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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 66
April 1997

Prying Open the Security Policy Board

In a fine illustration of the politics of government information, the unauthorized publication of Security Policy Board records on the Internet has prompted a reevaluation of the Board's information disclosure policies.

The Security Policy Board (SPB) is an interagency body led by the Director of Central Intelligence and the Deputy Secretary of Defense that is responsible for developing uniform government-wide secrecy and security policies, in areas ranging from classification to security clearances to physical and technical security. As a matter of policy, it does not release information about its ongoing activities to the general public.

How perplexing, then, to find that SPB meeting minutes and related documents had been posted on the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy webpage http://www.fas.org/sgp/spb/index.html.

In an email message to his staff late last year, SPB Staff Director Pete Saderholm wrote that "A friend from CIA called to ask if I knew all our minutes were on Steve's [i.e., FAS secrecy project director Steven Aftergood's] Home Page.... He was right. Steve has all our Forum and Advisory Board minutes up on the Internet... [I am] interested in your ideas and comments." This message triggered a revealing exchange of views among the Staff about leaks and the proper role of secrecy.

"I find it disgusting, but not surprising, that we have a 'mole' or 'moles' in our process," wrote SPB staffer James Passarelli in reply to Mr. Saderholm. "I also speculate these folks leak to Aftergood and perhaps others not because they want to see more 'daylight' in our process as much as they want to derail our SPB process and progress, for either parochial or turf reasons."

While this might be a plausible speculation in other contexts, it is not so in this case. There have been no internal or external attempts to "derail" the SPB, Mr. Saderholm said March 25. What is true is that the decisions made by the SPB could directly affect millions of Americans engaged in national security activities, and indirectly affect millions more. So a degree of public curiosity about the Board's activities is only natural.

"If [the documents] are not classified, and are going to get out anyway, we should probably pull the rug out from under Steve and his 'source' by establishing our own home page and putting them out onto the Internet ourselves," wrote staffer Gary Gower astutely. "The Steve's of the world, and their sources, get their influence by being able to demonstrate their ability to get through our secretiveness. So unless we truly must protect something-- in which case it probably should not be in the minutes-- let's unplug their power sources by putting information out ourselves (as much as we can)." In other words, more openness would serve the interests of the SPB. This is the blossoming of secrecy reform, captured in slow motion.

"I have a decidedly different slant on how much 'openness' is enough," wrote SPB staffer Ricardo Cazessus. "The minutes reflect the deliberative actions of the government, and as such are not to be on the public plate, period, dot. Even the FOIA nazis would spot us that one.... It's difficult enough to get a decision made or a consensus built without making this process a spectator sport."

The need for confidentiality in the deliberative process is real, and it is easy to underestimate from the outside. But the SPB process is already open to members of industry, who are allowed to attend meetings and to participate in its deliberations (in a likely violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act). In addition, industry-based organizations like the National Classification Management Society have been known to distribute SPB documents, including meeting minutes, at their functions. So the process is already a "spectator sport." It's just that most of the non-industry public is shut out.

"You're on target on the paralysis of the process [that could result from too much openness]," replied Mr. Gower, "but the point is that the paralysis already exists.... I have a career long understanding of the bureaucratic desire of committees for anonymity and freedom to express things that they would only say in a private meeting. I am not arguing in favor of public attendance of the meetings, and minutes should never be written to reveal such sensitive details of discussions-- so publicizing minutes should not deter frank discussions. Do you really think that public review of minutes could make some members any less stand-up than they are now?"

"This issue should be aired openly at the next meeting, with some appropriately acerbic characterizations made of the chickens--- cowardice of undermining institutions by such leaks rather than following the committee process."

The upshot of all this was twofold: First, the Security Policy Board established a skeletal website of its own earlier this year at http://www.spb.gov. It includes organizational charts and membership, pertinent executive orders, and a few other documents.

Second, the SPB Staff decided to recommend to the membership that SPB meeting minutes be posted on the new website once they have been approved. "Most of these documents are already on the Internet," the Staff proposal noted. "If we are going to do the work, we might as well get the credit. This will allow the public to see how we operate, the issues being addressed, and review their government's security policy arena."

But at a February 21 meeting, the Staff proposal to publish the minutes was rejected. Instead, members voted to mark future editions of the minutes as "For Official Use Only" in the uncertain hope that this will discourage their further dissemination into the public domain.

Secrecy Commission Delivers Its Report

The Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, concluded its two year investigation of government secrecy and personnel security with a final Report that was released on March 4.

