Stasi Documents Provide Details on Operation RYaN, the Soviet Plan to Predict and Preempt a Western Nuclear Strike; Show Uneasiness Over Degree of “Clear-Headedness About the Entire RYaN Complex.”
Newly available Stasi notes of meetings between Soviet and East German security heads between 1981 and 1984 provide unprecedented details of Operation RYaN, the Soviet intelligence effort to detect and preempt a Western “surprise nuclear missile attack,” that contributed to the risk of nuclear war through miscalculation during the 1983 Able Archer nuclear war scare. These documents provide operational details to the scanty documentary record of Operation RYaN; disclose that the KGB received funding to create 300 new positions so that it could monitor and report on a Western nuclear first strike (that the West had never contemplated); and hint at Stasi –and KGB– concerns over lack of “clear-headedness about the entire RYaN complex,” inferring that Operation RYaN increased, rather than decreased, the danger of nuclear war.
These Stasi memorandums of conversations at the highest levels were released by the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic (BStU), translated to English by Bernd Schaefer, and introduced, posted, and contextualized (in a collection of nine documents dating to 1964) by Walter Süß and Douglas Selvage in a Cold War International History Project e-dossier. The release reinforces the need for international archival research and collaboration to more fully unravel the mystery of the “last paroxysm” of the Cold War, and stands as a stark and important contrast to the improper and absurd national security claims used by American and British intelligence agencies to prevent the release of information about this nuclear war scare.
Operation RYaN –RYaN(РЯН) is the Russian acronym for Raketno-Yadernoye Napadenie (Ракетно ядерное нападение), оr “nuclear missile attack”– began in May 1981. At a major KGB conference in Moscow, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, then Chairman of the KGB, announced the creation of Operation RYaN because, they claimed, the United States was “actively preparing for nuclear war” against the Soviet Union and its allies.
The establishment of Operation RYaN has been corroborated by KGB annual reports from 1981 and 1982, previously published by the National Security Archive. The 1981 annual report states that the KGB had ”implemented measures to strengthen intelligence work in order to prevent a possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy.” To do this, the KGB “actively obtained information on military and strategic issues, and the aggressive military and political plans of imperialism [the United States] and its accomplices,” and “enhanced the relevance and effectiveness of its active intelligence abilities.”
The 1982 annual report confirmed Soviet fears of Western encirclement, and noted the challenges of countering the “U.S. and NATO aspirations to change the existing military-strategic balance.” Therefore, “[p]rimary attention was paid to military and strategic issues related to the danger of the enemy’s thermonuclear attack.”
The most comprehensive account of Operation RYaN remains a Top Secret February 1983 telegram from KGB Headquarters Moscow to the London KGB Residency entitled “Permanent operational assignment to uncover NATO preparations for a nuclear missile attack on the USSR,” with enclosed instructions on how to report on indicators pointing toward a nuclear sneak attack. This document was published in full in 1991 by Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky (who alerted MI6, which then warned the US, of the danger of Able Archer 83) and British intelligence historian Christopher Andrew in Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985.
According to Gordievsky, each station chief (resident) in “Western countries, Japan, and some states in the Third World” received an Operation RYaN directive. Each was addressed by name, labeled “strictly personal,” and designated to be kept in a special file. The directive stated:
“The objective of the assignment is to see that the Residency works systematically to uncover any plans in preparation by the main adversary [USA] for RYaN and to organize continual watch to be kept for indications of a decision being taken to use nuclear weapons against the USSR or immediate preparations being made for a nuclear missile attack.”
Attached to the telegram was a list of seven “immediate” and thirteen “prospective” tasks for the agents to complete and report. These included: the collection of data on potential places of evacuation and shelter, an appraisal of the level of blood held in blood banks, observation of places where nuclear decisions were made and where nuclear weapons were stored, observation of key nuclear decision makers, observation of lines of communication, reconnaissance of the heads of churches and banks, and surveillance of security services and military installations.
Hard numbers revealing that within the KGB, 300 positions were created so that RYaN operatives could implement the real-time “transmission and evaluation” of reported indicators showing the likelihood of a Western first strike. This puts an actual number on the people required to conduct Operation RYaN, previously called “the largest peacetime intelligence gathering operation in history.” In July of 1984, KGB chairman Victor Chebrikov created a new division within the First Department (Information) of the KGB’s First Main Directorate (responsible for foreign intelligence and operations) to implement Operation RYaN throughout the KGB and world. This coordinating division was composed of 50 KGB officers. It is possible (see below) that this new coordinating division was created as a reaction to the false alerts generated by Operation RYaN in November 1983 incorrectly warning that a NATO nuclear release drill, Able Archer 83, could have been an actual nuclear attack.
Further acknowledgment that the Stasi was the KGB’s primary source of foreign intelligence. In July 1981, Andropov thanked Stasi head Erich Mielke for providing information on “West German tank production, defense technology, and the NATO manual [as of now the contents of this manual is unknown].” Andropov then complemented the Stasi, lauding, “We rate your information very highly” and forebodingly requested Stasi sources to procure “an assessment of the NATO manual and NATO’s preparations for war.”
