DREAMer Files FOIA Suit for Info on His Deportation Same Day DHS Secretary Tells Critics to “Shut Up” and Assume Agency Follows the Law: FRINFORMSUM 4/20/2017
Juan Manuel Montes, 23, was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents 14 years ago and is protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; he is also believed to be the first DREAMer deported by the Trump administration. Montes filed a FOIA lawsuit this week for information on his mid-February deportation from Calexico, Calif.; the suit is brought against U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, both Department of Homeland Security components that failed to respond to his initial FOIA requests for information on his deportation.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a crowd at George Washington University on April 18, the same day Montes filed suit, that critics of the department’s tactics should “shut up” and assume the agency is following the law. The comment was not related to the Montes case. Kelly also said that “criticism of the agency’s work is often misguided and based on inaccurate reporting.”
Trumped Up Secrecy Charges
“This is a White House lie,” said National Security Archive director Tom Blanton of the White House’s recent decision to no longer disclose the routine visitor logs maintained by the Secret Service and published online by the Obama administration since 2009, claiming national security and privacy risks. Blanton went on to counter the White House’s claims, “There is no national security risk to releasing the visitor logs; we have seven years of nearly 6 million Obama visitors that prove no problem. Privacy was protected there too. What’s really going on is the swamp suits Donald Trump just fine.”
Anticipating the Trump administration’s move, the National Security Archive and its senior analyst Kate Doyle joined with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and CREW, the watchdog group that first sued Presidents George W. Bush and Obama for copies of the visitor logs, in a new FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, parent agency of the Secret Service, to open the Trump logs – including at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.
Everything you need to know about the suit and the history of access to the White House visitor logs can be found here.
Iran FRUS Hidden
The State Department has indefinitely postponed the publication of its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume on the 1953 Iran Coup, a coup in which the CIA participated and a long-delayed publication that had, in recent years, looked like it might finally come to fruition. (For a thorough treatment of the CIA’s role in the coup and the State Department’s 1989 iteration of the Iran FRUS that omitted any such involvement, sparking an outcry and 1992 legislation that required the FRUS be accurate and reliable, read this posting by the National Security Archive’s Iran expert, Malcolm Byrne.) The State Department Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) noted in its annual report that it was “severely disappointed” by the Department’s decision, which was based on a political environment it deemed “too sensitive.” Nate Jones reported in March, during HAC’s March 7 public session, that HAC and undersecretaries backing their position fought “until the final day” of the Obama administration arguing for the volume’s release, but were rebuffed “at the highest levels.”
Steve Aftergood notes that the State Department made this decision despite recent declassifications on US involvement in the coup – including by the CIA itself in 2013. This is likely one of the reasons that the HAC report, after noting several bright spots in the FRUS publications – like the first on-time FRUS publication in the last 20 years , concluded that “the declassification environment is discouraging.”
Classified Directives Listings Disappear from DOD and JCS Websites
FOIA requesters who relied on lists of classified directives published by both the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to know what documents to file FOIA requests for may now be out of luck. In a transparency backslide, both the DOD and JCS websites no longer publish lists of classified directives and instructions, making it impossible to know what to FOIA. The National Security Archive’s Jeff Richelson is one of many scholars who used these lists to file FOIA requests for historically significant documents. Check here for a sampling of fist pages of classified directives that Dr. Richelson knew existed – and was then able to FOIA – because of their listing on the DOD Issuances page.
Microsoft Publishes First National Security Letter from FBI
Microsoft has released its biannual transparency report covering the first half of 2016, for the first time publishing one of the national security letters it received – a surveillance order from the FBI seeking information on one of the company’s customers that are largely hidden by strict gag orders. The report also notes that the technology company received “at least a thousand surveillance requests” from the government during the first half of the year, which “was more than double what the company said it received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the preceding six-month interval.”
OGIS Advisory Opinions Would Help Clarify Acceptable FOIA Practices
The National Security Archive’s FOIA project director, Nate Jones, submitted comments on the Office of Government Information Services’ (OGIS) reviews and reports in anticipation of OGIS’s public meeting this morning, April 20. Jones expresses the National Security Archive’s hope that the office will continue to expand its legal requirement to “identify procedures and methods for improving [FOIA] compliance” by issuing advisory opinion, which it has yet to do in its 9-year existence and would help clarify what are acceptable FOIA practices.