The Report is an insightful and often eloquent piece of work that represents probably the most sustained and high-level official study of secrecy policy ever performed. It deserves the attention of everyone who is affected in some way by government secrecy, which is just about everyone.

The report may be found on the world wide web at http://www.fas.org/sgp/library/moynihan/index.html.

There are, naturally, some caveats. One is that a report, even a superb report, does not in itself change anything. As often as not, the establishment of an official Commission is an evasive maneuver, and a way of diverting energy from contentious issues.

Remarkably, Commission findings are not binding even on the Commissioners themselves. For example, as a member of the Aspin-Brown Commission on Intelligence last year, Rep. Porter Goss recommended declassification of the intelligence budget total; but as soon as this proposal arose on the House floor, he voted against it. As a member of the Secrecy Commission, John Deutch recommended that the Director of Central Intelligence issue a directive limiting the scope of "sources and methods" protection as a rationale for secrecy; but as DCI for most of the last two years he did no such thing. And in his Vice Chairman's Foreword to the Secrecy Commission Report, Rep. Larry Combest all but disavowed the whole endeavor: "This report may genuflect too far toward the 'culture of openness'."

The Commission observes sensibly that "Key to ensuring that real change occurs will be the realization by senior government officials... that it is in their own self-interest, as well as in the country's interest, to gain control over the secrecy system...." This seems exactly right, and is exemplified all too uniquely by former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary (whose name is conspicuously absent from the 200 page report).

The difficulty is that none of the Commission's recommendations is either necessary or sufficient to bring about such official "realizations." The "key" to change remains elusive.

The Report somewhat absurdly exaggerates its own novelty. Readers who have actively pursued secrecy reform for years (or decades) will be surprised to learn that "The Commission was... much on its own; there were but a few intrepid souls who, as the old navigators might say, had been down this way before."

This is a forgivable affectation, but it is also nonsense. The Report relies heavily on the recent literature of secrecy, including official sources (which are prodigiously footnoted) and public interest sources (which are appropriated without attribution). On the other hand, the Report does contain a good deal of new information, notably on the current status of declassification activity.

With its insistence that now is "the time to begin" the process of secrecy reform, the Report is a bit out of synch with the reforms that have already begun, as well as those that have already been tried and failed. For example, bills to establish a statutory basis for the classification system-- one of the Report's principal recommendations-- were introduced in the House and Senate as recently as 1994. A proposal to eliminate neighborhood interviews in routine security clearance cases-- another Commission recommendation that appears to make sense-- was soundly rejected by security officials as recently as last January.

Having said that, the Commission Report does create some genuinely new opportunities to advance the process of secrecy reform. The release of the Report has already provided a "license" for various journalists and editorial writers-- who ordinarily can't be bothered with secrecy policy-- to address the issue.

Most important of all is the political stature of the Commissioners themselves, including Senators Daniel P. Moynihan and Jesse Helms, Congressmen Lee Hamilton and Larry Combest, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta. If they are prepared to stand by their own Report and to follow through on its analyses and recommendations, they are in a unique position to help cure the ills that they have diagnosed so well.

Granting Security Clearances to "Crooks"

It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify and exclude individuals with criminal records from the U.S. military and the national security bureaucracy, government security officials warn.

"It is quite probable that we are bringing into the armed forces on a daily basis persons with serious felony arrest records. It is also quite probable that some of these same individuals will end up with Secret clearances," wrote Dan L. Jacobson of the Security Policy Board Staff in a 28 October 1996 memorandum obtained by S&GB.

By law, no one with a felony arrest record is supposed to be allowed to enter the military (10 United States Code, section 504). But in recent years, state and local police departments have sharply curtailed their reporting of felony arrests to the FBI, so that felons often can not be identified by the standard name check that is performed upon entering the military, or upon applying for a clearance.

"It is possible for persons with extensive police records for serious offenses to include murder, rape, robbery, etc. to not only be accessed into the DoD, but also be granted a Secret clearance," according to a November 1996 report prepared for the Security Policy Advisory Board.

"We have discovered serious deficiencies in the tool used to ensure murderers, drug felons, crooks, and thieves are not allowed into our military units where they have access to weapons, ammunition, and potentially, classified information," Mr. Jacobson wrote in his memorandum, addressed to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Intelligence & Security) Joan A. Dempsey.

"To those of us within Defense who must contend with the new order of what sociologists describe as 'youth without conscience' and 'youth without souls,' it is a very serious matter, even when clearances are not required," Mr. Jacobson observed.


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, the New York Times Foundation, the Greenville Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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