Secrecy and Accountability in U.S. Intelligence
by Steven Aftergood
Secrecy and Accountability in U.S. Intelligence
Director, Project on Government Secrecy
Federation of American Scientists
October 9, 1996
Questions of secrecy and accountability have figured prominently
in the most important intelligence controversies of the last several
years. While U.S. intelligence agencies have done an astonishingly
poor job of protecting the nation's secrets from foreign adversaries,
they have been more successful in blocking access by American
citizens to the most basic categories of intelligence information.
Classification practices adopted decades ago to thwart a seemingly
omnipotent Soviet threat remain in effect, despite epochal changes
in the global security environment. Congressional oversight has
often limited itself to expressions of indignation after the scandal
du jour, while reinforcing obsolete security practices that would
help make the next scandal more likely. Unexamined secrecy
policies have even inhibited communication of intelligence within
the government itself. Meanwhile, public tolerance for government
secrecy is diminishing, and inherited classification practices are
being challenged by an erosion in security discipline and by
increasingly capable information technologies in the public
There has always been a degree of secrecy in U.S. government,
particularly in intelligence matters, and it has always presented a
conflict with American ideals that remains unresolved.
But today, the level of secrecy in U.S. intelligence is a symptom of
increasing obsolescence as well as an obstacle to reform. This
paper provides an overview of the structure of government secrecy,
examines current intelligence secrecy policies, critiques
congressional oversight of intelligence, and proposes some
corrective steps for the future.
Three Categories of Secrecy
"There have been some 'bad secrets' concerning intelligence; their
exposure by our academic, journalist, and political critics certainly
is an essential part of the workings of our Constitution. There have
been some 'non-secrets' which did not need to be secret; I have
undertaken a program of bringing these into the open. But I think
that responsible Americans realize that our country must protect
some 'good secrets'." --DCI William Colby, 1974
Among the many types of information that are classified by the
government in the name of national security, it is possible to
distinguish three general categories: genuine national security
secrecy, political secrecy, and bureaucratic secrecy.
Genuine national security secrecy pertains to that body of
information which, if disclosed, could actually damage national
security in some identifiable way. Of course, this begs the crucial
questions of what "national security" is, what constitutes "damage"
and how the meaning of these terms may change over time. Without
attempting to conclusively define national security-- a worthy
subject for a separate examination-- common sense suggests that
this category would include things like design details for weapons
of mass destruction and other advanced military technologies, as
well as those types of information that must remain secret in order
for authorized diplomatic and intelligence functions to be
performed. The sensitivity of this kind of information is the reason
we have a secrecy system in the first place, and when it is working
properly this system positively serves the public interest.
The second category is political secrecy, which refers to the
deliberate and conscious abuse of classification authority for
political advantage, irrespective of any threat to the national
security. This is the smallest of the three categories but it is also the
most dangerous to the political health of the nation. Perhaps the
most extreme example of political secrecy in intelligence
historically was the classification of CIA behavior modification
experiments on unknowing human subjects, as in the MKULTRA
program. To guarantee the permanent secrecy of this activity, most
MKULTRA records were destroyed in the early 1970s, although
the CIA continues to classify many such records today. But this
category also includes more petty abuses like the classification of
the intelligence budget, which serves to limit official public
discussion of intelligence priorities and performance, but does
nothing to enhance the security of Americans.
The third category is what may be called bureaucratic secrecy. This
has to do with the tendency of all organizations to limit the
information that they release to outsiders so as to control
perceptions of the organization, as classically described by Max
Weber. Bureaucratic secrecy appears to be the predominant factor
in current classification practice, accounting for the majority of the
billions of pages of classified records throughout the government.
Last year, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency specifically
denied a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation
of American Scientists for intelligence budget information dating
back to 1947. Whatever the term "damage to national security"
might mean, no sane person would argue that fifty year old budget
numbers could damage national security today. Nor is there any
political advantage to be gained by insisting on the classification of
old intelligence budgets, particularly since they have already been
declassified in large part by other agencies without the CIA's
knowledge or consent.
There is inevitably a subjective factor in the assignment of a
particular unit of information into one of the three categories of
secrecy. The borders of the three categories may sometimes be
blurred in practice. Furthermore, information that falls in one
category at one moment will often belong in another category at
some later date. Responsible classification management-- i.e., the
elimination of all but genuine national security secrecy-- therefore
depends to a large degree on the good judgment and the good will
of the managers. Failing that, it depends on the steadfast advocacy
of congressional overseers. And when that fails, responsibility
reverts to the public.
The mixture of legitimate secrecy, self-serving abuse of
classification authority, and bureaucratic insularity has been with
us in more or less its present form for nearly 50 years. But it
appears to be reaching a crisis point whose outcome will help
determine the security policies of the early 21st century.
Where Are We Today?
"I think there is no question that we classify too much. It is a
bureaucratic tendency that needs to be fought..." --former National
Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft
Secrecy in U.S. intelligence is a largely mindless reflex. The
operative principle is not simply "When in doubt, classify"-- it is
just "classify." Almost everything about intelligence is classified
unless some high official takes the initiative to declassify it. The
extraction of information from U.S. intelligence agencies through
official mechanisms like the Freedom of Information Act is usually
a fruitless exercise for a member of the public.