- A possible reference to a primitive computer that the Soviet Union was using to track and calculate the coalition of world forces, including the risk of nuclear war. The KGB reported to the Stasi that it had “revised its planning for scientific-technological research and industrial procurement” of new “reliably working technology.” The notes of this meeting do not use the term “computer,” but Gordievsky had earlier reported of ”a large computer model in the Min[istry] of Defense to calculate and monitor the correlation of forces, including mili[tary], economy, [and] psychological factors, to assign numbers and relative weights.” Four days after the conclusion of Able Archer 83, US Defense and Intelligence officials circulated an article entitled, ”In pursuit of the Essence of War” that described a Soviet method which “cataloged and computerized” the world’s “correlation of forces.” The results, it claimed, were “highly objective, empirically provable and readily adaptable to modern data processing.”
A confirmation that, as of September 1983, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov, remained in charge of the Soviet Union. Deputy Chairman of the KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov told Stasi head Erich Mielke that although Andropov was officially on vacation in the Southern USSR, it was “no actual vacation… For half the day he is reading information, including ours [KGB] and what we received from you.” This account squares with those provided by Soviet historian Roy Medvedev and Marahal Nikolai Ogarkov that describe how Andropov would summon his advisors, generals, and Politburo members to his hospital bed to govern the Soviet Union. It was there that Orgarkov described Andropov as “fully engaged in the leadership of the country and the army, and the defense of the country.” Despite his absence from public view, Andropov remained the leader of the Politburo. However, key discussions during Andropov’s tenure as General Secretary did not occur in formal Politburo meetings, but at his hospital bedside.
Evidence showing the Soviets believed KAL flight 007 –which was shot down by a Soviet jet over the sea of Japan on September 1, 1983– was a military, rather than civilian aircraft. Deputy Chairman of the KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov opened the September 19, 1983, meeting by quipping “you do not shoot down such a type of airplane once a month,” and spent the majority of the meeting attempting to explain the Soviet rationale and decision to shoot down the plane. Kryuchkov explained to Mielke that “we were convinced that it was a military aircraft” and that Soviet radar vulnerabilities prevented real time tracking of the aircraft and contributed to the Soviet’s horrific decision to mistakenly kill all 269 passengers aboard. The inability of Soviet radar to track incoming aircraft (a vulnerability tested repeatedly since the beginning of the Reagan administration) contributed to the USSR’s reliance on human intelligence (Operation RYaN) and to their misreading of other indicators during Able Archer 83.
Finally, that there was a persistent undercurrent of skepticism about the effectiveness of Operation RYaN detectable from both the KGB and Stasi. In August of 1984, Lev Shapkin, deputy director of the KGB foreign intelligence, told Marcus Wolf, head of Stasi foreign intelligence, that reforms to Operation RYaN were underway. Though Operation RYaN’s false reporting during Able Archer 83 was not mentioned in the meeting, the two intelligence officials clearly were worried that false warnings of a Western nuclear first strike could lead to preemptive actions by Soviet nuclear forces. Shapkin told Wolf that the indicators agents were observing and reporting, “must be complemented, revised, and made more precise” and bemoaned “the problem of not getting deceived” by faulty indicators (say, during a nuclear release drill). He reiterated that “clear-headedness about the entire RYAN complex” was a “mandatory requirement.” Marcus Wolf included his concerns in an addendum to the summary of the meetings, stressing the need to know the “actual situation” rather than the picture presented by Operation RYaN’s indicators. ”Constant and ongoing assessments,” he sensibly wrote, “have to be made whether certain developments actually constitute a crisis or not.”
The release and dissemination of these revealing Operation RYaN documents by the German government and the Cold War International History Project are a refreshing departure from the secrecy still cloaking documents about the 1983 War Scare in Moscow, Washington, and other capitals. These revelations also serve as a clarion call for historians to continue pressing for the declassification of the events and reasons which increased the risk of nuclear war through miscalculation during the 1983 War Scare.
 Other sources vary the spelling of RYaN. Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin spelled it “ryon.” Another spelling includes the word “suprise:” “VRYAN” “vnezapnoe raketno yadernoe napadenie” –surprise nuclear missile attack. Czech Intelligence referred to the operation as NRJAN. One document shows that the Bulgarians monitored “VRYAN indicators” as late as June 1987, and other East German documents show that the operation continued until 1990.
 Robert Fairly once quipped to me on Blogging Heads, that the KGB was not the only national security bureaucracy to lobby for and create large, unnecessary, and ineffective programs to spawn positions for its employees. See also: Kyl-Lott Review.
 New evidence on Able Archer 83 has revealed multiple non-routine elements, including: a 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe, the shifting of commands from “Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters,” the practice of “new nuclear weapons release procedures,” including consultations with cells in Washington and London, and the “sensitive, political issue” of numerous “slips of the tongue” in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear “strikes.” These variations, seen through “the fog of nuclear exercises,” did in fact match official Soviet intelligence-defined indicators for “possible operations by the USA and its allies on British territory in preparation for RYaN.”
 Marcus Wolf, “The Man Without a Face,” did not write kindly of the Soviets, or Operation RYaN in his 1997 memoir: ”Our Soviet partners had become obsessed with the danger of a nuclear missile attack,” though he writes that he did not. “Like most intelligent people, I found these war games a burdensome waste of time, but these orders were no more open to discussion than other orders from above.” CIA historian Benjamin Fisher has astutely noted that the English language version of Wolf’s memoir, omits an entire chapter the “War Scare” that is in the German edition. According to Wolf’s memoir, Andropov once described to him, “a gloomy scenario in which a nuclear war might be a real threat. His sober analysis came to the conclusion that the US government was striving with all means available to establish nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union.” We can now also read that in a meeting between Andropov (then KGB head) and Mielke in July 1981, Andropov warned, “Reagan’s vulgar speeches show the true face of the military-industrial complex. They have long sought such a figure. Now, they have finally found it in the form of Reagan.”
