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FRINFORMSUM 10/24/2013: Overclassification, Drones, and More

October 24, 2013
DNI James Clapper. Photo credit AFP.

DNI James Clapper was not allowed to run the review group. Photo credit AFP.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks, President Obama tasked Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to form a review group on surveillance practices [and, in the wake of Clapper’s admittance to lying to Congress over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) own programs, the White House promised that Clapper would not lead the review group or pick its members]. The group asked for comments on how the US intelligence community can “employ [its] technical collection capabilities…while respecting our commitment to privacy and civil liberties.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) responded, requesting that the group focus “on the everyday practical concerns about the collection of innocent users’ metadata, phone calls, and emails; and the collection of huge datasets that may provide voluminous amounts of intimate information,” adding that “[d]ragnet or bulk collection of information must be replaced with particularized, and targeted acquisition.”

For many concerned with dragnet surveillance, a parallel concern is the problem of overclassification, which was given much-need attention with the passing of the Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2010. However, as Secrecy NewsSeven Aftergood points out, the Act failed to define what “overclassification” meant, with different definitions compounding the problem, and missed the larger problem of the current classification system –that too many documents technically meet the standards for classification, but should nonetheless not be classified in the first place.

Could the Declassification Predict redacted text?

Could the Declassification Engine predict redacted text?

Perhaps a hypothetical, partial solution to the long-standing problem of overclassification might be the Declassification Engine, “which, among other things, employs machine-learning and natural language processing to study the semantic patterns in declassified text” in an attempt to predict what text is redacted from a declassified document. According to a recent New Yorker article, “[t]he project’s goals range from compiling the largest digitized archive of declassified documents in the world to plotting the declassified geographical metadata of over a million State Department cables on an interactive global map, which the researchers hope will afford them new insight into the workings of government secrecy.”

A recent UN report argues that US drone strikes may violate international law because they cause civilian casualties. The UN investigation identified 33 strikes that resulted in civilian casualties from around the world, and challenges the US to both declassify information regarding the CIA coordinated operations, and to clarify its position on the drone attacks. The report’s author, Ben Emmerson, says the CIA’s involvement in the strikes results in “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency,” adding, “[o]ne consequence is that the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere.”

A Reaper drone, as used by the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A Reaper drone, as used by the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Two human rights groups have released simultaneous repots on civilian casualties to coincide with the UN report. Amnesty International’s report on civilian casualties in Pakistan argued that there is “strong evidence that more than 30 civilians were killed in four of the attacks.” A recent Washington Post report reveals that despite public outcry of Pakistani officials over these drone strikes, they have nonetheless supported them for years. For its part, the Human Rights Watch report detailed ‘what it said were six “unacknowledged” U.S. military attacks on targets in Yemen, which either clearly, or possibly, violated international law. Eighty-two people, 57 of whom were civilians, were killed during the six attacks studied by the group.’

Of further interest are revelations that NSA provides intelligence for the CIA-run drone program, with documents making it “clear that the CIA-operated drone campaign relies heavily on the NSA’s ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, or SIGINT, the newspaper said.”

In other NSA news, the agency didn’t install up-to-date anti-leak software in Edward Snowden’s Hawaii office, from where Snowden downloaded tens of thousands of classified documents. The point of the software (made by Raytheon) is to prevent “insider threats,” and was developed in response to President Obama’s order to increase controls on classified information in the wake of the WikiLeaks scandal. Snowden’s Hawaii office reportedly did not have the sufficient bandwidth to install the software effectively.

The existence of a new Department of Defense spy agency, the Defense Clandestine Service (DCS), was revealed thanks to an obscure mention in a 2013 Senate Intelligence Committee report that criticized the new agency for already lacking the information “necessary for effective review.” According to the Senate report, the DCS is a joint venture by the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency intended to “consolidate the management of the Department of Defense human intelligence collection.”

Finally this week, former Vice President Dick Cheney told “60 Minutes” that he had his doctors disable the wireless function of his electronic heart device out of fear that terrorists would attack it. He was concerned that terrorists would hack the device, a defibrillator intended to control irregular heartbeats, and send “his heart a fatal shock.”

Happy FOIA-ing!

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