could have been imagined 20 years ago," former DCI James Schlesinger told Congress last year.
Editorially, the Washington Times generally favors the right wing of the Republican Party and even publishes occasional calls for greater government secrecy.
The Times has a new website at http://www.washtimes.com. Mail subscriptions outside of Washington can be ordered at (800)277-8500.
Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists. For further information, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Secrecy & Government Bulletin, Federation of American Scientists, 307 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002.