For more on the 1983 War Scare see The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook and Countdown to Declassification: Finding Answers to a 1983 War Scare.
The US has joined the international community in expressing security concerns for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, even sending law enforcement to help secure the games. Threats of violence at the international event are not new, as evidenced by the kidnapping and killing of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and the bombing of the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City stand out from other tragedies because the ruling Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) used the international attention of the Olympic games to justify intimidating student opposition groups, and — as declassified evidence proves likely– framing them for attacking police officers to initiate the crackdown. Investigative work by Archivist Kate Doyle and others has helped preserve the declassified record on the events of ’68, and the documents highlighted in today’s post, originally published in Doyle’s 2003 Electronic Briefing Book, provide both a fascinating glimpse at US security concerns in Mexico City surrounding the ’68 Games and US-Mexican relations.
Along with investing $150 million towards preparations for the 1968 Olympics, the Mexican government attempted to quell growing domestic unrest before the international event by stifling independent labor unions and other forms of political expression. The government’s hardening stance in the lead-up to the Olympics became a rallying point for Mexico’s nascent student movement (CNH), which intended to use the Olympics as a platform for their protests demanding a more democratic Mexico. Mexican President Diaz Ordaz became increasingly concerned about the effect the protests would have on the games, and declassified documents reveal his concerns prompted the Pentagon to send military radios, weapons, ammunition and riot control training material to Mexico before and during the protests.
A secret September 27, 1968, telegram sent from the US Embassy in Mexico a week before the massacre described how the upcoming games were effecting the Mexican government’s response to the student protests, stating that the “Govt has been committed to forceful showdown with students since army took over Unam. [. . .] Govt at moment not seeking compromise solution with students but rather seeking to put end to all organized student actions before Olympics. Secretary of Government has informed Emb. Officer that CNH itself does not want settlement. Aim of Govt believed to be to round up extremists elements and detain them until after Olympics. Thus Govt believes detention extremists offers better prospect for peaceful Olympics than would compromise settlement leaving extremists free.”
On the night of October 2, 1968, ten days before the beginning of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexican officials shot and killed an unknown number of student and civilian protesters in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City. According to Doyle, even though “months of nation-wide student strikes had prompted an increasingly hard-line response from the Diaz Ordaz regime,” the bloodshed was astonishing. Eye-witnesses “described the bodies of hundreds of young people being trucked away” after the shooting and pointed the blame at the President’s security forces, while the Mexican government insisted they were provoked by the protesters, “claiming that extremists and Communist agitators had initiated the violence,” and counted the initial death toll at four. Declassified documents and the investigative work by Doyle and others have shed some light on the incidents of Tlatelolco, but with no formal investigation into the killings undertaken until after the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, the official death toll is still unknown.
One of the government’s tactics to infiltrate the student protests was the Olympic Brigade, which was comprised of Mexican law enforcement and ordered to disrupt and arrest student leaders. Declassified documents indicate the day of the massacre “that snipers posted by the military fired on fellow troops, provoking them to open fire on the students.” As Doyle says, “[t]housands of students gathered in the square and, as you say, the government version is that the students opened fire. Well, there’s been pretty clear evidence now that there was a unit that was called the Brigada Olympica, or the Olympic Brigade, that was made up of special forces of the presidential guard, who opened fire from the buildings that surrounded the square, and that that was the thing that provoked the massacre.”
A confidential October 3, 1968, telegram sent from the US Embassy in Mexico the day after the massacre addressed the use of snipers in the event, stating the “situation clearly more serious than anything previous in current student unrest.” At this point the Embassy still accepted the Mexican government’s explanation of the massacre, saying an “[i]nteresting question upon which Emb lacks info is whether occupants apartment houses voluntarily cooperated with students in positioning snipers or whether they did so under duress. [. . .] Fact that snipers had prepared positions (and apparently ambushed soldiers) should be obvious even to opponents of government and should dilute standard counterargument that government provoked matters.”
However, as Doyle notes, “[r]eporting out of the Embassy was often confused during the crisis, probably because Embassy officials were closer than those of other U.S. agencies to the Mexican political class and tended to believe its propaganda.”
A confidential October 18, 1968, intelligence report from the Defense Intelligence Agency compiled over two weeks after the Massacre provided a summary of military involvement in the student crisis and underscored the “intense concern among almost all Mexicans that the student situation would either prevent or hamper the Olympics. It is believed that this feeling has had an effect on government and Army actions, which on several occasions could possibly be called ‘over-reactions,’ caused primarily by the desire to settle or at least arrest the problem, by force if necessary, to avoid effect on the Olympics.”
According to Doyle, while the US stood by the Diaz regime, on October 10, 1968, the State Department assessed that it seemed “unlikely that the PRI can bring about a fundamental solution to the problem without changing the widespread conviction that it is entrenched, stagnant, and primarily self-serving. The students have to be convinced that, despite the enormous graft and dishonesty which have become hallmarks of the PRI, the party is still, or will become again, a vital force for political and social change, as well as economic growth. The present leadership does not appear to be disposed to comprehend the magnitude of the problem of student alienation and to accept it as a serious warning that the party is not responding to the legitimate needs of an increasingly vocal segment of Mexican society.”
For a more in-depth look at the Tlatelolco Massacre, the 1968 Olympics, and the extraordinary declassified record behind them, please visit the National Security Archive.