The CIA has seized upon the statutory requirement to protect
"sources and methods" to classify anything and everything it
chooses. Thus, as noted, CIA still claims that declassification of its
1947 budget would compromise "sources and methods," vacating
this term of any meaningful content.
The intelligence community's orientation towards secrecy is most
bluntly described in a 1950 National Security Council directive,
which advised that "any publicity, factual or fictional, concerning
intelligence is potentially detrimental to the effectiveness of an
intelligence activity and to the national security."7 The directive
instructed all relevant departments and agencies to prevent the
disclosure of any information about intelligence, except when
Today, of course, publicity about intelligence, factual and fictional,
is rampant. Many hundreds of official intelligence publications,
some extremely valuable, are available for sale to the public. All
U.S. intelligence agencies have world wide web sites on the
Internet, with gradually increasing content. Various discretely
targeted declassification efforts have led to the release of hundreds
of national intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union, hundreds of
thousands of CORONA satellite images from the 1960s, the
VENONA decrypts of intercepted Soviet cable traffic, and more.8
And the CIA has pledged to "declassify up to 60 million pages [of
classified records] by April 2000" in compliance with President
Clinton's executive order 12958.9
But as desirable as it may be to finally have greater access to the
record of Soviet atomic espionage against the U.S. fifty years ago,
say, or the official CIA map of Uganda, the American public is still
denied official knowledge of the most basic dimensions of U.S.
intelligence, notably the size and composition of the intelligence
budget. In other respects, intelligence-related secrecy is actually
increasing.10 As for CIA pledges of "openness," their credibility
has steadily diminished as almost every DCI since the tenure of
William Colby has advocated greater openness and increased
declassification, with results that invariably fall short of what is
One way to characterize the failure of intelligence disclosure policy
would be to say that it has failed to come to terms with the collapse
of the Soviet Union. The original rationale for the indiscriminate
secrecy of U.S. intelligence was the challenge of a superpower
adversary in a high state of military readiness with an aggressive,
large and capable intelligence service aiming at international
subversion and global domination. In this context, disclosure of the
smallest tidbit of information was perceived to be a potential
liability and perhaps an incremental threat.
With the elimination of the Soviet challenge, it is still necessary to
point out, there is now no remotely comparable threat to U.S.
security.12 And from an information disclosure point of view, the
threat from international terrorists, drug traffickers, Iran, Iraq,
Libya or North Korea is in contrast all but negligible. For one
thing, most of these adversaries (unlike the Soviet Union) lack the
industrial infrastructure to take advantage of our most sensitive
Other types of formerly sensitive information are likewise benign in
the absence of a superpower threat. Thus, not long ago, pending
military operations would have been considered the most sensitive
of classified activities, bar none. But in an extraordinary departure
from past practice, details of the recent cruise missile strike against
Iraq were reported in advance of the operation itself.13 This was
not a security violation, but rather a reflection of altered national
security circumstances. It simply didn't make a difference whether
or not Iraq knew that a U.S. attack was coming.
But the current realities of national security, and their implications
for disclosure policy, have still not penetrated the mindset of U.S.
intelligence (which is not a favorable commentary on an
The disparity between the real requirements of national security (by
any definition of that term) and the indiscriminate secrecy of the
intelligence agencies has created a new degree of tension,
sometimes verging on outright hostility, with respect to U.S.
intelligence among the alert public.
Thus, a Department of Defense survey found that a majority of the
American public believes that, "given the world situation," the
government classifies too many documents and keeps too many
secrets.14 This is an extremely important finding, because it shows
that openness is not some kind of "special interest" issue promoted
by public interest busybodies-- it's the will of the people.
And in an open society, the will of the people cannot be obstructed
for long without some consequences.
Leaks Are Busting Out All Over
"There is a much greater rate of leakage from the agencies than
could have been imagined 20 years ago." --former DCI James
One of the consequences of the failure of intelligence disclosure
policy to keep up with current realities and public expectations is a
significant erosion of security discipline, leading to a near epidemic
of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, or "leaks."
Of course, leaks are nothing new. They are the yin to secrecy's
yang. It is only fitting that "the history of the CIA itself began with
a leak," as one writer put it.16
And complaints about leaks are equally old. Lately, Defense
Secretary William Perry expressed "deep concern" about a
continuing series of "newspaper articles based on highly classified
intelligence reports" and asked the FBI to begin an investigation to
attempt to locate and prosecute the leakers.17
There are no reliable public statistics on the frequency of leaks or
the number of leakers. But even setting aside the large number of
"leaks" that are really authorized disclosures on a not-for-
attribution basis, there appears to be a dramatically escalating
number of genuinely unauthorized disclosures, judging from the
almost daily quotations from currently classified documents that
appear in the national press.
In fact, leaks have become such a pervasive fact of political life that
Clinton Administration officials reportedly decided not to initiate a
covert action to ship arms to Bosnian Muslims in 1994 because
they believed it would inevitably become public knowledge, and
Iranian arms shipments were allowed to proceed instead.18 Thus,
an otherwise legal policy option was foreclosed by the growing
dysfunction of the national security secrecy system.
