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Over 900 Kissinger Telcons Released thanks to Archive FOIA Suit; the NSA’s “Highly Productive” Relationship with AT&T, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 8/20/2015

August 20, 2015
Dramatically differing versions of the Kissinger-Colby conversation, 19 July 1974, as published in the State Department historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States, and as released in August 2015 by the State Department in response to the Archive's lawsuit.

Dramatically differing versions of the Kissinger-Colby conversation, 19 July 1974, as published in the State Department historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States, and as released in August 2015 by the State Department in response to the Archive’s lawsuit.

905 Henry Kissinger telcons that were recently released thanks to an Archive FOIA lawsuit contain the highest-level verbatim conversations between Kissinger and a wide range of officials and journalists about the evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, the crisis in Cyprus, Middle East negotiations, revelations of CIA misdeeds, Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Ford in the 1976 primaries, and other topics. On CIA Director William Colby’s cooperation with Congressional investigations into the CIA, Kissinger commented, “You accuse him of a traffic violation, and he confesses murder.” The Colby telcon is of particular interest; the version released to the Archive this August is heavily redacted, even though it was released in full for the Foreign Relations of the United States historical series eight years ago in 2007. Archive Director Tom Blanton told Politico that the withholding of information the government has already made available is “the very definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

As with previous releases of Kissinger’s telcons, this latest trove contains Kissinger’s candid remarks that were never meant for public view about personalities ranging from Defense Secretary and Cabinet rival James Schlesinger to New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh, who was beginning to publish ground-breaking revelations about past CIA abuses. Telcons published in this week’s release include:

  • reactions to Seymour Hersh’s New York Times story in December 1974 revealing information about the CIA “Family Jewels,”
  • President Ford’s reaction to the attempted assassination by Manson family associate “Squeaky” Fromme in September 1975, and
  • Kissinger’s doubt about reports that Israel had readied nuclear weapons during the 1973 war, suggesting that spreading such disinformation was the action of a “sick” government.

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) relationship with AT&T has been a unique and “highly productive” partnership, this according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the New York Times and ProPublica. The documents date from 2003 through 2013 and detail how the telecommunications giant provided the spy agency with access “to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.” Thanks in part to AT&T’s “extreme willingness to help,” NSA reminded its officials to be polite when visiting the companies facilities, saying, “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.” The documents do not name AT&T specifically; rather they refer to codenames for corporate partnerships run by the NSA’s Special Source Operations division. The AT&T program codename is Fairview, which began in 1985 and is one of SSO’s oldest.

One leaked internal NSA newsletter importantly notes that AT&T began providing the NSA with over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone records in 2011 after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.” This is a noteworthy revelation because, as the Times points out, “after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.”

Redacted USPS IG audit posted online in May 2014 above, and an unredacted version released thanks to a FOIA in 2015 below.

Redacted USPS IG audit posted online in May 2014 above, and an unredacted version released thanks to a FOIA in 2015 below.

An unredacted copy of a 2014 audit by the Postal Services inspector general, won thanks to a FOIA request, reveals new information on the USPS’ surveillance program, called mail covers. The program allows USPS workers to record information found on the outside of envelopes and packages for law enforcement agencies before parcels are delivered. The IG audit found USPS didn’t maintain “sufficient controls” to ensure employees followed protocol for handling the mail covers and inspectors “failed to follow key safeguards in the gathering and handling of classified information.” The audit also revealed that the IRS, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were the mail covers program most frequent users.

A redacted version of the audit was published on the Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General website in May 2014. Former Congressional Research Service analyst Kevin Kosar, who examined postal issues, said that the USPS inspector general redacted any information about the mail covers program in the first place is “symptomatic of our overclassification of information in the government.” Kosar goes on to note, “There is nothing here that compromises any law enforcement activities. In fact, there is very little information.”

Chelsea Manning, a former military intelligence analyst currently serving a 35-year sentence for leaking over 700,000 government documents to WikiLeaks, now risks facing indefinite solitary confinement for, among other infractions, having prohibited reading material. One of the prohibited items is Caitlin Jenner’s Vanity Fair issue discussing the former Olympic athlete’s transition from male to female; Manning was born a man but identifies as a woman and the DOD said last year that it will provide gender identity treatment for her. In addition to the Vanity Fair magazine, Manning’s infractions include “medicine misuse pertaining to expired toothpaste and disorderly conduct for pushing food onto the floor.”

A 2010 Defense Department IG report released under the FOIA shows that the Army’s competition with the Air Force over Predator drones may have cost taxpayers $500 million in wasteful spending. According to reporting by The Intercept, the IG report found that despite a 2008 order that they combine their efforts, both the Army and the Air Force separately spent “$115 million in 2008 and 2009 on research efforts that were supposed to help combine their Predator programs.” Despite the fact that many DOD IG reports are clearly posted on the agency’s website, the DOD’s website instructs the public to request this specific report, marked “official use only,” through the FOIA.

Steven Aftergood reported on Secrecy News this week that the Department of Energy has issued twenty “declassification determinations” over the last four years “to remove certain specified categories of nuclear weapons-related information from classification controls.” This means the specified information, including “The fact that a mass of 52.5 kg of U-235 is sufficient for a gun-assembled weapon,” the “total inventory of thorium at DOE sites for any given time period,” and the “existence of unlimited life neutron generators” no longer need to be redacted during declassification reviews.

Back Channel To Cuba

Back Channel To Cuba

The National Security Archive’s Peter Kornbluh helped pen a groundbreaking Mother Jones article revealing key details of the behind-the-scenes political operations and secret negotiations that have led to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. Written by Kornbluh and American University Professor William M. LeoGrande and adapted from their book, Back Channel To Cuba: the Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, the article reveals that, among other things, two of Hillary Clinton’s top aides conducted a two-year secret dialogue with Cuban Foreign Ministry officials focused on exchanging imprisoned US citizen Alan Gross for the “Cuban Five” spies who were serving lengthy jail sentences in the United States, and that the secret talks between White House officials and Cuban negotiators close to Raul Castro came to an impasse in June 2014 over the administration’s demand that, in addition to Gross, Cuba release a CIA asset who had passed intelligence to the US in the 1990s that led to the arrest of the Cuban Five spy network.