This post can also be found on the National Archives and Records Administration’s blog, Transforming Classification.
The Board’s report on Transforming the Security Classification System includes an important and valuable recommendation for a close look at the “formerly restricted data” [FRD] rules which prevent the declassification of information about the past deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons, even when it has long been overtaken by events. According to PIDB, “A process should be implemented for the systematic declassification review of historical FRD information.” To make it possible to declassify information about the historical locations of nuclear weapons, PIDB raises the possibility of converting FRD about the deployments into the “national security information” category. An Act of Congress has already laid the way for doing so and amendments to Executive Order 13526 would complete the fix.
If the historical locations of the U.S’s overseas nuclear deployments were no longer under a blanket exemption, then security reviewers could declassify at least on a case-by-case basis. Historians could then write more easily about the role that nuclear weapons deployments played in U.S. diplomatic relations with a wide range of countries around the world.
Time and time again, researchers at the National Security Archive and others as well have encountered the problem of Cold War-era exempted FRD. The Defense Department and other agencies have answered many FOIA and mandatory declassification review requests with heavily excised documents because of the FRD exclusion. While some records on the deployments could be found at the National Archives before the late 1990s, for the most part they disappeared from the files because of special reviews required by the Kyl-Lott Amendment. Partly triggered by a scare over alleged Chinese spies in the U.S. nuclear complex but also by the discovery of “unmarked FRD” in archival records, Kyl-Lott was a setback to the progress made by the Clinton administration in declassifying Cold War-era archival records. It required Department of Energy security reviewers to impound previously open archival records and to scrub them of restricted data (RD) about nuclear weapons design and fissile materials production or FRD about the historical locations and other topics. As it turned out, much of what the DOE reviewers found was in the FRD category, most likely documents concerning the historical deployments whose sensitivity was arguable.
A number of postings on the National Security Archive Web site have addressed the problem of the historical overseas locations of U.S. nuclear weapons and the problems raised by FRD. One in 1999 concerned a then recently declassified, but heavily excised, Defense Department history from 1978 on the history of nuclear custody. Drawing on that history, Archive senior analyst William Burr working with Robert S. Norris (then directing the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear project) and independent writer William Arkin tried to tease out the names of all of the countries where the United States had deployed nuclear weapons during the Cold War. They published two articles on the deployments in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. One, “Where They Were,” appeared in the Nov-December 1999 issue with supporting documents in an Archive-NDRC posting. The authors mistakenly identified Iceland as a storage site for nuclear weapons but quickly learned that two islands—Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima–in the U.S. occupied Bonin Islands were storage sites before they were restored to Japan in 1968. This new knowledge led to another article, “How Much Did Japan Know?”, in the January-February 2000 issue of The Bulletin, which was supported with another Archive-NRDC posting.
In 2006, the Archive published an Electronic Briefing Book entitled “How Many and Where Were the Nukes?” Specifically addressing the FRD problem, the EBB’s second part included a heavily excised inventory of the overseas locations as of 1968 that the Defense Department had recently released. The posting made this point, among others: “declassifying information on the Cold War deployments is a complex problem, but the U.S. public deserves something more reasonable than the current blanket policy of secrecy.”
In early 2013, the persistence of the FRD problem, but also the promise of the PIDB reform proposal, occasioned an entry on the Archive’s blog Unredacted. It concerned the Air Force’s recent partial declassification of documents about a nuclear weapons accident in Morocco in January 1958, although the word “Morocco” was excised from the documents. The posting closed with an endorsement of the PIDB proposals, asserting that without their enactment “the Air Force and other agencies will continue to redact obsolete information about Cold War nuclear deployments.”
Another blog entry called readers’ attention to a remarkable series of publications by historians working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The historians had secured the declassification of thousands of pages of histories of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe [SHAPE], the seat of command for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. These are invaluable histories but what was especially striking about them was the common-sense approach they took regarding information about U.S. nuclear deployments in Western Europe, whether actual or prospective. According to the posting, NATO’s “pragmatic” decision “usefully illustrates the archaic character of FRD classification rules.” Declassification would have been unlikely if the NATO histories had gone through the U.S. review process.
Implementing the PIDB’s recommendations on FRD would be an important step in fixing the U.S. classification/declassification system and could only expedite the work of NARA’s National Declassification Center, which sees nuclear secrecy as “the greatest challenge” to the review of the backlog of classified records. Nevertheless, this will be an uphill fight because opposition to reform can be found in the mid-levels of the national security bureaucracy, especially at Defense and the Energy Department, while senior officials at Defense who support reform are leaving government. All the same, solving this problem would provide the Obama White House with a significant accomplishment in increasing government transparency.
If and when the FRD problem is resolved, some U.S. government agencies may still block the declassification of past deployments, for example, by citing damage to “national security” or “ongoing diplomatic relations.” It is also possible that some governments will object to the U.S. government disclosing facts about past nuclear deployments in their countries. But at least the problem will be in the open and one less arcane concept will be available to security reviewers to prevent the declassification of valuable information on U.S. nuclear history.
William Burr, Senior Analyst, The National Security Archive
FRINFORMSUM 1/23/2014: Watchdog Report Says NSA Program Illegal and Should be Shut Down, Secret Budget Provision Blocks Drone Program Transfer, the George W. Bush Library Now Open for FOIA Requests, and More.
A report scheduled for release today by the independent federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk phone call collection records program is illegal and should be terminated. The report found that the program not only “lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value,” but was also unable to find any “instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.” The Oversight Board’s findings also shed light on the history of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which has issued orders to phone companies for their records since 2006, but only offered a legal rationale for doing so last August.