Nor is it necessary to be a star reporter in a national news
organization to be on the receiving end of such unauthorized
disclosures. From my own perch on Capitol Hill, I have obtained
documents from almost every classification category, up to and
including unacknowledged special access program records. With
few exceptions, the classified records I have seen could not
plausibly be said to pose any threat to national security.
None of the "leakers" I have encountered are anarchists or
individuals who are indifferent or hostile to national security. They
simply do not regard the classification level of a document as an
accurate indication of its national security sensitivity. The problem
is, they are right.
But as a practical matter, the government has found it easier to
tolerate the growing number of leaks than to prune the secrecy
system down to the size dictated by genuine national security
considerations. Consequently, leaks have become an essential
component of the checks and balances that Americans depend on.
The Intelligence Budget: Classified, But Not Secret
"Well, my view is that it [the intelligence budget total] probably has
already been made public at least by allusion if nothing else. It
certainly seems to be the approximately worst kept secret in town."
--Admiral William O. Studeman19
The arguments for and against classification of the intelligence
budget were thoroughly laid out in 1976 by the Church Committee,
which concluded that the budget total should be published annually
and that publication of more detailed figures should be
considered.20 The arguments have not changed (or improved) with
age, though they are ritually recited at regular intervals.
The closest thing to a coherent argument against declassification is
that it would lead to a slippery slope of further uncontrolled
disclosures. But this is unsupported by experience with other
classified spending. Thus, the concealment of significant amounts
of classified (non-intelligence) defense spending within an
unclassified defense budget framework demonstrates that it is
perfectly feasible to "hold the line" against uncontrolled
Today, even the modest Church Committee suggestion-- that
disclosures beyond the total should be considered-- has little
official support, even among Congressional advocates of aggregate
And yet, thanks to numerous deliberate and accidental disclosures,
much of the U.S. intelligence budget now falls into the growing
category of information that is "classified, but not secret."
Thus, the House Appropriations Committee inadvertently disclosed
the size of the National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP), the
Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities (TIARA) program, and
the CIA budget.23 A classified memorandum setting out detailed
five year budget projections for the NSA, DIA and other agencies
was leaked to Defense Week, which published the memorandum.24
The recent report of the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities
of the U.S. Intelligence Community unintentionally provided
budget and personnel details on the CIA, DIA, NSA and NRO.25
Further details can be readily deduced from close examination of
unclassified government records.26
One could argue that if all of this information is already available,
then what difference does it make whether the budget is
declassified or not? There are at least two answers.
First, a drastic reduction in budget classification down to a level
that can reasonably be defended on genuine national security
grounds would allow the intelligence community to focus its
security resources where they are most needed. The nation should
no longer have to tolerate a situation where intelligence spending is
protected as a national security secret while U.S. adversaries
purchase spy satellite operating manuals for a few thousand dollars
and routinely detect, turn or execute U.S. intelligence sources.
Proponents of indiscriminate secrecy bear an unacknowledged
burden of responsibility for these failures of security where secrecy
Second, publication of the budget would help to demystify the "cult
of intelligence" and would significantly simplify the congressional
oversight burden which has otherwise proven to be unmanageable.
The Limits of Congressional Oversight
"I do not think there is a less becoming example of how this
Congress deals with fundamental issues than the way we have
historically dealt with intelligence." --Rep. Barney Frank27
By perpetuating a policy of indiscriminate secrecy, Congress has
needlessly crippled the intelligence oversight process, leaving the
quality of oversight almost entirely dependent on the good will and
the good faith of the intelligence community.
The defects of Congressional oversight of intelligence may be
summarized with the observation that intelligence demands greater
oversight than practically any other government activity, and yet it
Intelligence demands oversight above and beyond the mere
supervision of tens of billions of dollars of annual expenditures
because of the fact that it routinely operates outside the norms of
U.S. law. Thus, the House Intelligence Committee recently
observed that in the clandestine service hundreds of employees on a daily basis are directed to break extremely serious laws in countries around the world in the face of frequently sophisticated efforts by foreign governments to catch
them. A safe estimate is that several hundred times every day (easily
100,000 times a year) Directorate of Operations officers engage in
highly illegal activities....28
But even the "mere supervision" of routine budget matters often
seems to be beyond the reach of congressional oversight. For
example, billions of dollars of so-called "base" spending escapes
meaningful oversight every year, simply because budget documents
provide no detailed accounting for it and, at least until recently, it
never occurred to Congress to demand an accounting.29
The public record does not allow for a complete evaluation of the
quality and effectiveness of intelligence oversight. In fairness, the
possibility should be acknowledged that oversight could be much
better than is generally appreciated. And the very existence of the
oversight system may be said to have some salutary effects. Thus,
former DCI Robert Gates notes:
"I sat in the Situation Room in secret meetings for nearly twenty
years under five Presidents, and all I can say is that some awfully
crazy schemes might well have been approved had everyone present
not known and expected hard questions, debate, and criticism from
Fundamentally, however, the current system of Congressional
oversight is structurally defective, and does not even provide the
scrutiny that is devoted to other less important and dangerous
This is because of the fact that a large fraction of the "oversight"
function in every policy area from agriculture to health care is
performed by the media, including numerous specialized trade
publications. At the Pentagon alone, well over a thousand
journalists hold building passes and are free to roam its halls at
will, sniffing around for dirt or, at least, news. Their investigative
efforts are supplemented and informed by countless advocacy
But the opportunity for media and advocacy group oversight of
intelligence is extremely limited in an environment in which even
the budget for pens and pencils is a national security secret. Partly
for this reason, the number of journalists who do original
investigative reporting on intelligence matters is in the low double-
digits, and the number of private advocacy groups doing their own
research is in the single digits.