This week’s #tbt pick is chosen with Kissinger’s reaction to Sy Hersh’s reporting in mind, and is the CIA’s full “family jewels” report. Released by the CIA to the Archive in response to a FOIA, it chronicles 25 years of the agency’s transgressions.

Happy FOIA-ing!

DHS’ Wireless Kill Switch Protocol, DOD’s Terrible Guidance on Journalists in its Law of War Manual, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 8/13/2015

August 13, 2015
SOP 303

SOP 303

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) announced this week that it filed a petition with the Supreme Court to review the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s February 2015 ruling that allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “to withhold releasing substantially all of a secret protocol that governs the shutdown of wireless networks in emergencies.” The protocol, Standard Operating Procedure 303 (SOP 303), has been the subject of FOIA litigation since 2013. In addition to seeking a “meaningfully complete” copy of the guidance, EPIC challenges the appeals court’s interpretation of FOIA exemption (7)(F), “which permits withholding of law enforcement information that, if released, ‘could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.’” The FOIA request at the root of EPIC’s Supreme Court petition sought information on “the 2011 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) disruption of all cellular service inside four San Francisco transit stations for three hours in order to suppress a mass public protest against a BART officer’s lethal shooting of a homeless man, Charles Hill.” DHS first told EPIC it had no documents responsive to their request, only providing EPIC with a heavily redacted version of SOP 303 after EPIC sued in district court.

Journalists as Spying...page 175.

Journalists and Spying…page 175.

The New York Times Editorial Board published a damning rebuke of the Defense Department’s 1,176-page Law of War Manual this week. The Board took particular issue with the DOD’s guidance on journalists, including its instructions that members of the press may in some cases be categorized as “unprivileged belligerents.” The manual goes on to note, “that ‘Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying,’ so it calls on journalists to ‘act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities.’ It says that governments ‘may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy.’” The Board calls on the secretary of defense to revise its guidance on journalists.

Tyler Drumheller, the CIA officer that exposed the Bush administration’s reliance on false claims made by an Iraqi informant known as Curveball (real name Rāfid Aḥmad Alwān) to launch the Iraq War, died this week at the age of 63. Despite warnings from his German handlers (Curveball defected to Germany in the 1990s and sought asylum there) and British intelligence that his behavior was erratic and that he could be lying, President Bush cited Curveball’s false claims on Iraq’s biological weapons programs in his 2003 State of the Union address – claims that were repeated in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s  famous February 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq’s weapons program. Visit the Archive’s posting, The Record on Curveball, for a detailed accounting, based on declassified documents and key participants’ testimony, on the importance of Curveball’s phony intelligence to the origins of the Iraq War.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a model vial of anthrax during his historic presentation before the United Nations Security Council, February 5, 2003. (Image extracted from a video available from the White House Web site.)

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a model vial of anthrax during his historic presentation before the United Nations Security Council, February 5, 2003. (Image extracted from a video available from the White House Web site.)

Reviewers from five of the Intelligence Community’s (IC) 17 agencies are now working with the State Department to vet 55,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails that were stored on a personal server during her tenure as secretary of state.

The State Department’s FOIA chief, John Hackett, announced this development last week in connection with a FOIA lawsuit brought by Vice’s Jason Leopold. The need for representatives from roughly one third of the intelligence community to help review, and get a crack at classifying, the documents is ostensibly warranted by concerns that the trove contains “hundreds of potentially classified emails,” even though none were sensitive enough at the time of their creation to warrant a classification stamp. Hackett revealed that the IC reviewers began working with the Clinton emails on July 15, and “perform preliminary screening of emails to identify their agencies’ equities.” It was also reported this week that members of the IC review team advised the State Department to classify two unreleased Clinton emails as TOP SECRET//SI/TK//NOFORN.  Of course, the brief memo reporters used to break this story was also classified at the this level.

The State Department, which is releasing Clinton’s emails on a rolling basis, has already retroactively classified portions of dozens of Clinton’s emails that it has released. The latest release occurred earlier this month, but Leopold notes that, “the release fell short of the 15 percent of the more than 33,000 emails a federal judge ordered the State Department to release every month. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was due to the stepped-up security review of Clinton’s emails. He said the State Department would make up for the ‘gap.’”

Brennans unsent apology letter.

Brennan’s un-sent apology letter.

The CIA released hundreds of documents to Leopold and Ryan Shapiro this week during the course of a FOIA lawsuit for documents concerning the CIA’s spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers investigating the agency’s torture program. One remarkable document, whose inclusion in the release was apparently a mistake, is a July 28, 2014, draft letter by CIA director Brennan apologizing to senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss. In the letter, Brennan admitted that the CIA’s actions were wrong and went against an agreement between the Committee and the Agency. The letter was prompted by CIA inspector general David Buckeye’s report finding the CIA officers involved broke federal law. Brennan never sent the letter, however, opting instead to send the senators a letter informing them that he would set up an independent review board to investigate the matter. The review board, handpicked by Brennan, cleared the officials of any wrongdoing and concluded that the officials had acted reasonably in the face of a potential security breach.

Steven Aftergood recently reported that the upcoming retirement of the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, might pave the way “for a massive expansion of the Library’s digitized holdings, enabling universal public access to its historic and cultural riches.” Aftergood also posits that “the arrival of new leadership at the Library of Congress might also set the stage for a change of policy authorizing public access to non-confidential products of the Congressional Research Service, which is formally a part of the Library.”

The Air Force Intelligence Service recently redacted its role in the 1983 exercise Able Archer 83, a NATO nuclear release exercise utilizing new “command and control procedures with particular emphasis on the transition from purely conventional operations to chemical, nuclear [operations]”, in response to an Archive FOIA request. Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones posted the omission after pouring through fellow Archivist Jeffrey Richelson’s posting, The Pentagon’s Spies. The posting contains an internal History of the Air Force Intelligence Service (USAFIS) for 1983, one of whose footnotes reveals that a redacted portion of the document concerns the Air Force Intelligence Service’s participation in Able Archer 83.  Jones has asked for a re-review of the document, and MDRed the footnotes, and is hopeful that the Air Force will release more information.