President Obama consulted the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board before delivering his highly anticipated NSA speech last Friday, though the President argued that while changes were necessary to the bulk records collection program, it should continue nonetheless. One of the specific changes recommended in the President’s speech was transferring the bulk phone records from the NSA’s custody to private phone companies, a notion the private companies do not endorse and is meeting stiff resistance in Congress. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein expressed concern at the idea that NSA data might be stored outside the agency, saying in an interview Sunday on “Meet the Press,” that privacy advocates calling for changes don’t understand the threat, and that “[n]ew bombs are being devised. New terrorists are emerging, new groups. Actually, a new level of viciousness. And I think we need to be prepared. I think we need to do it in a way that respects people’s privacy rights.” President Obama instructed Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to devise a workable solution to who stores the bulk data by March 28, but no meeting has been scheduled between phone companies and government officials.
Google, Microsoft, and others did not receive the reassurances they wanted from President Obama’s speech last week. The IT companies had hoped the President would announce that the government would no longer hack into their data, stockpile flaws in their operating systems, or weaken their encryption systems, all practices that have put them on the defensive when conducting international business. Fred H. Cate, the director of the Center of Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, said in a New York Times interview that “[t]he most interesting part of this speech was not how the president weighed individual privacy against the N.S.A, but that he said little about what to do about the agency’s practice of vacuuming up everything it can get its hands on.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is refusing to turn over “certain other” FISC records in response to an ACLU FOIA lawsuit. The DOJ’s refusal to disclose the documents “has raised suspicions within the ACLU that the government continues to hide bulk surveillance activities from the public.” ACLU attorney Alexander Adbo referred specifically to a CIA program to collect international money transfers in bulk, revealed in November by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, saying “[i]t appears that the government is concealing the existence of other bulk collection programs under the Patriot Act, such as the CIA’s reported collection of our financial records.” However, DNI James Clapper’s office did release 25 newly declassified FISC rulings on their tumblr page late last week, though it did so “without revealing that the disclosures were spurred by lawsuits.”
Congress blocked President Obama’s attempt to shift control of the foreign U.S. drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon in a secret provision in the government spending bill last week, spurring sharp criticism from Senator John McCain for “meddling” with drone policy. The move reflected “some lawmakers’ lingering doubts about the U.S. military’s ability to conduct strikes against al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates without hitting the wrong targets and killing civilians.” Despite the criticism, an annual study recently released by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism may support the argument that the drone program should stay at the CIA, noting that “CIA drone strikes against militants in Pakistan killed no more than four civilians last year… the lowest number of reported civilian deaths since the drone program began in 2004.”
The DOJ found that the company that conducted Edward Snowden’s background check, U.S. Investigations Services, “fraudulently signed off” on over 650,000 incomplete security checks in recent years. The company also did the background check on the Washington Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis. Currently, roughly 3.5 million people hold security clearances in the U.S.
The American Psychological Association has decided not to pursue its case against member John Leso, a former army reserve major that was involved in torturing Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay. Leso also contributed to the October 2002 memo, “Counter-Resistance Strategies”, for Guantánamo staff “under pressure from the chain of command to produce intelligence from the detainee population.”
Finally this week, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is now open for FOIA requests. Five years have passed since President Bush left office, meaning the public can file FOIA requests for documents from his two terms in office. According to a CBS report, the Bush Library has 70,000,000 paper records, 80 terra bytes of electronic records, 1 billion pages of emails, 4 million photos, and 43,000 artifacts in its possession.
Today President Obama delivered a speech announcing the reforms he will make to the operations of the National Security Agency (NSA). The reforms, drawing from some of the 43 recommendations made by an outside Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies established by the president, include curtailing some spying of foreign leaders, modest limits on the powerful National Security Letters surveillance tool, and –as yet not completely specified– modifications to telephone metadata collection and reporting.
Despite stating he was “not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” the President did criticize Snowden’s “sensational” disclosures for “shedding more heat than light.” What the President did not say was that these surveillance reforms would never even have been contemplated without the Snowden revelations. In fact, these leaks did not just “shed heat and light” on the NSA’s surveillance practices and metadata collection. They disproved a series of lies that the administration and its Intelligence Community repeatedly told the American public in an attempt to keep this surveillance in the dark.
To bring these lies more fully out of the dark, Unredacted presents our list of “Top 10” lies -from the President, Congress, and Intelligence Officials- about the US government’s surveillance programs:
1. “It is transparent.” President Obama, June 16, 2013, on the Charlie Rose Show
In a June 16, 2013, interview with the Charlie Rose Show, President Obama defended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), stating “It is transparent…So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.”
The cascade of revelations about the lack of transparency on the secret court was highlighted by FISC’s own October 3, 2011, ruling, which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declassified in response to Snowden’s leaks, that chastised the government for misleading the Court -three times in 2011 alone- about the nature of its surveillance programs. OpentheGovernment.org’s 2013 Secrecy Report notes, “the unchecked expansion in the growth of the government’s surveillance programs is due in large measure to the absolute secrecy surrounding the FISC and how it is interpreting the law. The FISC’s opinions interpreting Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has allowed for a much broader collection of data than most national security and civil liberties groups, and even some Members of Congress, understood the law to permit.” Representative Justin Amash (R-Mich) added that meetings with the House Intelligence Committee to discuss surveillance programs more generally were a “farce,” noting that “the release he had to sign to view classified documents prohibited him from discussing them with anyone — including other members of Congress who all have clearance to discuss them. So not only could he not get straight answers, he couldn’t compare notes with his fellow members of Congress to further his own understanding.”