Today at the FOIA Advisory Committee meeting the committee members will be discussing the results of the National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight’s FOIA search survey, which found that much of the poor search situation FOIA shops find themselves in today is due to the fact that their agencies bought software that “does not play well” with FOIA.
Is ISCAP a Victim of Its Success?
The Archive’s Bill Burr asks in a recent blog if the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) success rate for regularly overturns agency classification decisions may be diminishing its effectiveness – in the form of an ever-growing backlog that means it can take the panel years to process an MDR appeal. Burr notes, “It does not appear that ISCAP has been able to use its authority to create an effective feedback mechanism. Admittedly, the Executive Order’s language ‘shall consider’ does not give ISCAP much clout with the agencies and an effective feedback mechanism would require more demanding language, such as ‘must consider,’ or requiring the agencies to revise instructions and manuals in light of ISCAP decisions…But from long-standing patterns of denials at agencies such as the CIA and the Defense Department, it is hard to tell whether ISCAP decisions have had an impact. At some agencies, over-classification remains endemic.”
The solution remains elusive, but “Whatever happens, ISCAP and ISOO should make even greater efforts to ensure that ISCAP decisions have an impact across the bureaucracy. ”
Reps. Want Info on Rapid Spread of North Korea Cyber Attacks from Treasury
Representatives Robin Kelly and James Himes recently wrote Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in so doing providing additional information on the Lazarus group, a hacking operation linked to the North Korean regime that has targeted banks in 18 different countries. The group successfully stole $81 million from the Bangladeshi Central Bank’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year. The Members of Congress note, “these high profile attacks are symptomatic of a shift in North Korean hacking strategy from destroying systems to directly acquiring funds…For rogue states like North Korea, we are concerned that these attacks will help fund missile tests and the development of nuclear weapons.” The lawmakers conclude their letter requesting a briefing from the Treasury Secretary on the department’s efforts to counter these threats.
TBT Pick – CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup
This week’s TBT pick is chosen with the recent State Department FRUS decision in mind and is a 2013 posting on the CIA’s first confirmation of its role in the 1953 Iran coup. The posting features newly declassified CIA documents on the United States’ role in the controversial operation; “The explicit reference to the CIA’s role appears in a copy of an internal history, The Battle for Iran, dating from the mid-1970s.”
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Below are the National Security Archive’s comments on the Office of Government Information Services’ (OGIS) reviews and reports, submitted in anticipation of OGIS’s public meeting, tomorrow, 4/20, at 9 in the U.S. National Archive’s McGowan Theater.
Thank you for holding your annual meeting with the public and soliciting comments on OGIS’s reviews and reports, in accordance with the new requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
OGIS has done good work in 2016 and early 2017, including leading its annual Sunshine Week Celebration, ushering in the provisions of the FOIA Improvement Act, facilitating the FOIA Advisory Committee, publishing its blog, The FOIA Ombudsman, conducting five compliance reports, reviewing agency FOIA regulations updates, issuing government-wide FOIA recommendations, and authoring an illuminating Annual Report.
In the view of the National Security Archive, the OGIS report that had the largest tangible impact was its three-part Compliance Assessment on the use of “still interested letters” –letters used to close older FOIA cases if no response is received from the requester. Authored at the request of a coalition of open government groups, the report found that that the “available data [on the use of ‘still interested letters’] does not capture requester frustration.”
Moreover, after the publication of this report, OGIS fulfilled its role as the bona fide Ombuds Office. When requesters informed OGIS that some agencies were still sending improper “still interested letters,” OGIS went to these specific agencies and was ultimately able to correct their improper closing of requests. This was emblematic of the actions of the independent “FOIA beat cop” that Congress intended when it created OGIS in 2007.
It is the National Security Archive’s hope that OGIS will continue to expand its legal requirement to “identify procedures and methods for improving [FOIA] compliance.” Since its founding nine years ago, OGIS has not yet utilized its statutory ability to issue a single FOIA advisory opinion. Despite the efforts of OGIS and others, government-wide FOIA compliance is clearly not at a satisfactory level. Clear advisory opinions by the FOIA Ombuds Office would do well to delineate what are acceptable FOIA practices, and what are not to other government agencies.
