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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 62
October 1996

Intelligence As If the Public Mattered

The best thing that the U.S. intelligence community could do for America, and for itself, would be to recognize the public as a primary customer for its products.

The Cold War intelligence community was designed to support the President and senior executive branch officials, who were the principal interlocutors and points of contact between the United States and foreign nations. But today, the U.S. engages the world in a vastly more complex fashion, and the private sector is increasingly active in international affairs that are the domain of intelligence.

An enormous array of non-governmental organizations, corporations, and even individual citizens pursue political, social and financial objectives independent of the government. Others have legitimate academic, scientific, commercial or personal interests in the various dimensions of foreign affairs. These public actors need the best intelligence available. And they represent a largely untapped market for the kinds of information the intelligence community, with its vast collection and analytic infrastructure, could provide.

A reorientation of intelligence to support such truly "national" customers could be the key to the transformation of the Cold War intelligence community. Recognition of the public as a customer for intelligence would signal the beginning of a long overdue revolution that would benefit the entire nation.

What Intelligence Has to Offer

The public utility of intelligence products is perhaps best exemplified by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which collects, translates and publishes thousands of foreign media reports. Even though by some definitions it does not qualify as "intelligence," FBIS demonstrates the uniquely global reach and the economies of scale that the U.S. intelligence community can bring to bear. It is hard to imagine that any non- governmental entity would or could fully duplicate this incredibly valuable activity. In its absence, large numbers of consumers would be obliged to independently collect and translate the same materials over and over again, or simply to do without.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are things like Indications and Warning intelligence, concerning imminent threats to the national security, which are properly directed to the Commander in Chief and his military advisors.

But in between those two extremes, there is a vast array of intelligence products which could usefully serve non-governmental interests, and on which the public has a legitimate claim. There are so many thousands of estimative and research products that are generated by intelligence agencies each year that they exceed the ability of their official consumers to assimilate them.

"Given the volume of material they're producing, you have to wonder who in the executive branch is even reading this stuff," said Richard F. Kaufman, formerly general counsel of the congressional Joint Economic Committee. "Here is this very valuable resource. It's being paid for. There are all these experts sitting there. And who's benefiting from it?"

The Joint Economic Committee pioneered the introduction of intelligence into the public domain decades ago with the publication of its "green books"-- collections of papers on economic analysis of Communist regimes by intelligence analysts and others-- beginning in the late 1950s, and then at hearings at which intelligence officials were called to testify beginning in 1974, proceedings of which were published in sanitized form.

The process was "extremely valuable," said Mr. Kaufman, who added that "I think it can be generalized to other areas. There's a lot of fertile ground here, where the intelligence agencies are grinding out reports on all kinds of subjects-- terrorism, drug trafficking, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and so on and so forth-- that are not reaching the Congress and the public."

To a certain extent, of course, the model established by the Joint Economic Committee has already proved influential. Intelligence officials testify at open hearings with some regularity, and a considerable number of specialized publications, maps, etc., are made available for sale to the public. And the very modest efforts of the intelligence community to date to serve the public directly, such as the intelligence agency homepages on the world wide web, have attracted a sizable audience.

In fact, after Swedish hackers defaced the CIA homepage and it was taken off-line for several days, traffic at the FAS website went through the ceiling as thousands of frustrated consumers turned instead to the FAS model homepage for the CIA. (This site is in some ways more complete than the official homepage, particularly with respect to CIA budget and facilities.)

But these efforts are scarcely a drop in the bucket, compared to what is collected and produced, and what could be released to benefit the public with no adverse impact on national security.

Public Intelligence and Secret Sources

According to the prevailing wisdom, secrecy is intrinsic to intelligence and the very notion of "public intelligence" is a contradiction in terms. To demand public access to intelligence products is to reject this view and to insist that intelligence agencies must do more to publicly justify the enormous investment of funds that they absorb.

However, to the extent that disclosure actually compromises or degrades sensitive intelligence sources or methods, it becomes self-defeating.

The obvious solution is to enforce a distinction between the products of intelligence, which should in general be disclosed, and those sources and methods which must be protected if they are to remain productive.

