Imagine members of the public protesting in favor of a Central Intelligence Agency program. That is what is happening following reports that the budget of the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) will be sharply cut next year. Many thousands of people inside and outside of government rely on FBIS translations of foreign news media, and now supporters of FBIS "are making their views known," said CIA spokesman David Christian on July 15.
Dating back to World War II, FBIS collects, translates, and publishes translations of foreign broadcasts and press reports from around the world, monitoring over 3500 publications in 55 foreign languages.
Although FBIS only deals in unclassified, open source intelligence (or perhaps for that very reason), "The information that FBIS has collected over the years has been critical to US national security decisionmakers," former Acting DCI Admiral William Studeman told the Open Source Solutions Symposium in 1992.
And unlike almost every other intelligence product, FBIS publications are made available to the public, where they have found an enthusiastic, even passionate audience. (Subscription information is available at http://wnc.fedworld.gov.)
In a widely circulated July 2 alert to the scholarly community, Professor Gary G. Sick of Columbia University reported that the CIA is considering a 20% cut in FBIS personnel and a 38% cut in the non-personnel budget. "This would have a crippling effect not only on the Washington, DC operations but also on the overseas bureaus and monitors. It is estimated that these cuts would result in the closure of approximately one- third of the FBIS bureaus worldwide" beginning in FY 1998, he wrote. (Thirteen FBIS monitoring stations abroad are identified by Jeffrey Richelson in The U.S. Intelligence Community, third edition, p. 265.)
At this point, the CIA budget request for next year, including the FBIS budget request, is "fluid," said Mr. Christian of the CIA. "No final decisions have been made yet."
But another intelligence community official told S&GB that "the rumors [about cutting FBIS] are not just rumors. And it's not just FBIS, it's the whole open source activity" that is at risk.
This makes little sense, since FBIS is probably the most cost effective operation in the entire U.S. intelligence community, and undoubtedly the most widely used, providing incalculable benefits to U.S. industry, academia, and the public at large, in addition to its official government consumers.
In fact, the FBIS budget ought to be multiplied if it is to keep pace with the proliferation of foreign publications in formerly closed societies. This could be accomplished, for example, through reductions in technical collection systems which, it is generally conceded, have been substantially over-funded in recent years.
At a time when the U.S. intelligence community is groping for a vision of its future, FBIS exemplifies the most promising way forward. It is "national" intelligence at its best, informing both senior decisionmakers and the nation as a whole. It provides a unique service to a broad constituency and offers a return on investment that matches or exceeds any other intelligence activity. It should be preserved and strengthened.
"We want this program restored and expanded," wrote Federation of American Scientists President Jeremy J. Stone in a July 18 statement. "Throw out something else-- anything else-- from CIA's budget." Those who would like to endorse the FAS statement on FBIS are invited to do so at http://www.fas.org/sgp/fbiscall.html.
The Secrecy Tide Turns
In its forthcoming Annual Report, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) will reveal that the number of pages declassified by the government last year was the highest ever reported in the 18 years that ISOO has collected such information. In an equally favorable development, the report is expected to show a decrease in the number of new classification decisions. Taken together, these trends represent an important transition in national security secrecy policy and imply a deceleration in the growth of the secrecy system, if not a net reduction.
Most of the declassification covered in the pending ISOO Report is attributable to the bulk declassification of some 44 million pages of World War II and other documents under President Clinton's Executive Order 12937 in November 1994. Implementation of last year's Executive Order 12958, which only began in fiscal year 1996, is expected to provide even greater declassification dividends over the current year.
Despite the good news from ISOO, the glasnost is not even half full. The scope of contemporary secrecy has diminished only slightly, encountering resistance at every step. The Department of Defense, for example, is taking extraordinary measures to undermine the Department of Energy Fundamental Classification Policy Review and is seeking to block numerous declassification actions that have been recommended by the government's own nuclear weapons experts. And declassification of the huge backlog of old documents government-wide continues to face obstacles based on resource limitations and, to a lesser extent, political opposition in Congress and elsewhere.
