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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 75
November 1998

CIA Station Chief in Israel Unmasked

Describing the CIA's participation in the Middle East peace process, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet noted in the New York Times on October 27 that "[T]he agency's role has become widely publicized." In fact, the rather unconventional role of the CIA in mediating between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has entailed a significant erosion of the traditional secrecy surrounding CIA activities abroad. This erosion is reflected most starkly in the publication of the name of the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv, who has practically become a public figure.

The naming of intelligence officers under cover is something of a taboo, and potentially a criminal act. Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, was murdered in 1975 by a Greek revolutionary organization after a local newspaper published his name and address. This incident eventually led to passage of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 which generally makes it unlawful for authorized personnel to publicly identify a covert agent, and for others to expose such agents "as part of a pattern of activities" intended to impede U.S. intelligence.

So the recurring publication of the name of the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv has been viewed with alarm and dismay by U.S. intelligence officials. Senator Robert Kerrey, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, remarked on the PBS News Hour on October 26 that a certain publication had "identified the station chief in Israel. And it was a very unfortunate declaration."

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield would not formally acknowledge that the name had been published. "As a matter of policy, we don't discuss individuals serving abroad." But he observed generally that disclosure of CIA personnel under cover is a serious security issue. "It puts them, their families, and the people they deal with at risk. That's the overriding concern."

Disclosure of the station chief's name seems to have begun last year in Israel which, despite its official system of military censorship, has an aggressive and resourceful press corps. Yediot Aharonot disclosed the U.S. program to train Palestinian security personnel at CIA headquarters in Langley, for example, several weeks before it became front page news in the New York Times earlier this year. The name of the CIA station chief appeared in an article by Akiva Eldar in Ha'aretz last January 22, among other places. As one Israeli reporter told S&GB, "The dam has burst. Previously, Israeli journalists were reluctant to get in trouble with U.S. law [by publishing such information]. We all intend to visit the States again sometime. This fear is no longer operative."

The official's name (which need not be repeated here) subsequently appeared in the Arabic press. Al Watan Al ‘Arabi, published in Paris, reported last June 26 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked DCI George Tenet to remove the Tel Aviv station chief, who was identified by name and described as an American Jew, because Netanyahu felt he was biased in favor of the Palestinians.

The station chief's name was first published in the U.S. in an article written by Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a mainstream policy research outfit, that appeared in the February 2 issue of The New Republic .

The identity of the station chief is well known to many U.S. reporters who cover national security issues. He is not a wholly clandestine figure, having formerly served as CIA's liaison to Congress. And he has gradually assumed a quasi-diplomatic role rather than an undercover intelligence gathering function. Yet both the Washington Post and the New York Times have refrained from publishing his name, even after The New Republic ran Satloff's story.

"I did not ‘out' him," Mr. Satloff insisted, noting that the name had been previously published in the Israeli press. "I actually think it is a wise policy [to keep clandestine officers' names secret]-- people should not go out naming agents."

A "Fresh Look" at Intelligence Secrecy Needed

Even as the name of a current CIA station chief is bandied about in newspapers around the world, the CIA is still going to great lengths to withhold the most innocuous information about the mere existence of CIA stations abroad from decades ago.

John H. Hedley, the recently retired Chairman of CIA's Publication Review Board, which reviews manuscripts by current or former CIA employees prior to publication to prevent the disclosure of classified information, described his Board's painstaking activities in an article last year in Studies in Intelligence. He noted that an author who has worked for the Agency is permitted "to say he or she was the CIA chief in a certain place, but not the chief of station." A station, Mr. Hedley explained, "is a covert facility... connoting a sizable and continuing CIA presence" and "suggests a liaison connection" with the host country, which is information that CIA believes must be classified indefinitely.

This kind of thinking "warrants a fresh look," said Roslyn A. Mazer with some understatement. Ms. Mazer is an Associate Deputy Attorney General at the Justice Department who was appointed by President Clinton to Chair the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. She spoke on November 2 at a joint CIA-DOE classification management conference at the headquarters building of the National Reconnaissance Office.

"We are keeping classified categories of information that everyone already knows. It is self-evident that the intelligence service of the United States cooperates with allied intelligence services, and that the CIA, as a collector of foreign intelligence, works in foreign countries," Ms. Mazer said at the conference.

"We prevailed over [closed] societies because of our passion for openness, for trusting our citizens more than we empower our leaders. We celebrate our openness. In fact, it is unnecessary secrecy that is timid and cowardly. Openness is courageous."

"Be courageous," Ms. Mazer told her intelligence community audience. "Be as open as you responsibly can."

The CIA has refused to declassify the total budget request for intelligence, asserting on November 23 that to do so would mean the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods. This nonsensical assertion will be resisted. From a national security point of view, the size of the budget request is less sensitive than the actual appropriation, which has previously been disclosed, noted Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, who is representing FAS in a FOIA lawsuit seeking disclosure of the budget request.

Declassification Sets New Record

In a largely unsung success story, the volume of declassification activity under President Clinton's Executive Order 12958 reached an all-time record high for the second year in a row, according to the Information Security Oversight Office's 1997 Report to the President, released in November.