The CIA recently further declassified a list of Inspector General audit reports that the agency’s IG completed between 1999 and 2013. The list, which remains heavily redacted, reveals that the IG – tasked with oversight of the agency – completed investigations on, among other things, “Administration of Headquarters Area Vehicles,” “Contract Award Process for the CASES Program,” and “CA Program Authorized by the 17 September 2001 Presidential Finding.” Each of the reports can now be requested under FOIA or MDR (although MDR is in all likelihood the better route — and the reason why the CIA is continuing to attack MDR). The CIA’s last IG retired in February and the agency has now gone – at the time of writing this – six months without a replacement.

Excerpts from “CIA Activities in Chile,” released by the CIA, September 19, 2000

Excerpts from “CIA Activities in Chile,” released by the CIA, September 19, 2000

This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with the death of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet’s intelligence chief, Manual Contreras, in mind. This week’s pick is a CIA report, “CIA Activities in Chile,” which was released to the Archive in 2000 and notes that “The CIA made Gen. Manuel Contreras, head of DINA, a paid asset only several months after concluding that he ‘was the principal obstacle to a reasonable human rights policy within the Junta.’ After the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington D.C., the CIA continued to work with Contreras even as ‘his possible role in the Letelier assassination became an issue.’”

Happy FOIA-ing!

CIA Declassifies (11) More IG Report Titles

August 11, 2015
Follow the Truth...Unless You Dont Have an IG.

Follow the Truth…Unless You Don’t Have an IG.

The CIA recently declassified a list of Inspector General audit reports that the agency’s IG completed between 1999 and 2013. The declassified list, which remains heavily redacted, was released thanks to an Archive FOIA request and sheds valuable light on what the IG’s office – an independent office tasked with oversight of the agency – has investigated.

The Archive filed its initial FOIA request for the list of IG reports in 2014. The first list our office received totaled, by my count, 405 reports – 276 of which were redacted. We appealed the withholdings asking for further declassification, and were recently rewarded for our efforts with a somewhat cleaner copy – with only 265 reports redacted.

CIAIGb:a

The initial 2014 release is on the right, and the 2015 release on appeal is on the left.

The titles of the 11 IG report that were revealed thanks to our appeal are:

  • CIA Incident Response and Reporting Capability,
  • Technology Management Office,
  • Availability and Performance of CIA Information Systems,
  • CIA’s Contract Settlement Process,
  • Independent Quality Control Review of Financial Audit Services,
  • Joint Audit of the SRP,
  • Contract Award Process for the CASES Program,
  • Corporate Information Retrieval Storage (CIRAS),
  • Administration of Headquarters Area Vehicles,
  • The Agency’s Fund Balance with Treasury, and
  • CA Program Authorized by the 17 September 2001 Presidential Finding.

Each can now be requested under FOIA or MDR (although MDR is in all likelihood the better route — and the reason why the CIA is continuing to attack MDR). The Audit ID numbers were also declassified on appeal, which will also be useful when filing.

It’s worth mentioning that the critical work performed by the CIA’s IG office is currently going undone. The CIA’s last inspector general, David Buckley, resigned six months ago, and the Obama administration has yet to nominate a replacement – delaying investigations, including the one into the drone strike that killed Warren Weinstein, an American hostage being held by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, in the process.

 

Air Force Intelligence Service Redacts Its Role During Able Archer 83

August 7, 2015
Follow (and FOIA) the footnotes.

Follow (and FOIA) the footnotes.

A declassified National Security Agency history describes the 1983 US-Soviet War Scare as “the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”  The crux of this War Scare was Able Archer 83, a NATO nuclear release exercise utilizing new “command and control procedures with particular emphasis on the transition from purely conventional operations to chemical, nuclear [operations].”

A declassified British Ministry of Defense document reports that the exercise evoked an “unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83.”  US intelligence reported “a high level of Soviet military activity, with new deployments of weapons and strike forces.”  After the exercise, CIA Director William Casey warned President Ronald Reagan and other cabinet officials of the “dimension of genuineness” and “high military costs” of the Soviet actions.  An obtained summary of a still-classified retrospective 1991 intelligence report showed an “ominous list of indicators” pointing toward “genuine Soviet fear of a Western first strike,” which caused the Soviet military to ready its forces for a preemptive strike on the West.  “If so,” the report understated, “war scare a cause for concern.”

The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook

The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook

I have filed quite a few FOIAs trying to figure out what exactly happened during the Able Archer 83 War Scare and have posted these results and the story as we now know it in the National Security Archive’s Able Archer Sourcebook.

My colleague Jefferey Richelson has recently unearthed another important new lead.  In his excellent posting on The Pentagon’s Spies, Richelson includes an internal History of the Air Force Intelligence Service (USAFIS) for 1983.  Deep within the history, beginning on page 252, there is a summary of the Intelligence Service’s “exercise monitoring” in 1983.  Most of the exercises have been released to the public, but one two-paragraph summary is blacked out.  But if you look down to the footnotes, you can see what was hidden – the Air Force Intelligence Service’s participation in Able Archer 83.

Of course we at the Archive were quick to ask for a re-review of this redaction (which you can do two years after the initial review) and are optimistic that the Air Force will release more information.  But the footnotes also point to an even more potentially important source: USAFIS after action reports and a DISUM (daily intelligence summary) on Able Archer 83.

The Seventh's After Action Report on Able Archer 83

The Seventh’s After Action Report on Able Archer 83

Another Air Force After Action report on Able Archer 83 (this one is from the Seventh Air Division, Ramstein) is one of the most illuminating documents that the National Security Archive has gotten declassified about the exercise.  This after action report revealed at least four elements that occurred during the exercise  which could have alarmed the Soviets: 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” — the KGB code name for a feared Western nuclear missile attack (Raketno-Yadernoye Napadenie).

Hopefully following these declassified footnotes will further illuminate the last dangerous paroxysm of the Cold War.