But the notion that openness serves the public as well as the government has now penetrated into the bowels of the national security bureaucracy to a remarkable degree, and has spawned a variety of new initiatives and products:
IOB Report on Guatemala Review
In a fairly damning review of recent CIA activities in Guatemala, the White House Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) found that "several CIA assets were credibly alleged to have ordered, planned, or participated in serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while they were assets-- and that the CIA's Directorate of Operations headquarters was aware at the time of the allegations."
Among its various recommendations, the Board urged that government officials be held accountable if they compromise or improperly handle classified information. But the more pertinent question in the Guatemala case seemed to be, shouldn't officials be held accountable when they improperly classify and withhold information from the public?
When asked this question, Frank Fountain, counsel for the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, told S&GB that "the Report speaks for itself" on this point. But speaking for itself, the Report fails to acknowledge the prohibition against overclassification in executive order 12958 (section 5.7b), or the provisions for sanctions against classification abuse.
The Report also never pauses to reflect on the reason for its own existence. It seems transparently clear that there would never have been a White House review of CIA activities in Guatemala if not for the heroic efforts of Jennifer Harbury, the unauthorized disclosures of classified information by Rep. Robert Torricelli, and the accompanying media uproar, all of which suggests that public controversy is a precondition for effective intelligence oversight.
Mr. Fountain rejected this interpretation and insisted that the Intelligence Oversight Board "performs its investigations independently of what may or may not appear in the press." He did concede that in the absence of strong media interest, the Board might not have issued an unclassified final Report, something it has never done before now.
A copy of the 67 page Report, released on June 28, is available at the website of the Center for International Policy at http://www.us.net/cip/iob.htm.
The U.S. intelligence community is "ill prepared for the 21st century" and "has remained overly focused on military priorities at the expense of other important foreign policy needs," according to "In From the Cold," the latest report on intelligence reform that was published on June 27 by the Twentieth Century Fund (New York Times, 6/28/96).
The report makes a number of interesting observations and recommendations concerning U.S. intelligence, and notably provides the most substantial treatment anywhere of the meaning and value of economic intelligence (which is not to be confused with industrial espionage). A copy of "In From the Cold" may be ordered at (800)552-5450 or (202)797-6258.
But the most important item on the intelligence reform agenda that remains to be accomplished is an analysis of why intelligence reform is impossible. After two years of intensive reform activity, why has next to nothing been achieved despite widespread public and official dissatisfaction? (Washington Post, 7/8/96, p. A13).
One partial explanation could be the secrecy that effectively insulates the intelligence community from public accountability and from the pressures that arise in the political marketplace of ideas.
Another potential explanation has to do with the substantial economic interests that are vested in preserving the status quo. After all, somebody is on the receiving end of those billions and billions of secret dollars.
In an important new public service, Federal Election Commission reports of campaign contributions have been made available in a searchable on-line database at http://www.tray.com/fecinfo/. They present a new avenue of inquiry into the intelligence reform stalemate.
Examining the FEC filings of key members of the Congressional intelligence committees, one finds them littered with donations from intelligence contractors or their representatives such as the Lockheed Martin Employees Political Action Committee (PAC), the Allied-Signal PAC and, delightfully, the TRW Good Government Fund.
The amounts of money thrust at members of Congress by such contractors are limited (by law), typically involving no more than a few thousand dollars. It is doubtful that such paltry sums could actually buy votes. What they can buy, however, is access to the policy and budget process, in which industry is heavily represented. Not only are contractor CEOs regularly called upon to testify before the intelligence committees (unlike, dare one say, public interest groups), but contractor lobbyists have essentially unfettered access to lobby for secret programs without fear of contradiction or outside criticism.
The FEC database did not reveal any donations to Congress from advocates of improved public accountability or intelligence budget declassification.
Classification Costs Reported
The costs of classification-related activities reached a hefty $5.6 billion dollars over the last year, according to two new reports to Congress from the Information Security Oversight Office.
Executive branch agencies, dominated by the Department of Defense, spent an estimated $2.7 billion in the current fiscal year, and government contractors spent an additional $2.9 billion handling classified information in 1995. These figures do not include the costs incurred by the CIA, since they were not reported in unclassified form.
The ISOO reports on classification costs are available on the FAS government secrecy homepage at http://www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/costs.html.
Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists. The Project on Government Secrecy is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Fund.
For further information, send email to [email protected] or write to Secrecy & Government Bulletin, Federation of American Scientists, 307 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20002.