"Because of the classified nature of the programs we review," writes
Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Mary K. Sturtevant, "we are
especially reliant on information provided by the very Community
we hope to oversee. We lack alternative sources of information and
points of view on intelligence budget requests, as there are few
constituents with legitimate access to intelligence programs who
wish to bring information forward to the Committees."31
No matter how competent the Committee staffers may be, they
cannot possibly make up for the deficit in independent information
and analysis that results from the comprehensive secrecy
"Although we occasionally hear the charge of 'micromanagement',"
says Ms. Sturtevant, "we always shake our heads in wonder that
this could be so. In toto, we are perhaps one dozen or so full-time
budget staff supporting the Intelligence Authorization and
Appropriations Committees of both the House and the Senate
reviewing activities conducted by tens of thousands of civilian and
military personnel and programs valued in the multiple billions of
"We normally can review a program only once a year, [if that,] so
we make up ours minds quickly [on the basis of limited
information].... The great majority of continuing, or 'base,' programs
Thus, the oversight process remains inadequate even when, as in
the current environment, the intelligence community is relatively
forthcoming to the oversight committees. (Since May 1995, CIA
has provided over 300 notifications of intelligence activities to the
A drastic reduction in the scope of intelligence-related secrecy
would enable Congress to concentrate its very limited resources on
the most sensitive aspects of intelligence policy (which are properly
kept secret), while allowing the press and the interested public to
take up the slack on the rest.
Instead, the intrinsic limitations of Congressional oversight have
been further aggravated by the idiosyncrasies of the 104th
Congress. The House Intelligence Committee in particular has been
possessed by alien notions that the Committee should be an
advocate for the agencies it oversees35; that declassification should
be discouraged and executive branch secrecy should be
increased36; and that covert action can somehow be an instrument
of a Congressional foreign policy.37
The reputation of Congressional oversight has now been degraded
to the point that few Americans look to the intelligence committees
to represent and defend their interests. The recent firestorm of
criticism over alleged CIA links to cocaine traffickers reflects,
among other things, a loss of public confidence in current oversight
In any event, with the erosion of discipline in the secrecy system,
the press and the public are able to assert an ever greater role in
overseeing U.S. intelligence.
Overcoming Intelligence Secrecy
"It is my firmly held conviction that if there is to be real,
meaningful, significant change in the Intelligence Community, it
will have to come from without. Not from within. Because having
recently been a part of it, I don't believe that the Community in and
of itself is capable of fundamental reform. That is not a pejorative
comment, it is, in my view, a statement of fact." --former DIA
Director Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper38
When government institutions fail in an open society, citizens are
not powerless to respond. And when the intelligence community
fails to deliver on its promises of "openness" and Congress blocks
more fundamental reforms, that is by no means the end of the story.
Despite the obstacles to media oversight of intelligence, there are at
least a handful of outstanding reporters-- we all know who they are-
- who regularly report to the public (and to the Congress) more
information than the intelligence community would wish to have
disclosed, and newspaper editors gladly highlight their work on the
front pages. The erosion of security discipline noted above, while
regrettable in the abstract, makes media oversight increasingly
feasible by transferring disclosure authority to the news room.
For example, we now know more about the failed covert operation
in Iraq over the last six months than we know about the majority of
the thousands of covert actions that took place over the last fifty
Even relatively trivial classified budget decisions, like a recent
proposal for a new gymnasium at the CIA, can be determined by
media attention. Plans to pursue the $10 million athletic facility at
the CIA were canceled only after the Washington Post (not
Congress) began to ask questions about it.40
If the effect of indiscriminate secrecy is to discourage (or shape)
public awareness of intelligence, then any public discussion-- even
the most demented posting on an internet news group-- is an
appropriate act of resistance and may help to legitimize a public
voice on intelligence policy.
Perversely, public discourse on intelligence appears to be most
politically effective when it is least accurate. Thus, Oliver Stone's
hallucinatory movie RJFKS succeeded-- where pusillanimous
appeals to the public interest failed-- in dislodging hundreds of
thousands of pages about the assassination of President Kennedy
from CIA files. By any rational assessment of the requirements of
national security, most of these records should have been
declassified long ago, but it took Oliver Stone to make it happen.