"The program enjoyed a second straight year of unprecedented achievements in declassification and noted decreases in the number of original classifiers and the estimated costs of the system," wrote ISOO Director Steven Garfinkel to the President.

"Agencies of the executive branch reported declassifying over 204 million pages of records having permanent historical value. Combined with the figures reported for fiscal year 1996, the Order's first year of implementation, the executive branch has declassified over 400 million pages of records under this Order. This achievement is extraordinary. In two years under your Executive Order, the agencies have declassified 56 percent more pages than in the prior 16 years combined," Mr. Garfinkel reported.

The progress in declassification was not evenly reflected throughout the executive branch. For example, the Central Intelligence Agency, which was responsible for thirty per cent of all classification in 1997, contributed only a tenth of one per cent of the total declassification activity. And for the second year in a row, the total amount of classification increased, ISOO indicated. Secrecy cost a total of $4.1 billion in 1997, including $3.4 billion in government and $700 million in industry.

New Declassification Plan Under Development

Executive branch officials have prepared a draft declassification plan which elaborates the protection of sensitive nuclear weapons information in response to the requirements of legislation passed by Congress (S&GB 74). Congress suspended all automatic declassification activity throughout the government until 60 days after the plan is completed and submitted.

In signing the 1999 Defense Authorization Act, which forced the suspension of the highly successful declassification program, President Clinton wrote: "I am disappointed that the Congress, in a well-meaning effort to further protect nuclear weapons information, has included an overly broad provision that impedes my Administration's work to declassify historically valuable records."

It is a weird, unprecedented reversal of roles: the executive branch is enthusiastic about declassifying its records while the legislature erects one obstacle after another to slow or prevent declassification. With the sole exception of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, the last Congress stalled or defeated every initiative to promote declassification of government records.

"I am committed to submitting the plan required under this Act within 90 days," the President wrote on October 17. "In the meantime, I will interpret this provision in a manner that will assure the maximum continuity of agency efforts, as directed by my Executive Order 12958, to declassify historically valuable records."

In fact, said White House Chief of Staff John Podesta on November 3, in order to minimize the disruption caused by Congress, "automatic declassification processing, but not final declassification, will also continue."

The preliminary draft declassification plan, which is currently circulating among DoD, CIA, State and Justice for comments due November 30, is "about as good as you could expect under the circumstances," said one official, who added "It's an ugly statute, but we're stuck with it." The new plan "will primarily affect DoD-- since CIA and State already do page-by-page review-- and it will slow things down for them."

"There is a possibility and a preference that it be made available for public comment, perhaps in mid-December," the official said of the draft plan. Overall, "It's not a pleasant situation but it's manageable."

Electronic Pearl Harbor Evokes Nausea

George Smith, editor of the on-line Crypt Newsletter, was the first to discover that the 1997 Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy had been taken in by a hoax, and had described the bogus "Penpal" email message as a genuine computer virus "that could infect the hard drive and destroy all data present." That was false.

Being fooled by pranksters is forgivable, though it is not supposed to happen to responsible high officials like the director of the CIA and the former director of the NRO who were members of the Commission. What is disturbing is that such errors are the rule rather than the exception in much public and official discussion of "information warfare."

Smith has written a useful corrective entitled "An Electronic Pearl Harbor? Not Likely" which appeared in the National Academy of Sciences journal Issues in Science and Technology (Fall 1998) and which is available at

Some of the best-informed observers are quick to acknowledge that Smith's critique is on target.

"I certainly agree that the notion of an electronic Pearl Harbor specifically, and more generally of information warfare, has been hyped to the point of nausea," said the vice president of one intelligence contractor that has multi- billion dollar annual revenues from its work in information technology. "This is but the latest of many fads in ‘the Community'," he told S&GB, "and like most of its predecessors, [it] has just enough substance to require that serious attention be paid, but not nearly as much substance as the Cassandras of the Community would have us believe."


  • An open source threat? New limits on unclassified information? White House Chief of Staff John Podesta seemed to be sending some kind of signal November 3 when he remarked: "Government is just beginning to grapple with the national security challenges posed by access to open source information on the net." In a new Washington Post on-line column, author William Arkin reports that the Pentagon has proposed new limits on what it calls "format sensitive information." This refers to unclassified electronic information "which, when electronically aggregated, in significant volume, could adversely affect the national interest, the conduct of federal programs, or the privacy of individuals if lost, misused, accessed, or modified in an unauthorized way. ..."

  • FAS Secrecy Project Director Steven Aftergood was invited to speak on "openness and accountability in U.S. intelligence" last July at the National Intelligence School of Argentina's intelligence service, the Secretaría de Inteligencia de Estado (SIDE). By the end of the presentation, the audience of Argentine intelligence officers and trainees seemed to have reached a consensus that greater openness and accountability were indeed necessary-- in U.S. intelligence. The speech has now been published in the school's quarterly journal, Revista de la Escuela Nacional de Inteligencia. A copy (in Spanish) is available upon request from S&GB. For all of its hideous recent history, Argentina is experiencing a remarkable degree of political ferment and a tentative openness to all kinds of new ideas. Among other things, a freedom of information law was adopted in mid-November in the Congress of Buenos Aires. A selection of resources on Argentina's intelligence agencies is available at www.fas.org/irp/world/argentina/index.html.

    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 a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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