Finally, The National Security Archive would like to underline the important and unique role that OGIS plays. The Freedom of Information Act is the crown jewel of America’s transparency repertoire; it is the only law that gives the public a chance to win the release of documents that their government may want to keep secret. Other executive branch agencies have competing priorities and may ignore or violate FOIA to achieve the aims that they deem more important. Fortunately, the public and agency FOIA officials have the Office of Government Information Services, whose only priority is ensuring that the law of the Freedom of Information Act is followed. The National Security Archive is optimistic that OGIS will continue growing into the FOIA Ombuds Office that Congress envisioned it to be and will continue using its statutory authority to improve agency compliance with FOIA.
FOIA requesters who relied on lists of classified directives published by both the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to know what documents to file FOIA requests for may now be out of luck. In a transparency backslide, both the DOD and JCS websites no longer publish lists of classified directives and instructions, making it impossible to know what to FOIA.
The Defense Department’s “what’s new” listing on its Issuances Website has no notices of classified directives from this year and is (at least) missing instructions from January 2017, even though the site was last updated in April. The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Directives Library, for its part, now sends members of the public interested in controlled directives to a broken URL; before the change the JCS posted a combined list of all unrestricted, limited, and restricted directives.
The National Security Archive’s Jeff Richelson is one of many scholars who used these lists to file FOIA requests for historically significant documents. Below is a sampling of some of the first pages of classified directives that Dr. Richelson knew existed – and was then able to FOIA – because of their listing on the DOD Issuances page:
Many thanks to Dr. Richelson for bringing this issue to our attention.
The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) has justifiably acquired a good reputation for its fairness in making final decisions on mandatory declassification review (MDR) appeals for national security information. During the course of its existence since 1996, through FY 2015 it reviewed over 2400 documents and released more information from over 1800 of them, with 694 documents declassified in their entirety. By supporting greater transparency in government, ISCAP provides an important corrective to endemic over-classification in the national security bureaucracy, although its good example has not had an appreciable impact on the practices of some agencies.
By operating on a majority rule principle, ISCAP decisions prevent the continued over-classification for specific records of a variety of agencies, especially, but not only, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. When those agencies deny thirty or forty-year old documents in their entirety, other ISCAP members often take a more balanced view and vote in favor of releasing all of, or much of, the denied documents. An early decision, in 1998, was a promising start. While defense agencies had denied the substance of a September 1964 McGeorge Bundy memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson on the emergency authorization of nuclear weapons use, ISCAP ruled in favor of full release.
Paradoxically, ISCAP’s deserved reputation, and also a failure of the declassification system, has created what amounts to a crisis. A look at ISCAP’s backlog of appeals makes the problem palpable. It is lengthy and has grown far longer with the addition of hundreds of appeals in recent months. The present writer has made his own contribution to the backlog and others have filed many more appeals. It is not surprising that requesters file MDRs and eventually appeal to ISCAP. Unlike FOIA, where only one appeal is possible (before resorting to legal action), MDR provides the chance for a second appeal. Moreover, because ISCAP has a good track record, requesters believe they have a better chance of getting a reasonable decision. The lengthy queue is not surprising.
One problem that may contribute to the growing queue is a collective failure by ISCAP, its parent organization, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), and Executive Order 13526. According to the Executive Order, “when making decisions under sections 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5 of this order [these are the sections concerning automatic, systematic, and mandatory declassification], agencies shall consider the final decisions of the Panel.” In the early days of ISCAP, there was a hope that the Panel would create a feedback loop that would influence agency declassification decisions and standards and help them avoid bringing cases to ISCAP on the same types of information. As chairperson Roslyn Mazer explained in 1999, ISCAP’s decisions could “affect the declassification of many thousands of documents beyond what it sees directly on appeal, and enable agencies to make more consistent and efficient determinations.”
It does not appear that ISCAP has been able to use its authority to create an effective feedback mechanism. Admittedly, the Executive Order’s language “shall consider” does not give ISCAP much clout with the agencies and an effective feedback mechanism would require more demanding language, such as “must consider,” or requiring the agencies to revise instructions and manuals in light of ISCAP decisions. Perhaps some agencies “consider” ISCAP decisions, which reflect on them, and change their guidelines and manuals accordingly. But from long-standing patterns of denials at agencies such as the CIA and the Defense Department, it is hard to tell whether ISCAP decisions have had an impact. At some agencies, over-classification remains endemic.
The lengthy backlog of appeals means that ISCAP will not make decisions on some of them for years. An example of the problem are two appeals that the present writer filed in 2010 for documents from the U.S. Navy. In late 2016, ISCAP made decisions on them. I suspect it will take far more than six years before ISCAP makes decisions on more recent cases in its docket.