2. “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails.” President Obama, June 16, 2013, on the Charlie Rose Show
During the same June 16, 2013, interview with Charlie Rose, President Obama said the NSA is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, though Greg Miller reported in his June 30, 2013, Washington Post article, “Misinformation on Classified NSA Programs Includes Statements by Senior U.S. Officials,” that “the NSA has significant latitude to collect and keep the contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency’s court-approved monitoring of a target overseas.” This information is stored, for up to five years, and can be accessed as soon as the FBI gets a National Security Letter, for which there are still no requirements to seek approval or judicial review when sending.
3. “No, sir.” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during a March 12, 2013, Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing
During a March 12, 2013, Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden asked DNI Clapper if the NSA collected any type of data on millions of Americans. Clapper said: “No, sir.”
Wyden: “It does not?”
Clapper: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”
In a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee that was released on July 2, 2013, Clapper apologized for his “clearly erroneous” response, saying he issued them because “he was thinking instead of a different aspect of surveillance, the internet content collection of persons NSA believes to be foreigners outside of the United States.” Secrecy News’ Steve Aftergood has made the additional argument that the Senate Intelligence Committee was complicit in the deception. According to Aftergood, Clapper’s “response challenged the Committee to make its own choice either to disclose classified information about the NSA program — in order to rebut and correct the DNI’s answer — or else to acquiesce in the dissemination of false information to the public… As it turned out, the Senate Intelligence Committee made exactly the same choice that DNI Clapper is accused of making. The Committee evidently decided that national security classification trumped any obligation it had to produce an honest and accurate public record. As a result, the Committee itself became complicit in an act of public deception.”
Speaking at a non-profit AFCEA International Cyber Symposium in Baltimore on June 27, 2013, and reported that day on NBC, General Keith Alexander said the U.S. government disrupted 54 terrorist activities using information collected under the controversial “Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” and “Section 215 of the Patriot Act.”
Later, during an October 15, 2013, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Alexander confirmed that he lied when saying the NSA’s phone surveillance programs had prevented 54 terrorist “plots or events.” Senate Judiciary Chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, emphasized the deception, saying “only 13 of the 54 cases were connected to the United States…that only one or two suspected plots were identified as a result of bulk phone record collection.”
A recent New America Foundation study buoys the argument that these records are not as valuable as the government implied. The report found out of the 225 terrorism cases carried out in the U.S. since 9/11, the program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism,” and that in the “majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case.” Outgoing NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis said in a January 10, 2014, interview with NPR that even though the program hasn’t definitively prevented any attacks, “I’m not going to give that insurance policy up, because it’s a necessary component to cover a seam that I can’t otherwise cover.” Fifty Four turned to thirteen, to zero, to an “insurance policy.”
5. “We don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.” DNI Clapper speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on July 9, 2012
During a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on July 9, 2012, discussing the NSA’s new Utah Data Center, Clapper said “We don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.” Documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal that, in reality, the NSA holds on to data of U.S. citizens, only deleting it “after five years.”
6. “Provides the government the same authority in national security investigations to obtain physical records that exits in an ordinary criminal case, through a grand jury subpoena.” Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaking on the Senate floor on May 22, 2011
During a speech she delivered on the Senate Floor on May 22, 2011, Senator Dianne Feinstein claimed that the phone records collected under the Business Records Provision of the USA Patriot Act are analogous to information collected during a grand jury subpoena, when in fact secret court orders declassified thanks to Snowden’s leaks show NSA surveillance is much broader than such a subpoena would allow. Feinstein’s statement prompted a group of 26 Senators to send a letter on June 28, 2013, to DNI Clapper for more information on the bulk surveillance programs, citing “[s]tatements from senior officials that the PATRIOT Act authority is ‘analogous to a grand jury subpoena’ …had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented.”
7. “The NSA takes significant care to prevent any abuses and that there is a substantial oversight system in place.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein on August 23, 2013
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said in a statement on August 23, 2013, that the “NSA takes significant care to prevent any abuses and that there is a substantial oversight system in place.” The statement, made after the NSA confirmed to Bloomberg News “that some analysts deliberately ignored restrictions on their authority to spy on Americans,” was clearly contradicted on September 10, 2013, by James Clapper, who posted on the DNI website that “[t]he compliance incidents discussed in these documents stemmed in large part from the complexity of the technology employed in connection with the bulk telephony metadata collection program, interaction of that technology with other NSA systems, and a lack of a shared understanding among various NSA components about how certain aspects of the complex architecture supporting the program functioned. These gaps in understanding led, in turn, to unintentional misrepresentations in the way the collection was described to the FISC. As discussed in the documents, there was no single cause of the incidents and, in fact, a number of successful oversight, management, and technology processes in place operated as designed and uncovered these matters.”
8. “The NSA/CSS work force has executed its national security responsibilities with equal and full respect for civil liberties and privacy.” A June 25, 2013, statement posted by General Keith Alexander to the NSA/CSS workforce.
A 2009 order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), said that, “since the earliest days” of the NSA phone-call spying program’s 2006 inception, the agency has carried out thousands of inquiries on phone numbers without any of the court-ordered screening designed to protect Americans from illegal government surveillance.