There are two other important documents that the Archive continues to fight for.  The first is a key British report on the information that the British first passed to the US warning of the Soviet response to Able Archer 83.  It is ominously entitled  “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO.”  Guttingly to this researcher, the British Archives released only the first page of this document and claimed that the remainder was exempt from release under the British FOI law.  The Archive is continuing its fight for this document to the highest levels.  A tribunal will likely hear this case this autumn.  Hopefully the majority of this key historical document will be released so that the professed and lauded British “Thirty-Year Rule” can continue to be taken seriously.

The British Cabinet Office continues to hide all but the first page of this key report on the danger during Able Archer 83.

The British Cabinet Office continues to hide all but the first page of this key report on the danger during Able Archer 83.

The second document that the Archive is continuing to fight for is the retrospective 1991 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report referenced above.  The Archive first requested this comprehensive 100-plus page report in 2004.  It is being reviewed by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, the “secrecy court of last resort.”  Despite the agonizing wait times, the Archive is still hopeful that ISCAP’s release rate of over 80 percent will mean that this key US document will soon be released to the public.

And finally, I should mention that Sundance Television’s new series Deutchland 83 is an excellent chronicle of the War Scare from an East German perspective.  It’s most recent episode is entitled “Able Archer.”  Perhaps the lure of television will get the declassifiers motivated to release these key documents.

Seven decades after Hiroshima, is there still a nuclear taboo?

August 6, 2015
Nagasaki, August 10, 1945; photograph by Yosuke Yamahata; used with permission of copyright holder, Shogo Yamahata/Courtesy: IDG films. Photo restoration by TX Unlimited, San Francisco

Nagasaki, August 10, 1945; photograph by Yosuke Yamahata; used with permission of copyright holder, Shogo Yamahata/Courtesy: IDG films. Photo restoration by TX Unlimited, San Francisco

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

By William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball.

Seventy years ago, in August 1945, the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. Since then, neither the United States nor any other nuclear-armed country has used such weapons against an adversary. Why not? During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow made nuclear threats that could have led to catastrophe, and the history of US strategy and policy since 1945 includes many examples of risky nuclear bluster. But it also includes a number of cases in which decision-makers stopped short of nuclear use because of constraints against first use. These constraints are known collectively as the “nuclear taboo,” an informal but widely-observed prohibition made up of moral, political, bureaucratic, military, practical, and diplomatic hurdles and inhibitions. This taboo has played an important role in preventing nuclear war. But even though it persists today, it may not be enough to prevent nuclear war in the future.

When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, top US officials mainly thought of the weapon as a gigantic explosive device with powerful blast effects and were unaware of other dangers, such as radiation poisoning and fallout hazards. But the terrible effects of the weapon and the massive civilian casualties soon made it evident that the bomb was unique in other foreboding ways. Belatedly recognizing what the United States had wrought, President Harry Truman stopped the atomic bombings as Japan was preparing to surrender, telling his cabinet that the “thought of killing another 100,000 people was too horrible” and that he did not like the idea of killing “all those kids.”

 

The atomic bombings had a tremendous impact on international opinion and produced constraints against nuclear use, which US government officials had to take into account. Although US military leaders considered using nuclear weapons against North Korean and Chinese forces, they were unable to identify practical military targets, and global public opinion by that point constrained their use. In November 1950, for example, as US-led United Nations forces retreated in the face of Chinese entry into the Korean War, Truman administration officials debated the merits of attacking China with atomic weapons without UN approval. State Department planning adviser John K. Emmerson objected, arguing in a memo to Dean Rusk (who would later become secretary of state) that “the moral position of the United States would be seriously damaged.” Such action “would be deplored and denounced by a considerable number of nations who had up to that time supported the action in Korea. … Should the next atomic bomb be dropped on an Asiatic population, it is easy for foresee the revulsion of feeling which would spread throughout Asia.”

Dismayed by the civilian casualties caused by atomic bombs in Japan and later by the incomprehensible destructiveness of hydrogen bombs, as demonstrated by US and Soviet thermonuclear tests, Truman had come to regard both as “weapons of last resort.” But his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower thought otherwise, believing that nuclear weapons could be used “just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else,” as he said at a 1955 news conference. After the Korean War ended, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles claimed they had secretly and successfully brought China to terms at the negotiating table by threatening to use nuclear weapons. In 1954, during the French War in Indochina, Eisenhower and Dulles considered using atomic bombs to break the Viet Minh siege at Dien Bien Phu. They also issued public nuclear threats and placed nuclear (as well as conventional) forces on high readiness during the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s. During the 1958 civil war in Lebanon between pro-Western Christians and Soviet-endorsed pan-Arab Muslims, Eisenhower put US nuclear forces on their largest and highest alert yet, with hundreds of strategic bombers readied for launch.

Yet even as Soviet nuclear forces grew and as Eisenhower and Dulles became more aware of nuclear dangers, their thinking shifted. During the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Eisenhower kept tight control over nuclear weapons and conceded in a message to the British foreign secretary that when you use nuclear weapons “you cross a completely different line.” Eisenhower came to view these weapons as belonging in a special category—although he continued to profess support for their use in the event of a Soviet onslaught against Western Europe or an attack against US territory.

"The Air Force Role in Five Crises, 1958-1965: Lebanon, Taiwan, Congo, Cuba, Dominican Republic," by Bernard C. Nalty, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, June 1968, Top Secret, Excised copy

“The Air Force Role in Five Crises, 1958-1965: Lebanon, Taiwan, Congo, Cuba, Dominican Republic,” by Bernard C. Nalty, United States Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, June 1968, Top Secret, Excised copy

The doubts of civilian leaders notwithstanding, in the 1950s the US Air Force drafted war plans that included the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against Soviet bomber and missile bases if US intelligence agencies surmised that the Soviet Union was preparing a surprise attack on US military forces and cities. Preemption continued to be a central tenet in US planning during the Cold War and served as a key justification for increased spending on nuclear weapons.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, advised against first use of nuclear weapons, except in the instance of massive attacks on US forces abroad by China or the Soviet Union. Both presidents took heed of that advice, although Kennedy brought his country perilously close to the nuclear brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when US nuclear forces were at their highest state of alert ever. Luckily, both Kennedy and Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev avoided fatal mistakes despite the potential for danger inherent in anti-submarine maneuvers and secret Soviet nuclear deployments.