To help prevent ISCAP from sinking under the weight of appeals, requesters can take some responsibility. Not every denial should be appealed. It is wise to establish priorities. Filing hundreds of appeals at once can be counterproductive because ISCAP will not get to them until long after the requester needs the documents. If the excisions are small, e.g. only a few sentences or a paragraph, it might better to refrain from further appeal, recognizing that ISCAP’s resources are slender and appealing even an excision takes staff effort and paper-work.
Plainly ISCAP could use more staffing so that it can make decisions more quickly, two or three years instead of six or longer. When vital federal operations are under attack, however, as they are now, more staffing is unlikely; what is more likely is that ISCAP’s budget will be cut along with NARA’s. Whatever happens, ISCAP and ISOO should make even greater efforts to ensure that ISCAP decisions have an impact across the bureaucracy. Requesters, research, historians, and others can only hope that ISCAP becomes even more effective in providing greater transparency for the activities of the U.S. government’s national security establishment.
The National Security Archive, together with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for the release of the White House visitor logs this week in the federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. The lawsuit seeks only the same data that was routinely published by the Obama administration for seven years without incident.
As the Washington Post reports, “Since President Trump took office in January, the website where such records had been publicly available has gone dark, and White House officials will say only that the policy is under review, making no assurances that they will operate with the same openness.”
The Archive suit seeks to establish that the visitor logs are agency records subject to the FOIA. “President Obama routinely released the data we’re seeking with no damage to presidential privilege,” said the National Security Archive’s Director Tom Blanton, “and this information is central to the Secret Service mission and thus clearly agency records subject to FOIA.”
Visit the National Security Archive’s website for everything you need to know about the suit.
Able Archer Could Have Started a Nuclear War with Russia in 1983
The National Security Archive’s Nate Jones teamed up with author and New America fellow J. Peter Scoblic for Slate’s cover story, “The World Almost Ended One Week in 1983,” about the NATO war game – Able Archer 83 – that could have led to nuclear war though miscalculation. How “the world survived the second week of November 1983” is in large part due to the restraint of the Air Force’s Leonard Perroots who, on the eve of retirement, “wrote a letter recalling the danger he experienced during Able Archer 83 and outlining his disquiet that the U.S. intelligence community did not give adequate credence to the possibility that the United States and Soviet Union came unacceptably close to nuclear war during Able Archer 83. He sent this letter to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which was shocked into action.” As the authors note, “For decades, the U.S. government kept whole chapters of this near-catastrophe secret, but the lessons of that fraught autumn are finally coming into focus. And not a moment too soon.”
DOJ Won’t Release Resignation Letters of US Attorneys Ousted by Trump Administration
The Burlington Free Press reports that the Justice Department is refusing to release the resignation letters of the U.S. attorneys who “left their posts at the request of the Trump administration.” The letters are being withheld pursuant to the FOIA’s personal privacy exemption, and, according to the Justice Department, none of the information is appropriate for discretionary release. Former Justice Department lawyer Allan Blutstein said the DOJ denial letter and the speed with which it was sent, “less than 10 days after receiving the request — suggest department staff conducted no search for responsive records and relied instead on the belief that all the resignation letters are exempt from disclosure.”
Big Day in Open Government Coming Up on April 20
OGIS Public Meeting The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) will host its first public meeting at 9 AM, also on April 20 and in NARA’s McGowan Theater. The meeting is required by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and will allow the public a chance to ask questions and present oral or written statements. Register here.
FOIA Federal Advisory Committee Meeting The FOIA Advisory Committee’s next meeting will take place on April 20 at 10 AM at the National Archive’s McGowan Theater (postings on the most recent meetings can be found here and here). A representative from the Justice Department will be presenting on using e-discovery software for FOIA searches – the most efficient and cost-effective tools for conducting FOIA searches. Register here.
“Risk Avoidance” Leads to Overclassification
New guidance from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence instructs officials not to aim for perfect security when deciding whether to classify national security information. Steve Aftergood published the new guidance, which states, “A Risk Avoidance strategy — eliminating risk entirely — is not an acceptable basis for agency [classification] guides because it encourages over-classification, restricts information sharing, [and] hinders the optimal use of intelligence information in support of national security and foreign policy goals.” However, Aftergood notes that the “risk management construct is not as helpful as one would wish. That is because its proponents, including the Joint Security Commission and the authors of the new ODNI document, typically stop short of providing concrete examples of information that risk avoiders would classify but that risk managers would permit to be disclosed.”