In a crucial insight, former Director of Central Intelligence William Colby used an analogy between intelligence and journalism to explain how intelligence products could be publicly disclosed without damage to national security: "Deep Throat's identity remains a secret, but the nation has benefitted from his information," he observed. In precisely the same way, "intelligence substance can be disseminated to the public while its sources are kept secret."

How to Proceed: (1) Declassification

There are two basic avenues for providing public access to intelligence agency products: declassification of existing materials, and the preparation of new materials designed with public release in mind.

The usual debate about public access to intelligence, which focuses on declassification of various records, has reached a stalemate, or at least a state of equilibrium. Advocates, historians, and others clamor for more disclosure, and the intelligence community responds, "Sure, but not right now (or anytime soon)." The growing number of leaks of classified information can provide a partial, imperfect solution, but systematic reform will have to await an Administration and a Congress that are more hospitable to constitutional values.

There have been rare successes-- such as the impressive array of intelligence documents declassified for the Dept. of Defense "Gulflink" website-- but these prove the rule that declassification is reserved for extraordinary cases.

As necessary as it still is to beg, plead and litigate for declassification of existing records, it would be even more productive to reconceptualize intelligence to serve the public in the first place.

(2) Writing for the Public

The intelligence community could design many of its products for release to the public from the start.

A framework set forth by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in a 1993 memo in another context could serve as a template for the production of public intelligence. Secretary O'Leary instructed DOE officials as follows:

This is a recipe for intelligence that serves the whole nation. Designing intelligence for public consumption would also enrich the intelligence community itself, by creating a new constituency, by enabling the kind of cross-fertilization of ideas that is now precluded by classification, and by providing a compelling vision for the future. It is optimistic, of course, to the degree that it presumes that intelligence has a useful product to offer.


* Even though it is not secret, the total intelligence budget should remain classified, congressional conferees decided in the 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act. At the same time, "the conferees are concerned about the apparent increase in the public disclosure of sensitive national security information generally" (H. Rep. 104-832). It didn't occur to the concerned Congressmen that there could be a connection between their policy of perpetuating gross overclassification and the growing number of leaks.

* Classification of the intelligence budget will actually be increased with the creation of the new National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA, known in some circles as "enema"). The budget of one of NIMA's components-- the erstwhile Defense Mapping Agency-- had been unclassified. But with its consolidation into the NIMA, its budget is now classified, along with the rest of the new Agency budget. This is ridiculous, but largely irrelevant: Information on the NIMA budget will soon be published through the FAS Intelligence Reform homepage.

* The CIA intervened to block legislation that would have led to the release of U.S. intelligence records concerning Nazi war criminals. (H.R. 1281, "The War Crimes Disclosure Act"). "Given that half a century has passed since the end of World War II and given that the cold war is over, I find it outrageous that the CIA would block a bill which would help us shed light on the Holocaust," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney on September 24. But "the CIA strenuously objected to the legislation and has effectively killed it in this Congress." War criminals everywhere can breathe a little easier.

* "This administration has made a great hullabaloo about declassifying information," said Rep. Henry Hyde. "Openness has been its byword. When it comes to sensitive military information, the motto has been when in doubt, declassify. Well, unfortunately, that is not how it works in practice." Rep. Hyde accused the Administration of using classification to hide "embarrassing little comments" in State Department documents concerning Iranian arms transfers to Bosnia, and said that he had forwarded his complaint to the Information Security Oversight Office for investigation and action.

* Public tolerance for government secrecy is diminishing not only in the U.S., but in many parts of the world. A new study entitled "Los Gastos Reservados en el Gobierno Nacional" examines secret government spending in Argentina and presents proposals for reform. "We hope that our work, the first of its kind in Argentina, will be a point of departure to rethink mechanisms in order to increase transparency and improve democratic oversight," the authors told S&GB. A copy of the study (in Spanish) is available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/argen.html.

* A paper on "Secrecy and Accountability in U.S. Intelligence," prepared for an October 9 seminar on intelligence reform convened by the Center for International Policy, is available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/cipsecr.html.

* When Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall was asked whether the government is using technology from captured UFOs in its secret aircraft programs, she rebuffed the question. "I'm not even going to discuss it," Secretary Widnall told "Inside Edition" on September 27.

Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists. The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the CS Fund, and the New York Times Foundation.

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