When challenger Senator Barry Goldwater and others called for the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam during the 1964 presidential campaign, President Johnson explicitly cited the language of taboo: “For 19 perilous years no nation has loosed the atom against another. To do so … would lead us down an uncertain path of blows and counterblows whose outcome none may know.” A CIA study about potential outcomes of nuclear use in Vietnam argued that it would cause a “fundamental revulsion that the US had broken the 20-year taboo on the use of nuclear weapons” and produce a “wave of fear and anger,” with allies condemning the United States for “having dragged the world into a new and terrible phase of history.” Such admonitions put a damper on any serious White House consideration of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam during Johnson’s tenure, although some advisers entertained the notion.

The election of Richard M. Nixon to the presidency, however, brought to power a politician steeped in the Eisenhower-Dulles school of nuclear threat making, who believed that such threats had brought the Korean War to an end. Nixon entered the White House in 1969, while the Vietnam War was raging. Like his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, he believed that ending it was their top priority, in part because his re-election depended on it. He thought that the right combination of carrots (diplomatic inducements) and sticks (threats and stronger military measures) could make that possible.

 President Nixon meeting with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, February 13, 1969 (Copy from Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives)


President Nixon meeting with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, February 13, 1969 (Copy from Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives)

Drawing on his experience as vice president during the Eisenhower administration, Nixon had developed what he called the “madman theory,” which posited that threatening massive, even excessive, levels of military violence, including nuclear attacks, would intimidate the North Vietnamese and their patrons in the Soviet Union into submission at the negotiating table. During his first year in office he made secret madman threats against North Vietnam in hopes of bringing it into compliance by the end of 1969. He and Kissinger also hoped that such threats would make Soviet leaders worry that the war was going to spin out of control, thus encouraging them to put pressure on Hanoi to make the requisite concessions.

In September 1969, Kissinger’s aides drew up a concept plan for military escalation against North Vietnam that included proposals to use nuclear weapons on two railroad lines to China and three mountain passes on the Laos-North Vietnam border. In early October, however, Nixon decided against escalation, in part because of his concerns about negative public reactions at home and abroad and worries about previously scheduled anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. He also faced opposition to escalation from within his own administration, including cautionary advice from some of Kissinger’s own aides. Moreover, madman threat-making had not moved Moscow to cooperate in putting pressure on Hanoi to yield in the Paris negotiations.

Memorandum from Tony Lake and Roger Morris, NSC Staff, to Captain [Rembrandt] Robinson, Subject: Draft Memorandum to the President on Contingency Study, 29 September 1969, Top Secret/Sensitive.

Memorandum from Tony Lake and Roger Morris, NSC Staff, to Captain [Rembrandt] Robinson, Subject: Draft Memorandum to the President on Contingency Study, 29 September 1969, Top Secret/Sensitive.

Instead of escalating militarily, on October 9, 1969, Nixon and Kissinger instructed the Pentagon to place US nuclear and other military forces around the globe on alert, and to do so secretly. Angry that Moscow had not put pressure on Hanoi to back down but instead continued to provide North Vietnam with military aid, Nixon made a last-ditch gambit to get Soviet cooperation. For 18 days in October, the Pentagon orchestrated one of the largest and most extensive secret military operations in US history. Tactical and strategic bomber forces went on alert, as did Polaris missile-launching submarines (intercontinental ballistic missiles were already on high alert routinely). Aircraft carriers made unusual movements in the North Atlantic and Sea of Japan, while destroyers shadowed Soviet merchant ships heading toward North Vietnam. This “Joint Chiefs Readiness Test,” as it was called, officially culminated in a flight of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers over northern Alaska, the first time that the Strategic Air Command had undertaken nuclear overflights since a major accident in Greenland in early 1968.

The secret US nuclear alert, though certainly noticed by Soviet leaders, failed to pressure them into helping Nixon win concessions from Hanoi. Instead, Nixon shifted his Vietnam War strategy to a “long route” approach that emphasized unilateral US troop withdrawals, the training and enlargement of South Vietnamese forces, and protracted negotiations designed to achieve a compromise settlement by the time of the 1972 presidential election in the United States.

In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam upset Nixon’s plans with a powerful offensive in South Vietnam. White House tapes reveal that at a critical moment in April, when Nixon spoke with Kissinger in the Executive Office Building about the bombing and mining campaign launched in retaliation for the North Vietnamese offensive, Nixon raised the issue of whether they should also bomb dikes along the Red River. When Kissinger complained that such a move would kill large numbers of people, Nixon brought up the option of a nuclear strike: “I’d rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?” In response, Kissinger muttered, “Now that, I think, would just be, uh, too much, uh —.” Nixon interrupted, “A nuclear bomb, does that bother you?” In a barely understandable retort, Kissinger seemed to say: “A nuclear bomb, you wouldn’t do it anyway.” Nixon gruffly ended the conversation on this topic, saying, “I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake!”

His anger notwithstanding, Nixon never took this idea any further, although he brought it up on several other occasions before and after. One of Kissinger’s responses in the Executive Office Building conversation suggested what the constraints were: nuclear use would be “too much,” as if crossing a line, which would elicit condemnation around the world and provoke Soviet and Chinese responses. Nixon faced the same checks previous presidents had.

Nixon and Kissinger Meet with Four Arab Foreign Ministers, 17 October 1973: Ahmed Taiba Behima (Morocco), Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah (Kuwait), Omar Saqqaf (Saudi Arabia), and Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria). Saqqaf is Nixon's right. The other two ministers have not been identified, while one of the four was not included in this photo. Source: National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Nixon Presidential Materials Photo Collection, file "Diplomatic"

Nixon and Kissinger Meet with Four Arab Foreign Ministers, 17 October 1973: Ahmed Taiba Behima (Morocco), Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah (Kuwait), Omar Saqqaf (Saudi Arabia), and Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria). Saqqaf is Nixon’s right. The other two ministers have not been identified, while one of the four was not included in this photo.
Source: National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Nixon Presidential Materials Photo Collection, file “Diplomatic”

Nevertheless, Nixon and Kissinger did not give up on madman threats, nuclear or otherwise. During the 1970 Jordan crisis, they used massive naval deployments to deter what they saw as a Soviet-backed Syrian intervention. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kissinger instructed the Pentagon to go into defense readiness condition (DEFCON) 3, putting the Strategic Air Command on the highest alert level since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 in order to prevent what he misperceived as the possibility of Soviet intervention. (Nixon was out of action at that moment, inebriated and in despair over Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation and the unfolding Watergate investigation.)