Stopping Korea from Going Nuclear, Part II
The Ford administration had to use a combination of approaches to keep South Korea’s Park dictatorship from going forward with a suspected nuclear weapons program in the mid-1970s, according to documents posted this week by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.
The U.S. effort required strong bilateral political pressure, along with Canadian and French government collaboration, to stop Seoul from quietly acquiring a reprocessing plant that could have been used to produce weapons grade plutonium. Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who initially may have doubted whether Seoul had a weapons program in mind, praised the outcome, agreeing with Canadian Foreign Minister Alan MacEachen that the allies had delivered a “knockout blow” against the South Korean nuclear plans.
Documents published in the new posting include:
- A message drafted in early 1975 by CIA officer Richard Lawless indicating that new evidence about South Korea’s commitment to acquiring a reprocessing facility demonstrated that “something is clearly afoot.” Lawless played a key role in detecting the secret South Korean nuclear program.
- Ambassador Sneider’s report of his meeting in September 1975 with Deputy Prime Minister Nam who said that President Park did not yet know about the extent of U.S. objections to the reprocessing deal and that Nam would meet with senior officials to discuss how to tell Park the bad news.
- State Department plans to persuade the French and Canadian governments to add to the pressure on Seoul to cancel the reprocessing contract. Deputy Secretary of State Robert S. Ingersoll would ask the Canadian embassy to consider the “leverage Canada might effectively bring to bear in the nuclear area, for example, with regard to nuclear reactor sales or credits.”
How Are States Preparing to Meet Cyber Challenges?
A National Governor’s Association memo from December 2016 identifies commonalities and differences among 32 plans, produced by 26 states, for addressing cybersecurity incidents. The memo instructs states to create a centralized state-wide cybersecurity authority that “allows that leader to tailor employee cyber hygiene programs, recommend key legislation, foster important relationships and recognize the specific workforce needs of the state. As a result, that cyber leader will have the tools in place to adequately prepare for an event, and have the human capital and relationships in place to adequately respond to a significant cyber event.”
The document is one of 11 new additions to the Archive’s Cyber Vault.
TBT Pick – President Reagan, General Zia, Nazir Ahmed Vaid, and Seymour Hersh
This week’s #TBT pick is a 2015 posting from the Nuclear Vault on the US and the Pakistani bomb, 1984-1985. Declassified documents published by the Archive for the first time portray State Department officials on the defensive in their discussions with journalist Seymour Hersh over his article on Pakistani national Nazir Ahmed Vaid, who had been convicted of violating export control laws for trying to purchase krytrons and smuggle them out of the US. Declassified State Department documents also show internal debate over whether to enforce “red lines” for nuclear activities in Pakistan and worries about an Indian pre-emptive strike.
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An Australian FOI request and subsequent court case has won the release of documents on “Australia’s asylum seeker turnback missions.” The program began in December 2013 and has received widespread criticism for its opacity and “lack of proper and comprehensive screening procedures [that] denies asylum seekers their basic right to seek safety, and risks their return to danger and persecution.”
An appeals panel ruling upheld the withholding of some of the requested documents, agreeing with the government that their release would damage national security (by, among other things, educating “potentially illegal immigrants”) and international relations. The released documents, which consist of “internal requests, cables, briefing papers and emails,” nonetheless do shed light on how Australia began to implement the controversial policy and some of the perceived risks.
Australian journalist Paul Farrell requested the documents in 2014 and has shared them with the Guardian.
The FOIA Advisory Committee’s next meeting will take place on April 20 at 10 AM at the National Archive’s McGowan Theater (postings on the most recent meetings can be found here and here). A representative from the Justice Department will be presenting on using e-discovery software for FOIA searches. E-discovery programs are the most efficient and cost-effective tools for conducting FOIA searches, but are expensive and under-utilized.