Similarly, propagation of the Roswell myth-- i.e. the asserted crash
of an extraterrestrial spacecraft in New Mexico in 1947 and the
subsequent coverup-- proved remarkably effective in promoting
declassification of records from that era.41 But in these cases and
others, the public attitudes that eventually precipitated
declassification became so deeply rooted that they have not been
discernably affected by the release of the old documents. In this
way, current classification policy promotes public stupidity.42
But this is old news. In the not too distant future, emerging new
technologies will dramatically reduce public dependence on the
willingness of the intelligence community and the Congress to
disclose information. One outstanding example is the commercial
high-resolution satellite imaging capabilities that will become
available to the public and the media in 1998, and which exceed the
quality of what was available to the U.S. intelligence community
itself as recently as thirty years ago. For better and for worse, there
will be far fewer secrets as a result.
In effect, the public will soon have an alternative intelligence
capability that is not bound by the rather skewed priorities of the
official intelligence community, which has come to emphasize
"support to military operations" at the expense of preventive
diplomacy and other national interests.
Even allowing for exaggerated expectations and several degrees of
hype, the advent of high resolution satellite imagery-- along with
the global media explosion, expanding Internet utility, and similar
developments-- represents a fundamental shift in the "balance of
power" between individual citizens and the government.43
In this scenario, historians are the losers, since the intelligence
community may never fully disgorge its Cold War secrets, just as
the Congress may never allow the contents of the intelligence
budget to be officially discussed in public. But for everyone else,
official secrecy will come to matter less and less.
Steps to the Future
"Any improved structure for American intelligence must recognize
that the American people are no longer content to provide blind
support for the secret work of intelligence, whatever may have been
the traditions of the past. It is, therefore, ...essential that the
relationship of the people to our intelligence apparatus be redefined
and made appropriate to modern America.... --former DCI William
The above considerations lead to several specific proposals that
would substantially reduce the indiscriminate secrecy surrounding
intelligence, and make it more responsive to the demands of the
1. Declassify the intelligence budget down to the program level.
All intelligence agency budgets should be declassified at least
down to the program level, following the well-established example
of the Department of Defense.
The defense budget specifies many dozens of classified programs,
identified only by their program nickname, whose purpose remains
obscure, i.e. protected. The same practice should be adopted in the
Contrary to the prevailing view, the amount of money spent on
intelligence is not intrinsically sensitive, although it may be
politically controversial. As the defense budget has proven for
decades, revealing the amount of money spent on a program does
not jeopardize the sensitive contents of that program. It is simply
fallacious to assert that disclosing the amount of money the CIA or
DIA spends on analysis-- or the cost of a particular satellite
program, not to mention general construction and administrative
costs-- would compromise sensitive sources and methods. Even the
amount of spending for clandestine collection or covert action
could reveal nothing about the distribution or the targeting of such
activities, and should be declassified. As it is, these numbers are
It has been argued that even if individual numbers do not
compromise sensitive information, year-to-year comparisons of
incremental spending changes would reveal sensitive new
initiatives. But this is a Cold War argument predicated on a global
Soviet threat. Today, even the DCI feels no hesitation in publicly
announcing that funding for human intelligence has been
maintained "at a constant level" or that "The gain of new sources in
the past 18 months far exceeds previous achievements."46
Publishing the budget for clandestine collection would not even
reveal that much.
Budget disclosure is a sine qua non for reintegrating U.S.
intelligence into post-Cold War American democracy. If it cannot
be accomplished, then any other "reforms" will likely be futile.
2. Formally recognize the public as a legitimate consumer of
"Intelligence must accept the end of its special status in the
American government, and take on the task of informing the public
of its nature and its activities as any other department or agency....
By far the most effective manner of accomplishing the task of
public education is by letting the public benefit directly from the
products of intelligence, its information and assessments...." --
former DCI William Colby47
One of the basic definitional questions concerning intelligence is,
Whom does it serve? Traditionally the answer to this question has
been the President and his circle of advisers.
But intelligence is information that is used to inform policy,
particularly on crucial issues of defense and foreign affairs. And if
citizens are to be more than passive spectators of events and mute
consumers of "news," then they need access to intelligence too.
According to conventional wisdom, secrecy is intrinsic to
intelligence and the notion of "public intelligence" is a
contradiction in terms.48 To demand public access to intelligence
is to reject this view.
However, to the extent that disclosure compromises or degrades
sensitive intelligence sources or methods, intelligence disclosure
Obviously, then, the optimum solution would be 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.
Currently, section 103 of the National Security Act specifies that
the Director of Central Intelligence is responsible for providing
national intelligence to (a) the President; (b) executive branch
agency heads; © to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and
senior military commanders; and (d) "where appropriate, to the
Senate and House of Representatives and the committees
This section should now be amended to recognize the American
public as an authorized consumer of intelligence, consistent with
legitimate security requirements.
The precise implications of such an amendment would remain to be
worked out (and fought over). But the statutory recognition of the
public as an intelligence consumer would signal the beginning of a
long overdue revolution in intelligence. The very idea of public
intelligence challenges the foundations of Cold War intelligence
policy in a way that the pieties of the official reform commissions
and task forces failed to do.50
3. Limit the secrecy of "sources and methods" to those instances
where disclosure would demonstrably damage sources or methods.
It is clear that the DCI has abused his authority to protect
intelligence sources and methods by extending such protection to
all manner of information that does not warrant it. The continued
classification today of the 1947 intelligence budget on "sources and
methods" grounds, as cited above, is sufficient proof of that.