The DEFCON 3 in 1973 was the last US nuclear alert of the Cold War. The Soviets did not respond with their own readiness measures, but they were angry and irritated. Kissinger, however, came to recognize that threat diplomacy was becoming too dangerous and too incredible to be taken seriously by an adversary. As he explained after he left office, the United States could not “afford to repeat the rapid escalation gambit.” Nevertheless, dangerous launch-on-warning and preemptive options remained basic elements in US nuclear planning.

Although subsequent US presidents tacitly ruled out nuclear alerts in the last years of the Cold War, tensions with the Soviet Union often remained high, generating episodes that had the potential to spin out of control. The Soviet reaction to the NATO military exercise of November 1983, code-named Able Archer, was particularly noteworthy. The Soviets interpreted NATO’s practice nuclear-weapons release procedures as a portent of actual nuclear-weapons use. Worried about the possibility of a US strike, Moscow readied its nuclear forces. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, but November 1983 was an especially tense period in Cold War history. Bellicose talk by President Ronald Reagan and officials in his administration in the months preceding Able Archer about fighting and winning a nuclear war with the Soviet Union had set the stage for the November scare.

The likelihood of deliberate nuclear use by the United States faded as the nuclear taboo became central to the worldview of policymakers, but nuclear threats remained in the playbook of top officials. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, senior members in President George H. W. Bush’s administration declared that nuclear weapons were “taboo” and “unusable” and that employing them would cause Washington to “lose the moral high ground,” among other considerations. Nevertheless, other officials floated implicit warnings that could be construed as nuclear threats. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, for example, declared that if the Iraqis used chemical or biological weapons, the American people would require “vengeance,” and said that they “have the means to extract it.”

The language of nuclear threat-making continued to pepper discussions about foreign policy, especially during the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and in debates over the Iranian nuclear program. In early 2002, President George W. Bush set the tone when he declared that “all options are on the table” to counter threats by other states who would use “weapons of mass destruction” against the United States. Responding to reporters’ questions three years later in Brussels about US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, President Bush responded with what many regarded as a typical Bushism: “This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table.” He was not alone. Leading Democrats, including then-senators Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama, used similar language.

As a presidential candidate and as president, however, Obama promised to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal. He called for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” reiterating official US policy—though more as a worthy, long-term goal best pursued incrementally than as an immediate objective. Obama also declared that the United States would remain nuclear-armed as long as other countries possessed stockpiles. According to statements he made in 2010, though, nuclear options would be a “last resort” and would not be available against non-nuclear states that were in compliance with nuclear nonproliferation norms.

Nuclear powers continue to make nuclear threats. Recently, Russian officials and Pakistan have said they would use their weapons if they deemed it necessary. At the same time, the United States appears to be entering a period of expanded nuclear budgets, in part because a critical mass of Pentagon planners still embrace outdated Cold War nuclear strategies, including that of first strike, in which the goal is to preemptively attack the opposing nation’s arsenal in order to diminish or destroy its ability to retaliate. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the United States is planning to spend $348 billion to maintain and modernize its nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years—an amount so great that it would establish (or strengthen) strong vested interests against abolition or even meaningful reduction. With prospects for US and Russian nuclear arms reductions at a standstill, the White House has not yet sought to rein in these exorbitant spending plans.

Citing nuclear competition with China and Russia, which are both modernizing their nuclear forces, the Pentagon justifies its budget goals with language and scenarios straight out of the Cold War. Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman James Winnefeld Jr.recently said to the House Armed Services Committee that Russian plans for mobile, land-based ICBMs worried him because they “would be hard for us to hit in a first strike.” This statement is cause for concern because it shows that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believes there might come a time when the United States would want to launch a first strike.

The mushroom cloud billowing up 20,000 feet over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945 (Photo from U.S. National Archives, RG 77-AEC)

The mushroom cloud billowing up 20,000 feet over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945 (Photo from U.S. National Archives, RG 77-AEC)

Seventy years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons remain in a special category, in which their use is narrowly circumscribed. They have become unusable except in the most unlikely circumstances, and their value as a deterrent lacks credibility because of the catastrophic dangers of mass and mutual destruction. US presidents since Truman have come to realize that nuclear war is unwinnable.

Nonetheless, they have built up and to this day maintain forces that far exceed any calculation of what it requires to deter a nuclear attack. Today, the United States still has about 2,080 deployed nuclear warheads and Russia has some 1,780. Many of these weapons are primed for prompt launch and can reach their targets within 25 minutes. If these weapons were used even in a “limited” way, the result would be catastrophic nuclear devastation. This suggests that while the nuclear taboo still exists, the non-use legacy is at risk as long as defense officials in Russia and the United States continue to think and act in irresponsible Cold War terms, and the US Senate refuses to ratify international restrictions on nuclear testing. As powerful a restraint as the taboo has been and may still be, complacency is foolhardy.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here do not represent those of the National Security Archive.

 

 

Inspectors General Council Fights Back Against OLC Opinion Substantially Curtailing DOJ-IG Authority, CIA Six Months Without IG, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 8/6/2015

August 6, 2015

 

IG Council letter to Senate balking at OLC opinion.

IG Council letter to Senate balking at OLC opinion.