The National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight recently published the results and analysis of a joint-survey for both FOIA processors and requesters on how agencies conduct FOIA searches. Almost none of the 57 respondents stated that search procedures are working perfectly, meaning that every single FOIA shop would be smart to reevaluate their search procedures. Responses also indicate that agencies must invest in organizational FOIA processing software that can streamline the process better. Some agencies and agency components have access to state of the art e-discovery tools to search their records for the requested documents (though as was pointed out in the January 2017 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting, some agencies only use these efficient tools after being sued); other agencies do not even search records electronically at all. Much of the poor search situation FOIA shops find themselves in today is due to the fact that their agencies bought software that “does not play well” with FOIA. FOIA professionals must make this known and advocate for future software purchases that make their jobs (and complying with the law!) easier.
OGIS Public Meeting
The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) will host its first public meeting at 9 AM, also on April 20 and in NARA’s McGowan Theater. The meeting is required by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and will allow the public a chance to ask questions and present oral or written statements. Register here.
Troop Exposure to Toxic Substances
Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced a bill in the Senate that would require the Defense Department to declassify documents on “incidents in which members of the Armed Forces were exposed to toxic substances.” The incidents on which declassification would be required would be events in which “not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of a disability that a member of the medical profession has determined to be associated with that toxic substance.”
Steve Aftergood notes that the bill’s criteria for documents that would be exempt from disclosure – “if the Secretary [of Defense] determines that declassification of those documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States” – is considerably narrower than the FOIA exemption covering damage to national security. Aftergood also notes that the bill does not provide any new funding for the declassification efforts, meaning it would be done “at the expense of current declassification programs.”
Join the National Security Archive’s Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton next Tuesday, April 11, at GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs to discuss their book, “The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush-Conversations that Ended the Cold War,” which publishes for the first time in print virtually every word the American and Soviet leaders said to each other in their historic summits from 1985 to 1991.
The event takes place at noon and is sponsored by the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. RSVP here.
“Will Not Be Competitive” – Secret CIA Assessment of Chinese Nuclear Technology
A highly-redacted CIA Special Intelligence Report on Chinese nuclear research analyzes the 1994 discovery that a Galaxy-II computer at the Beijing National Meteorological Center was employed for nuclear-weapons-related work.
Many of the findings remain secret, but the document shows the CIA determined that the Galaxy-II’s “performance falls short of current generation Western supercomputers…The slow production schedule of the Galaxy-III assures that, even if it is finished on time, it will be eclipsed by Western advanced workstations and will not be competitive with future US or Japanese supercomputers.”
This document is one of 11 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, April 5.
TBT Pick – Israel Crosses the Threshold
Today’s #TBT pick is a 2006 posting by Avner Cohen on the Nixon administration and Israeli nuclear weapons, “Israel Crosses the Threshold.” The posting includes 30 never-before-seen declassified documents detailing the “existence of a highly secret policy debate, during the first year of the Nixon administration, over the Israeli nuclear weapons program.” Among the posting’s key findings are:
- 1969 was a turning point in the U.S.-Israeli nuclear relationship. Israel already had a nuclear device by 1967, but it was not until 1968-1969 that U.S. officials concluded that an Israeli bomb was about to become a physical and political reality. U.S. government officials believed that Israel was reaching a state “whereby all the components for a weapon are at hand, awaiting only final assembly and testing.”
- In the first months of the Nixon administration, senior officials such as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird believed it was important that Washington try to check Israeli nuclear progress for the sake of stability in the Middle East.
- On October 7, 1969 Ambassador Rabin formally provided his belated answers to the US questions: Israel will not become a nuclear power; Israel will decide on the NPT after its election in November; Israel will not deploy strategic missiles until 1972.
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The following was published in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy (Vol 59 No 2).
In ‘Able Archer 83: What Were the Soviets Thinking’ (Survival, vol. 58, no. 6, December 2016–January 2017, pp. 7–30), Gordon Barrass makes a compelling argument that Able Archer 83 provides ‘lessons on how to analyse and respond to situations of great tension, especially when the stakes are high’ (p. 24). The article, however, includes some factual inaccuracies that the recent declassification of documents can correct.
Firstly, Able Archer 83 was not held from 2–11 November, as Barrass writes. A contemporaneous US Air Force Seventh Division after-action report, released to the National Security Archive in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that Able Archer 83 did not actually begin until 7 November.1 The likely reason for this discrepancy is that the exercise scenario cited by Barrass included a backstory dating before NATO began practising its nuclear-release procedures.2 Soviet intelligence picked up, and reacted to, Able Archer 83 much more quickly than Barrass reports.