Consequently, it is necessary to limit that authority. Just as the
1974 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act specified that
information is not necessarily exempt from disclosure just because
it is classified-- rather, it must be "properly classified"-- so the
"sources and methods" exemption can no longer be left to the DCI's
subjective discretion or whim.
Therefore, the National Security Act [section 103©(5)] should be
amended to state that the DCI shall "protect intelligences sources
and methods from unauthorized disclosure if that disclosure would
demonstrably lead to loss of life or significant loss of intelligence
capability" or language to that effect. What is essential is that a
defensible standard for withholding information must be set, and it
must be subject to independent judicial review.
4. Reduce the volume of classified information by cancelling the lowest classification levels.
"If the American people ever learned how much slop and drivel is
disguised by imposing classifications and caveats, they would have
our heads-- and we would deserve our fates." --U.S. Army Major
"Ames was passing so much information to the KGB that VLAD
gently suggested it was sometimes too much-- the CIA secrets were
beginning to clog the KGB's files." --David Wise52
There is too much classified information in the U.S. intelligence
community. Indiscriminate classification does a disservice to the
nation first of all by withholding information that does not need
protection. But it also devalues the effectiveness of the
classification system itself by diverting security resources from
where they are needed most, and by promoting contempt for
classification inside and outside of the government.
Last year's executive order 12958 on "Classified National Security
Information" set out a fairly ambitious program for declassification
of 25 year old records, but did little or nothing to limit
contemporary classification activity. Indeed, anything that could
have been classified the day before the order took effect could also
have been classified the day after. Consequently, post-Cold War
reductions in the scope of classification remain to be achieved.
Just as the magnitude and intensity of the threat to U.S. national
security have diminished significantly with the demise of the Soviet
Union, the scope and volume of government secrecy should be
One way to proceed would be to categorically invalidate the two
lowest levels of classification, Confidential and Secret. With a
reasonable allowance for exceptions, most of this material should
not be reviewed in any depth, but should simply be declassified by
If the purpose of classification really is to protect the nation's most
sensitive secrets-- a task at which it has failed so badly in recent
years-- then the wholesale cancellation and release of the least
sensitive secrets would materially assist in achieving that purpose,
while marking the end of Cold War classification policy.
"The world is moving inexorably into an era of openness. We have
the choice of being pushed into this new era or of leading the rest
of the world into it." --former DCI Stansfield Turner53
The kinds of measures described above would constitute important
steps towards a more productive, responsive, and acountable
Of course, political conditions today are heavily weighted against
proposals such as these, or indeed against any deliberate changes at
all, as the collapse of the intelligence reform efforts of the last year
The good news, however, is that preserving the status quo is not a
realistic option. The classification system can be fixed, or it can be
allowed to deteriorate in the face of public and media resistance.
Oversight can serve to uphold broad public interests, or it can
devolve into a mere appendage of the intelligence agencies. The
intelligence community itself can be transformed to enlighten and
inform the nation as a whole, or it can continue to fight some
iteration of the Cold War.
In each case, the path of least resistance is to do nothing, and let
current trends play out as they will. But following that path, the
U.S. intelligence community will be scorned by a growing sector of
the public, and then rejected by its official consumers, as it is
outmaneuvered and outperformed by increasingly agile competitors.
1. The CIA File, edited by Robert L. Borosage and John Marks,
Grossman Publishers, New York, 1976, page 182.
2. In 1995, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Human
Radiation Experiments called for the expeditious declassification
of all surviving classified records from MKULTRA and more than
half a dozen related CIA human experimentation programs from the
late 1940s to the early 1970s. To date, the CIA has not complied
with this recommendation. Final Report of the Advisory Committee
on Human Radiation Experiments, October 1995, Recommendation
18, pp. 837-839.
3. Yet that is exactly what the CIA argues. In denying the request
(CIA FOIA number 95-0825), CIA cited FOIA exemptions (b)(1)
on national security and (b)(3) on protection of sources and
methods. An appeal of the denial is still pending. In a startling
reflection of how much the Cold War distorted American political
standards, the budget of the Office of Strategic Services, the World
War II predecessor of the CIA, was unclassified even during the
4. "IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century,"
hearings before the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence, July 27, 1995, page 205.
5. An exception: For some reason, the Department of Justice Office
of Intelligence Policy and Review is extraordinarily forthcoming
with documents requested under the FOIA, and routinely fulfills
requests within the statutory ten day time limit! If prizes were
awarded for complying with the law, this Office would be a winner.
6. The DCI has essentially unlimited authority under the sources
and methods provision to withhold information, no matter how
remote it may actually be from revealing a sensitive intelligence
source or method. The information need not be "properly
classified" under the executive order on national security
information. National Security Act of 1947, section 103©(4), 50
7. NSC Intelligence Directive No. 12, "Avoidance of Publicity
Concerning the Intelligence Agencies of the U.S. Government,"
January 6, 1950. Reprinted in "Emergence of the Intelligence
Establishment," Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945-1950,
U.S. GPO, 1996, pp. 1118-1119.