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency have sent a letter to Congress asking it to pass legislation affirming “the independent authority of Inspectors General to access without delay all information and data in an agency’s possession that an Inspector General deems necessary to execute its oversight functions under the law.” The letter was sent in response to a July 20, 2015, Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion that requires the DOJ-IG to seek permission to review documents pertinent to an investigation, even going so far as to state that “the Department of Justice itself decides whether access by the DOJ-IG is warranted – placing the agency that the DOJ-IG oversees in the position of deciding whether to grant the Inspector General access to information necessary to conduct effective and independent oversight.” The IG Council views this as a potentially serious challenge to every agency IG, and a possible roadblock for IGs “to get permission to review sensitive documents from the very agencies they are monitoring.”

The CIA’s beleaguered inspector general, David Buckley, resigned six months ago, and the Obama administration is facing criticism for not yet nominating a replacement – delaying sensitive internal investigations, like the one into the drone strike that killed Warren Weinstein, an American hostage being held by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, in the process. In February Buckley released his report finding that five CIA officials improperly monitored Senate Intelligence Committee staff working on the CIA Torture Report; while his report admonished the involved officials, the agency opted not to punish them. A CIA panel handpicked by Director John Brennan, “in what was widely seen as an embarrassing rebuke to Buckley,” went so far as to clear the officials of any wrongdoing, concluding that the officials had acted reasonably in the face of a potential security breach. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to President Obama in June asking him to nominate Buckley’s replacement, but the White House has yet to suggest one. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists called the move “discouraging,” and the Project on Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian said “It’s clear to me it’s not a priority of this administration to have strong inspectors general.”

One of the released docs, the August 10, 2008, AG and DNI Protect America Certification.

One of the released docs, the August 10, 2008, AG and DNI Protect America Certification.

A FOIA lawsuit brought by the New York Times has won the declassification and release of documents on the Protect America Act, filling in gaps on the evolution of post-9/11 warrantless surveillance. The Protect America Act, the predecessor to the FISA Amendments Act, was passed in August 2007 and permitted warrantless surveillance on domestic soil provided “the target was a foreigner abroad. The law permitted the NSA to immediately begin using its power, even before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved its procedures.” The documents are from 2007 and 2008 and “Some are entirely new to the public, and some were previously released but have now been reprocessed to see if additional information could be left unredacted.”

FOIA-obtained records played a big role in showing that the Air Force gave Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is currently campaigning for president on the assertion he’s a “battle-tested leader” with “a lifetime of military service”, special treatment “with few expectations in return.” The Air Force promoted Graham twice during his first decade in Congress “even though documents in his military personnel file reveal that he did little or no work. Later, the Pentagon gave the military lawyer a job assignment in the Air Force Reserve that he highlighted in his biography for several years but never performed.” Graham received credit for performing an average of a day and a half of work a year with the Air Force between 1995 and 2005. Graham is often cited for his work between 2006 and 2015 as a senior instructor at the Judge Advocate General’s School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala, although “Air Force officials said they had no record of Graham teaching any courses on behalf of the school or even visiting it during that period.”

The Air Force’s new instructions on Media Operations clarifies that employees are not to use force against journalists who do not obey instructions regarding classified information, and “generally favors constructive engagement with the news media, both on principle and out of self-interest.” The instructions outline crisis communications in addition to media operations, and emphasizes that “the primary responsibility for protecting classified information lies with the Air Force, not the reporter.”

The Guardian recently published an in-depth expose based on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s research on contractors “working in the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) of intelligence” for military drone strikes. The information, gleaned from interviews, the FOIA, and public sources, notes that about one in ten drone controllers is a contractor, posing potentially troubling implications for transparency. Contractors are not supposed to perform inherently governmental tasks, and the Air Force maintains that it keeps “contractors out of sensitive, decision-making positions.” George Washington University law school’s Laura Dickinson notes, “It’s not that these contractors are necessarily doing a bad job, it’s that our legal system of oversight isn’t necessarily well equipped to deal with this fragmented workforce where you have contractors working alongside uniformed troops.”

Last week Archive Director Tom Blanton penned a memorable op-ed in the Washington Post, pushing back against dubious secrets and securocrats’ efforts to use Hillary Clinton’s emails to stem transparency by requesting the DOJ open a security referral into their handling. Blanton, arguing compellingly that America misguidedly classifies too much information, said, “The word is the Cold War is over, yet Cold War secrecy rules still control the government’s information systems.” Blanton further noted that the “best defense of an open society is open information. We are not safer in the dark.” Despite the potential “egregious waste of time and money” involved in re-reviewing documents that were not sensitive enough to warrant classification when they originated, this week it was reported that the FBI – a DOJ component – was already looking into the security of Clinton’s emails, her server, and a thumb drive in her lawyer’s possession that holds copies of the files.

Intelligence report to President Ronald Reagan on the murder of Rodrigo Rojas.

Intelligence report to President Ronald Reagan on the murder of Rodrigo Rojas.

Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet refused to accept a police report identifying his military was responsible for burning two teenage protesters -Rodrigo Rojas de Negri and Carmen Gloria Quintana- alive in July 1986, according to declassified US documents recently posted by the Archive. One heavily censored CIA intelligence report highlighted in the posting, titled “Government of Chile Pressure to Drop Investigation and Prosecution of Rojas Case,” shows that regime officials intimidated judges and lawyers and intervened to stall legal efforts in the courts to bring those responsible to justice.

The Archive’s definitive collection of primary source documents about the dropping of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII has been updated to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombings. New documents reveal, among other things, that a few months after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Dwight D. Eisenhower commented that, “he had hoped that the war might have ended without our having to use the atomic bomb.” See this document and read the whole posting here.

Entry for 4 October 1945, Robert P. Mieklejohn Diary

Entry for 4 October 1945, Robert P. Mieklejohn Diary

Today’s #tbt pick is chosen with the Archive’s recent receipt of 900 declassified Henry Kissinger telephone calls – telcons –, the result of a FOIA lawsuit filed earlier this year. Today’s #tbt document pick is a September 16, 1973, telcon recording a conversation between Kissinger and President Nixon. Highlighted in a 2008 posting by Archive Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh, the document recounts their “first substantive conversation following the military coup in Chile…When Nixon asks if the U.S. ‘hand’ will show in the coup, Kissinger admits ‘we helped them’ and that ‘[deleted reference] created conditions as great as possible.’ The two commiserate over what Kissinger calls the ‘bleating’ liberal press. In the Eisenhower period, he states, ‘we would be heroes.’ Nixon assures him that the people will appreciate what they did: ‘let me say they aren’t going to buy this crap from the liberals on this one.’”