In fact, according to a declassified 2001 NSA memo posted by the National Security Archive, the NSA has been pushing to “rethink and reapply” its application of the Fourth Amendment and its interpretation of U.S. citizens’ right to privacy since before 9/11. This was necessary, it argued, to attain a “powerful, permanent presence on a global telecommunications network.” Not to mention, secret court orders declassified only after Snowden’s leaks reveal the government’s repeated misleading of the FISC “fundamentally alters the Court’s understanding of the scope of the collection conducted pursuant to Section 702 and requires careful reexamination of many of the assessments and presumptions underlying its prior approval.”
9. “The government cannot target anyone under the court-approved procedures for this program unless there is an appropriate and documented foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition, such as for the prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities or nuclear proliferation.” Statement made by Attorney General Eric Holder said on June 15, 2013, while speaking to a U.S.-European Union ministerial meeting in Dublin, Ireland.
However, the October 3, 2011, FISC ruling, declassified by the DNI after Snowden’s leaks, clearly shows this isn’t true, stating that “the Court cannot know for certain the exact number of wholly domestic communications acquired through this collection, nor can it know the number of non-target communications acquired or the extent to which those communications are to and from United States persons or persons in the United States.”
10. “Other avenues.” President Obama during his August 9, 2013, Press Conference
During the Q&A period of his August 9, 2013, press conference, Obama said “If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to the intelligence community — for the first time. So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.” Of course, the protections don’t apply to contractors. The Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy organization, argued that if whistleblower protections applied to contractors, “Snowden’s disclosures would have stood a greater chance of being addressed effectively from within the organization.”
1. “This is a lockbox with only phone numbers, no names, no addresses in it, we’ve used it sparingly, it is absolutely overseen by the legislature, the judicial branch and the executive branch, has lots of protections built in.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers assured CNN’s State of the Union on June 16, 2013, that the NSA’s surveillance program was limited and not invasive in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks. Despite Rogers’ comments, the October 2011 FISC ruling chastised the government for misleading the Court about the content swept up in its metadata collection. The Court had been led to believe that the government was only collecting “To/From” information from emails, and chastised the government for belatedly revealing “about” information, saying “[t]he Court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding NSA’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government had disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of major collection program.”
2. “Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons.”
In response to a letter from Senator Bernie Sanders inquiring if the agency was currently spying on, or had ever spied on, elected U.S. officials, the NSA issued a written statement on saying “NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of US persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June.”
In fact, what the NSA meant was that Congress is subject to the same surveillance as “normal” citizens, and the NSA does not consider the Constitutional question of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branch as it collects surveillance. It’s worth noting that there is precedent for Sen. Sanders’ inquiry. The recently declassified NSA history, American Cryptology during the Cold War, which the Archive won the release of, shows that during the Cold War the NSA monitored the communication of prominent Americans, including the overseas telephone calls and cable traffic of two members of Congress, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.). The declassified history also showed, as President Obama noted in his speech today, that the NSA monitored “threats” MLK, Muhammad Ali, New York Times journalist Tom Wicker, and veteran Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald.
3. Officials have regularly insisted that the NSA only collects metadata in its review, insisting this isn’t enough to violate a person’s privacy rights because metadata is impersonal information. Former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell shed light on this misrepresentation of metadata during his February 11, 2014, testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying “There is quite a bit of content in metadata,” Morrell said. “There’s not a sharp distinction between metadata and content. It’s more of a continuum.”
Despite President Obama’s attempts not to dwell on Edward Snowden or his actions, the public should. Without these leaks, the American public did not have, in Snowden’s words “enough knowledge about the nature of modern intelligence-gathering to allow an informed debate.” As Snowden hoped, voters might now be “prepared to put privacy above security.” At the least they can now “make that choice on the basis of information,” rather than the incorrect, unsubstantiated statements of administration and Intelligence Community officials.
Twenty years ago this April, the world witnessed the slaughter of between 500,000 and a million Rwandans, predominately Tutsi, while the international community stood by. The “#Rwanda20yrs” project, a partnership between the National Security Archive and the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, follows the trail of documentary evidence leading up to, and during, the Rwandan genocide in an effort to address unanswered questions about how the international community made key decisions about responding to the genocide, and the full impact of those decisions.
The public has had limited access to essential documentary evidence about the Rwandan genocide, and as a result—despite considerable and highly valuable past journalistic and scholarly inquiry—many questions remain about the mechanics of international decision-making in response to the Rwandan genocide. U.N. Security Council deliberations on Rwanda, Clinton White House papers, and government documents from French and Belgium remain classified. The International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda (ICTR) produced valuable testimony and documents, but is poorly organized and largely inaccessible. The current Rwandan government holds the archives of the predecessor regime, but in extremely poor conditions. As Michael Dobbs writes in his New York Times op-ed, “Records that could shed light on whether it could have been prevented are still classified in Washington, New York, Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Arusha and Kigali — unavailable to the public despite pledges by international leaders to fully investigate the tragedy.”
The National Security Archive and the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide have launched a new initiative to push for declassification of key Rwanda genocide records, and to analyze previously unpublished documentation to learn new lessons about the international community’s response to mass atrocity and genocide around the world. As part of the project, the Archive is posting and tweeting a series of documents to follow the day-by-day descent into conflict that consumed Rwanda in 1994 so we can get a better idea of what decisions, actions, and inactions led to the genocide, or could have helped avert the genocide. The documentation leading up to the official start of the genocide on April 7, 1994, and during the genocide, is chilling. We encourage readers to analyze the evidence for themselves and draw their own conclusions about the events leading up to and during the genocide.