8. Welcome as these disclosures are, they have hardly begun to
appease most historians of national security. See, for example,
"CIA Less Than Helpful to Historians Seeking to Analyze Covert
Operations," by Jim Mann, Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1996.
9. As noted by Brian Latell, Director, CIA Center for the Study of
Intelligence, speaking at the National Archives on July 24. But
according to the executive order, 15% of the inventory of 25 year
old classified records were to be declassified by mid-October 1996
and CIA has not come close to declassifying 9 million pages this
year (i.e. 15% of its 60 million declared pages).
10. An amendment to the 1997 Defense Authorization Act will
exempt from disclosure under the FOIA all information about "the
organization or any function of" the Defense Intelligence Agency,
the National Reconnaissance Office, and the new National Imagery
and Mapping Agency. This exempts information above and beyond
what is properly classified (which is already exempt from the
FOIA). See Inside the Pentagon, August 8, 1996, page 17.
11. Refreshingly, DCI William Casey did not claim to support
greater openness in intelligence.
12. This is not to dismiss the threat posed by terrorists,
proliferants, and others to global or regional stability. The point,
rather, is that all the terrorists in the world do not add up to one
USSR. The baseline threat to U.S. national security has dropped by
orders of magnitude, while classification policy remains predicated
on a ubiquitous high-tech superpower adversary.
13. "U.S. Sets Baghdad Missile Strike," by Bill Gertz, Washington
Times, 9/3/96, p. 1; "U.S. is Preparing Bigger Air Strikes on
Targets in Iraq," by Philip Shenon, New York Times, 9/12/96, p.
14. "Overall support for security and counter-espionage measures is
quite strong. Only in terms of the classification of secrets does the
majority favor the anti-security [sic] position." See "Public
Attitudes Towards Security and Counter-Espionage Matters in the
Post Cold-War Period," November 1994, commissioned by the
Personnel Security Research Center of the U.S. Department of
15. Government officials always say "leaks are worse than they
have ever been." But Schlesinger, who in 1975 advocated
prosecuting Seymour Hersh of the New York Times for publishing
classified information, has some standing to make this comparison.
"IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century," hearings
before the House Intelligence Committee, May 22, 1995, p. 73.
16. Walter Laqueur, A World of Secrets: The Uses and Limits of
Intelligence, Basic Books, New York, 1985, page 391, note 31. The
reference is to a secret memo that surfaced in early 1945 concerning
plans to create an "all powerful super spy system."
17. A copy of Secretary Perry's July 31 memorandum on leaks,
which itself was obtained through unofficial channels, is available
18. Walter Pincus, "Iranian Arms and the 'Instruction of No
Instructions'," Washington Post, April 28, 1996, page A20.
19. "Nomination of Vice Admiral William O. Studeman to be
Deputy Director of Central Intelligence," hearings before the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 10, 1992, p. 49.
20. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations
with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Foreign and Military
Intelligence, Book I, 1976, pp. 367-384.
21. It is true that one highly classified-- in fact, unacknowledged--
DoD program was penetrated by unauthorized American citizens a
few years ago, but a subsequent investigation determined that it
should not have been classified at that high a level in the first place.
See "The Timber Wind Special Access Program," DoD Inspector
General Report Number 93-033, December 16, 1992.
22. Senator Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence, has stated that aggregate budget
declassification should be the beginning, not the end, of budget
23. Tim Weiner, "$28 Billion Spying Budget is Made Public by
Mistake," New York Times, November 4, 1994.
24. Tony Capaccio and Eric Rosenberg, "Deutch Approves $27
Billion for Pentagon Spy Budgets," Defense Week, August 29,
25. R. Jeffrey Smith, "Making Connections With Dots to Decipher
U.S. Spy Spending," The Washington Post, March 12, 1996, p.
26.See the budget analysis prepared by John Pike of the Federation
of American Scientists at http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/index.html.
27. Congressional Record, December 21, 1995, page H15496.
28. "IC21: Intelligence Community in the 21st Century," Staff
Study, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 1996,
p. 205. This study is the most important congressional publication
on intelligence since the Church Committee report.
29. Nearly 20 years after the House Intelligence Committee was
established, it was still necessary for the IC21 Staff Study to argue
that "Costs should be delineated as thoroughly for 'baseline'
collection and other programs as for non-baseline programs. The
NFIP practice of maintaining an undelineated intelligence 'base'
should be banished." (p. 117). More than one-third of the national
reconnaissance program budget-- or more than $2 billion-- falls
into the undelineated 'base' category.
30. From the Shadows, Simon & Schuster, 1996, page 559.
31. Mary K. Sturtevant, "Congressional Oversight of Intelligence:
One Perspective," American Intelligence Journal, Summer 1992,
pp. 17-20. Some of the "few constituents" are intelligence
contractors, who have unfettered access to lobby for lucrative
programs that potential critics are not even supposed to know
about. See Robert Dreyfuss, "Orbit of Influence: Spy Finance and
the Black Budget," The American Prospect, March-April 1996, pp.
32. The integrity of the oversight process is further compromised by
the longstanding "revolving door" between the intelligence
community and the oversight committee staff, as in the recent
appointment of a former House Intelligence Committee
staffmember to become General Counsel of the CIA. When
conflicts arise between the agency interest and the public interest, a
staffer who harbors ambitions of a career in intelligence will
naturally be tempted to defer to the agency.