Secondly, and more significantly, recent research confirms that, contrary to what Barrass writes, there were in fact ‘troops on the ground’ (p. 17) during Able Archer 83 practising nuclear-release procedures near Ulm, Schwäbisch Gmünd and Heilbronn.3 Indeed, more than 50 NATO officers were trained weeks earlier to practise new nuclear-release procedures at the Allied Command Europe officers’ nuclear-weapons-release procedures course.4 It appears that the 1991 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board’s (PFIAB’s) admonition against describing the ‘Able Archer exercise simply as “a command and control” exercise, and thus, clearly nonthreatening to the Warsaw Pact’ was correct.5
Thirdly, it may also be important to examine whether Rainer Rupp, the East German spy credited with informing the Soviets that Able Archer 83 was not an actual strike, actually ‘attested to’ the absence of panic in Moscow (p. 19). In the same interview cited by Barrass, Rupp also states that he was told ‘the Russians are really scared’; in a 2015 interview he recounted that ‘the Soviets were completely convinced that “Able Archer” was the cover for a real nuclear strike’, though, of course, ‘the fear of a nuclear strike was unfounded’.6
Finally, Barrass makes the strong point that ‘the old rules of evidence still apply: we must give priority to what actors said at the time versus what they said later’ (p. 8). In this vein, recently declassified British Ministry of Defence documents provided to the Nuclear Information Service are stark. They show that by March 1984, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had reviewed the danger of Able Archer 83 and that at least some British intelligence officers observed ‘an unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged concern about a surprise NATO attack’.7 The danger described in these intelligence reports was enough to sway prime minister Margaret Thatcher to instruct her ministers to ‘consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by miscalculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react’. She also instructed the JIC to ‘urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack’.8
Barrass has authored a fine study on Able Archer 83 and its ramifications, but after my own study of the topic I disagree with his conclusion that ‘the events surrounding Able Archer were less frightening than many have claimed’ (pp. 23–4).9 As he acknowledges in endnote 50, many of the actions that the Soviets took to ready their arsenal for nuclear war remain redacted from the PFIAB report. The most comprehensive British JIC report on the episode also remains classified.10 As further secrets are revealed, we may find that the odds of nuclear war through miscalculation during Able Archer 83 were even more frightening than we now know.
Director of the Freedom of Project at the National Security Archive and editor of Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Wargame that Almost Triggered Nuclear War.
Reply from the Author
I appreciate Mr Jones’s kind words about my article and, for my part, applaud his efforts to clarify the ‘war scare’. However, we have different perspectives on ‘the odds of nuclear war through miscalculation during Able Archer 83’. He still believes they may be ‘even more frightening than we now know’. I very much doubt that.
Mr Jones’s claim that troops were on the ground during Able Archer 83 is questionable. In part, this is because much writing and comment has confused NATO’s annual Autumn Forge field exercises with Able Archer, the command-post exercise that, every autumn, was held as the last exercise in the Autumn Forge series.
On the exact timing of Able Archer 83, I find the dates of 2–11 November to be the most helpful. The nuclear-release part of the exercise began on 7 November; the scenario of conflict started on 4 November, but 2 November was the date set by the Soviet General Staff for some Soviet forces to go onto a higher state of alert. Lower-level nuclear-training exercises, to check the skills of nuclear-force personnel under very strict security conditions, took place throughout the year. None of the cases cited by Mr Jones in his letter carry with them firm dates showing that they were in the time frame 2–11 November, let alone that of 7–11 November.
According to the PFIAB report, for example, Able Archer ‘incorporated live mobilization exercises’.11 The wording of this judgement shows that PFIAB had not researched this issue, but based its conclusions solely on being ‘told that some US aircraft practiced the nuclear warhead handling procedures, including taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads’. No dates are given.
According to another source cited by Mr Jones in his book, a US Air Force master sergeant who participated in an exercise at platoon level, ‘Able Archer … was a full-blown Field Exercise … We actually deployed the “non-warload” [non-operational] systems to dispersal sites in the woods around Ulm, Schwäbisch Gmünd and Heilbronn. There were a number of simulated radio transmissions during the exercise that were “novel” … US troops took the missiles, erector-launchers, C2, and transload vehicles off the Combat Alert Sites and caserns at Neu-Ulm, Stuttgart and Waldheide.’12
Again, no date is given for this exercise, nor is it explained that the ‘missiles’ would have been Pershing 1As that could not reach the Soviet Union, let alone Moscow, since the first Pershing II missiles became operational only in December 1983, a month after Able Archer was held. Moreover, the fact that Pershing launchers would deploy to nearby dispersal sites and activate the communications sets to simulate the receipt of nuclear-release messages does not make Able Archer a field-training exercise. Able Archer 83 was not only about sending and receiving messages and testing the reliability of communications networks, but also a means for NATO’s SHAPE headquarters in Mons, Belgium, to check, down the chain of command, the readiness of nuclear-capable forces to execute their wartime missions, including dispersal and custodial-security procedures, and possibly the loading of dummy gravity bombs under the belly of fighter-bombers, but without actual flights.