Happy FOIA-ing!

“America classifies way too much information – and we are all less safe for it”

August 3, 2015

This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Hillary Clinton's sole use of personal email may balloon into unnecessary criminal inquiry. Photo credit: Travis Dove for The New York Times

Hillary Clinton’s sole use of personal email may balloon into unnecessary criminal inquiry. Photo credit: Travis Dove for The New York Times

Warning: If you hold a security clearance, reading this column could expose you to information that potentially violates your security agreement. Reading this column will certainly expose you to information that is currently classified by some securocrats, though not by others.

By Tom Blanton

The inspectors general of the State Department and the intelligence community have made a security referral to the Justice Department regarding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails on the grounds that some of them were “potentially classified.”

So is this column.

Watch out: Your clearance is at stake.

When the Defense Department released document 2 in September 2013 it withheld the references to Turkey from the section concerning Nikita Khrushchev's public message to President Kennedy on 27 October 1962 suggesting a trade of U.S. missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. In its 2009 appeal letter to the Defense Department the Archive pointed out that Khrushchev message's was in the public record, but the Pentagon maintained the deletions.

When the Defense Department released document 2 in September 2013 it withheld the references to Turkey from the section concerning Nikita Khrushchev’s public message to President Kennedy on 27 October 1962 suggesting a trade of U.S. missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. In its 2009 appeal letter to the Defense Department the Archive pointed out that Khrushchev message’s was in the public record, but the Pentagon maintained the deletions.

Let me get the suspense over with. Here’s a classified fact: We, the United States, based medium-range ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads in Turkey in 1962, which angered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev so much that he put his own into Cuba.

Wait: I’ve read all about that. It’s been declassified, hasn’t it?

Well, yes. Except — in the immortal words of John F. Kennedy — “there’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

The word is the Cold War is over, yet Cold War secrecy rules still control the government’s information systems.

The Defense Department still can’t bring itself to declassify nukes in Turkey, and Italy, and the 50 or so other countries where we idiotically stationed them during the Cold War.

Here at the National Security Archive, in our “Dubious Secrets” series, we have published hundreds of U.S. government documents that one office or official considers declassified, while another insists must stay secret. Whom do you listen to?

We have two versions of the same page of White House e-mail, addressed to then-deputy national security adviser Colin Powell, with the top and bottom blacked out from one review, and the middle blacked out from another, 10 days later. Turns out it was the same reviewer both times. So goes the highly subjective process of classification.

Two versions of the same page of White House e-mail, addressed to then deputy national security adviser Colin Powell. The reviewer classified the deletions each time at the Secret level, meaning he believed their release would cause "serious damage" to U.S. national security.

Two versions of the same page of White House e-mail, addressed to then deputy national security adviser Colin Powell. The reviewer classified the deletions each time at the Secret level, meaning he believed their release would cause “serious damage” to U.S. national security.

But let’s talk about Clinton. Thank goodness she used a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state. If she had used the State Department system, practically none of her e-mail would survive. That’s how bad State’s electronic archiving was then. Instead, the State Department has 30,000 of her messages, and history is becoming much the wiser. Her critics, not so much.

Now, the same folks who clamored to see those messages seem to want to lock them up in classified vaults. Foolishness. They intend to redact the e-mails, thus putting red flags right on messages that circulated for years in unclassified form, thus highlighting the secrets they contain, if there really are any. Keeping the e-mails unclassified would actually be the best way to protect anything sensitive — through obscurity.

There were significant efficiency gains for our national security when the secretary of state ran her main e-mail account in unclassified form. No artificial barriers to information sharing. A bright line against including truly classified documents. A standing rebuke to the massive overclassification all around her.

I’ve seen a couple-million pages of documents that were classified when the government put them on paper or computer screens. I can say from experience that few deserved such consideration.

There are real secrets. This is where I diverge from the Julian Assanges and the Chelsea Mannings of the world. I don’t want the designs of binary chemical warheads getting out, nor the identities of any brave Iranian or Chinese voices who talk to our embassies or CIA stations. The bottom lines of our diplomats in negotiations, I think we should keep to ourselves until such time as the deals are done.

But the real secrets make up only a fraction of the classified universe, and no secret deserves immortality. In fact, essential to the whole idea of democratic government is that secret deals with dictators will come out eventually, not least to deter the worst deals from being made.

WikiLeaks produced hysteria in Washington with its large-scale release of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010. The House Judiciary Committee asked me to talk about whether lawmakers should amend the Espionage Act to prosecute those guys. Bad idea, I said. I predicted that there would be little damage to real national security because most classified cables can be published within a few years with no harm done.

I showed Congress the estimates over the years of how much gets classified that doesn’t deserve to be. Ronald Reagan’s executive secretary for the National Security Council, Rodney B. McDaniel, said 90 percent. Thomas H. Kean, the Republican head of the 9/11 Commission, said 75 percent of what he saw that was classified should not have been.

How much overclassification is there? Yet more evidence from Blantons 2005 testimony.

How much overclassification is there? Yet more evidence from Blantons 2005 testimony.

In fact, the congressional inquiry into 9/11 concluded that secrecy had kept the American people — our best allies in the fight against terrorism — from engaging with the threat they faced. The only responders with enough information to disrupt any of the Sept. 11 attacks were the passengers on United Flight 93, who heard through their cellphones what was happening on other planes and attempted to retake control of their own, saving who knows how many lives in the process.

The best defense of an open society is open information. We are not safer in the dark.

Those inspectors general poring over Clinton’s e-mails need to get back to their transparency and accountability jobs, where they should focus on opening — not closing — the files that will empower a free citizenry to protect our country and ourselves, and hold our leaders to account.

 

Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.  The Archive won the George Polk Award in 2000 for “piercing self-serving veils of government secrecy, guiding journalists in search for the truth, and informing us all.”

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