33.Sturtevant, op.cit., bracketed words in original.
34. Inside the Pentagon, September 12, 1996, pp. 5-6. The
oversight committees have also been blessed with access to
Intelink, the classified intelligence computer network.
35. See the IC21 Staff Study, chapter 15. The Committee seems to
misapprehend the extraordinary nature of intelligence oversight. It
will be impossible to "normalize" intelligence oversight, as the
Committee proposes, as long as the most basic features of
intelligence policy remain classified.
36. In addition to cuts on spending for declassification and new
exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, the Chairman of the
House Intelligence Committee opposed declassification of the
intelligence budget total even after the DCI determined it could be
37. The clumsy insistence of the House Intelligence Committee on
expanding covert action against Iran late last year significantly
embarrassed the United States in the world press. On August 12,
1996, the Government of Iran submitted a formal complaint to a
tribunal in The Hague, arguing plausibly that the U.S. action
violated the 1980 Algiers Accord between the U.S. and Iran.
38. "IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century,"
hearings before the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence, November 16, 1995, p. 317.
39. See, e.g., Tim Weiner, "Iraqi Offensive Into Kurdish Zone
Disrupts U.S. Plot to Oust Hussein," New York Times, September
7, 1996; R.Jeffrey Smith, "CIA Operation Fell With Iraqi City,"
Washington Post, September 8, 1996; R. Jeffrey Smith and David
B. Ottaway, "Anti-Saddam Operation Cost CIA $100 Million,"
Washington Post, September 15, 1996, p. A1; and Kevin Fedarko,
"Saddam's CIA Coup," Time, September 23, 1996, pp. 42-44.
40. Walter Pincus, "Deutch Shelves $10 Million CIA Field House,"
Washington Post, July 31, 1996, page A25.
41. See, e.g., The Roswell Report: Fact versus Fiction in the New
Mexico Desert, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government
Printing Office stock no. 008-070-00697-9,1995, approx. 1000
42. Conspiracy-mongering as a strategy for promoting
declassification may have already reached its peak, as the threshold
for outrageousness becomes unachievably high and public
discourse becomes increasingly incoherent. Today, "No one is
willing to read 20 books on the CIA when they can watch 20
episodes of 'The X Files,' and have more fun doing it," writes
Daniel Brandt of Public Information Research . The result is a
problem that Mr. Brandt terms "Why Johnny Can't Dissent."
43. For information on the use of high resolution imagery for
public interest applications, see the FAS "Public Eye" website at
http://www.fas.org/eye/. See also Gary Stix, "Public Eye,"
Scientific American, August 1996, pp. 18-19; and Charles Lane,
"The Satellite Revolution," The New Republic, August 12, 1996,
44. Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA, Simon & Schuster, 1978,
45. Reasonable estimates of spending on covert action can already
be inferred from the public record. See John Pike, "Uncloaked
Dagger: CIA Spending for Covert Action," Covert Action
Quarterly, Winter 1994-95, pp. 48-55.
46. R. Jeffrey Smith, "Critics 'Wrong,' CIA Chief Says," The
Washington Post, September 6, 1996, p. A21; Tim Weiner, "The
CIA Seeks Out Informers on Terrorism, and Finds Them," New
York Times, September 6, 1996, p. A2.
47. Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA, Simon & Schuster, 1978,
48. Thus, "The connection between intelligence and secrecy is
central to most of what distinguishes intelligence from other
intellectual activities." Abram Shulsky, Silent Warfare:
Understanding the World of Intelligence, first edition, Brassey's,
1991, p. 174. For a starkly contrasting conception, see Robert
David Steele, "E3I: Ethics, Ecology, Evolution, and Intelligence,"
Whole Earth Review, Fall 1992, pp. 74-79.
49. Interestingly, the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence recently attempted to upgrade its status to a full-
fledged equal consumer of national intelligence by deleting the
phrase "where appropriate," thereby requiring the DCI to provide
intelligence "to the Senate and House of Representatives and the
appropriate committees thereof." See House Report 104-620, part
1, on "The Intelligence Community Act," sect. 102(b)(3). This
proposed legislation never reached the House floor.
50. In a intriguing development, the new Strategic Plan of the CIA
Directorate of Intelligence (DI) states that "public outreach will be
one of the Directorate's highest priorities [!], embracing all levels of
the organization." Further, "The DI will be well suited to discuss
with the general public how the IC serves the American people--
not just an administration or Congress." But the Plan does not
consider the possibility that American citizens have a legitimate
interest in direct access to most DI products. See "Directorate of
Intelligence in the 21st Century: Strategic Plan," Central
Intelligence Agency, August 1996.
51. This remark might seem to be just a cheap rhetorical jibe if the
author were not employed at the Office of the Deputy Chief of
Staff for Intelligence at the Pentagon. See volume 2 of the
Proceedings of the 1995 Open Source Symposium, Open Source
Solutions, Oakton, VA, pp. 428-436.
52. Nightmover, Harper Collins, New York, 1995, page 155.
53. Secrecy and Democracy, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985, page 285.