The key point is that, for the Soviet General Staff and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), such activity would have been of little significance. If the US were to launch a surprise first strike against the Soviet Union it would not begin with strike aircraft or intercontinental ballistic missiles, but with Pershing IIs. And, as I remarked above, those missiles had not yet been deployed to West Germany, let alone readied for use.
Rainer Rupp, the top East German agent at NATO headquarters in Brussels, is quoted as saying that ‘the Soviets were completely convinced that “Able Archer” was the cover for a real nuclear strike’. That remark should be taken with a good pinch of salt. While there is no doubt that many Soviet people were scared, some even fearing the worst, those closest to the hard realities of nuclear war – Yuri Andropov, Dmitry Ustinov, the General Staff and the GRU – did not expect a first strike during Able Archer.
Mr Jones rightly draws attention to the assessments of the British Joint Intelligence Committee and Thatcher’s concerns, subjects that I studied closely when I was a member of the JIC. These two issues reflected, of course, the intelligence from Oleg Gordievsky and signals-intelligence intercepts, as well as British concern about the very tough line president Ronald Reagan was taking towards the Soviet Union. However, even if the ‘most comprehensive British JIC report on the danger of Able Archer’ were to be released, it would not produce new material to support Mr Jones’s case.
Finally, I doubt that important substance lies hidden beneath the redactions in the PFIAB report. Clearly, much of the redaction is to protect sensitive sources – be they intelligence agents, intercepts, satellite imagery or material from allied intelligence services. The wording of the report’s analysis and conclusions does not suggest to me that some daunting revelation was not taken into account in its judgements.
1. Air Force Seventh Air Division, Ramstein Air Force Base, ‘Exercise Able Archer 83, SAC ADVON, After Action Report’, 1 December 1983, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB427/docs/7.%20Exercise%20Able%20Archer%2083%20After%20Action%20Report%201%20December%201983.pdf.↩
2. Correspondence with Former SHAPE historian Gregory Pedlow.↩
3. Nate Jones, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: The New Press, 2016), p. 33.↩
4. ‘Program for ACE Officer’s Nuclear Weapons Release Procedures Course I-34-49, October 17-21, 1983’, NATO School, Oberammergau, Germany, held at the National Security Archive.↩
5. President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, ‘The Soviet “War Scare”’, 15 February 1990, p. 35, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb533-The-Able-Archer-War-Scare-Declassified-PFIAB-Report-Released/2012-0238-MR.pdf.↩
6. ‘Rainer Rupp About “Able Archer”, His Work in NATO Headquarters, the Syrian War and the Conflict with Russia’, Workers World, 19 September 2015, http://www.workers.org/2015/10/16/rainer-rupp-about-able-archer-his-work-in-nato-headquarters-the-syrian-war-and-the-conflict-with-russia.↩
7. UK Ministry of Defence, ‘Soviet Union: Concern About a Surprise Nuclear Attack’, 8 May 1984, https://nsarchive.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/document-9.pdf.↩
8. ‘Soviet Concern About a Surprise NATO Attack’, 10 Downing Street memo, 10 April 1984, https://nsarchive.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/document-7.pdf.↩
9. Nate Jones, Able Archer 83.↩
10. Nate Jones, ‘Why the Key Able Archer 83 Report Should Be Released Under UK FOIA’, National Security Archive, 18 November 2015, https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/why-the-key-able-archer-83-report-should-be-released-under-uk-foia/.
11. President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, ‘The Soviet “War Scare”’, 15 February 1990, p. 35, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ ebb533-The-Able-Archer-WarScare-Declassified-PFIAB-ReportReleased/2012-0238-MR.pdf.↩
12. Nate Jones, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: The New Press, 2016), p. 33, note 50.↩