The documents will be tweeted under the National Security Archive’s twitter handle @NSArchive, and occasionally on the Archive’s blog, “Unredacted” and will contain the tag #Rwanda20yrs. You can also follow our postings on the Archive’s website, Facebook, and the Museum’s website, Facebook, and Twitter: @HolocaustMuseum by looking for #Rwanda20yrs.
FRINFORMSUM 1/16/2014: DOJ Moves to Finalize FOIA Reg Changes, Obama’s Surveillance Options, Drones, and Much More.
The Department of Justice is moving to finalize changes to its FOIA regulations, but there’s no way of knowing what’s in them until they are published in the Federal Register. Gavin Baker of the Center for Effective Government tipped us off to this development, and it’s cause for concern given the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) record with proposed FOIA regulation changes. Back in 2011 the DOJ proposed changing their regulations to allow some federal agencies to falsely state that no records exist when the requested documents fit within certain guidelines, thereby authorizing agencies to willfully deceive FOIA requesters on a case-by-case basis. The proposed changes spurred serious concerns from the open government community about the necessity and, more importantly, the legality of such a rule change. OIP Director Melanie Pustay responded to the criticisms during a March 2012 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by saying, “some people misinterpreted what we were trying to do, misconstrued some of the provisions, and didn’t necessarily understand some of the fee guidelines.” Pustay’s misrepresentation of the proposed changes led Archive Director Tom Blanton to warn during his own Senate testimony that these were “vampire” regulations that weren’t gone for good, and we would be sure to see again. Despite the previous controversy, and without giving the public a chance to review and comment on these latest regulations, on January 9 the DOJ submitted their final rule changes to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for final approval. If OIRA approves the regulations, they could be published in the Federal Register and go into effect.
Current and former Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judges recently penned a letter opposing the surveillance recommendations from President Obama’s surveillance review group. The letter, which was written by the court’s former chief judge, John D. Bates, and released on Tuesday, argues implementing the review group’s recommendations would increase the court’s workload and decrease its effectiveness. Specifically, “[t]he judges’ principal objections focused on recommendations to appoint an independent privacy advocate to represent the public’s interests before the court and on a proposal that administrative subpoenas, known as national security letters, be approved by the court before being issued.” Read here for more on the hyper-powerful National Security Letters.
The judges’ letter was released the same day as Obama’s surveillance review group testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the review group’s testimony, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell said that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) claim that only impersonal metadata is being collected in its bulk phone record collection program is misleading, as “[t]here is quite a bit of content in metadata…There’s not a sharp distinction between metadata and content. It’s more of a continuum.”
Morrell also reiterated that the NSA’s domestic phone data collection “has not played a significant role in preventing any terrorist attacks to this point.” His testimony was buoyed by the release of a New America Foundation study that found out of the 225 terrorism cases carried out in the U.S. since 9/11, the program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism,” and that in the “majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case.” In related news, Lawyers for an Oregon man, 22-year old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, are arguing he was entrapped prior to his conviction for attempted terrorism last year, paving the way for the first “constitutional challenge by a criminal defendant” to the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program.
President Obama will announce changes to domestic surveillance practices on Friday, January 17. The President is expected to “increase limits on access to bulk telephone data,” but most key decisions will belong to Congress. Insiders say the President is “unlikely to seize the opportunity to rein in the agency’s vast surveillance programs. Instead, he will punt. Of the 43 recommendations from a panel that reviewed the agency’s programs, Obama is expected to embrace very few… leaving the harder task of long-term surveillance reform to Congress and the courts.”
It’s been widely reported that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee last March while discussing the NSA’s domestic data collection programs. Secrecy News’ Steve Aftergood has an excellent piece on the other side of the story, analyzing why the Committee allowed Clapper’s lie to go uncorrected. Aftergood argues that Clapper’s “response challenged the Committee to make its own choice either to disclose classified information about the NSA program — in order to rebut and correct the DNI’s answer — or else to acquiesce in the dissemination of false information to the public… As it turned out, the Senate Intelligence Committee made exactly the same choice that DNI Clapper is accused of making. The Committee evidently decided that national security classification trumped any obligation it had to produce an honest and accurate public record. As a result, the Committee itself became complicit in an act of public deception.”
Documents recently released in response to an Electronic Frontier Foundation FOIA lawsuit reveal that Custom and Border Patrol (CBP) drones are being “borrowed” more than previously thought. The documents show that CBP ran more than 700 flights between 2010 and 2012 for other local and federal agencies for domestic surveillance operations. Privacy advocates argue drones could lead to visual surveillance of Americans on private property, while the government argues there is no meaningful legal distinction between the use of unmanned and piloted aircraft for surveillance.
Finally this week, Congress has blocked President Obama’s attempt to shift control of the foreign U.S. drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon. Lawmakers inserted a secret provision restricting “the use of any funding to transfer unmanned aircraft or the authority to carry out drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon” in the $1.1 trillion federal budget plan currently awaiting Senate approval. This Congressional action “represents an unusually direct intervention by lawmakers into the way covert operations are run, impeding an administration plan aimed at returning the CIA’s focus to traditional intelligence gathering and possibly bringing more transparency to drone strikes. The move also reflects some lawmakers’ lingering doubts about the U.S. military’s ability to conduct strikes against al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates without hitting the wrong targets and killing civilians.”
As always, happy FOIA-ing!