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FRINFORMSUM 12/5/2013: NSA’s Holiday Talking Points, it’s Best not to Legislate When Angry, and the National Archives asks for Declassification Recommendations

December 5, 2013
NSA director Keith Alexander hopes his employees have a happy holiday season and don't have to defend the NSA too much. AP Photo

NSA director Keith Alexander hopes his employees have a happy holiday season and don’t have to defend the NSA too much. AP Photo

To help its employees handle discussions with friends and family about the agency’s activities over the holidays, the National Security Agency (NSA) distributed talking points to its staff in late November. Among the points in the two-page document, which the Archive has already submitted a FOIA request for, are reassurances that “[t]he NSA’s mission is of great value to the nation”; it performs its missions “exceptionally well”; and its employees are “loyal Americans with expert skills”.

With the Senate only scheduled for a few more days of work before the end of the year, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D – NV) promising to spend most of that time on Iran sanctions legislation, it’s likely that the debates over the NSA and domestic surveillance practices will lose momentum. Given the time constraints, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is the last chance lawmakers will have of making changes to domestic surveillance this year. However, with the NDAA’s over 500 amendments, key proposals about Senate confirmation of the NSA director and enhanced NSA transparency “are likely to fall by the wayside.” According to some, like former chief aide to the House Intelligence Committee Michael Allen, this is fine because “[i]t’s often not a good idea to legislate when you’re angry… [t]he [congressional] leadership may want this issue to cool down a bit.”

House Intelligence Committee Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), believes that the criticism the intelligence community is under is misplaced. Both Rogers and his Senate counterpart, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), announced that the threat of terrorism against the United States is rising and that Americans are not as safe as they were two years ago. Neither Sen. Feinstein or Rep. Rogers provided specifics for these assertions, however Rogers did stress that “[w]e’re fighting amongst ourselves here in this country about the role of our intelligence community that it is having an impact on our ability to stop what is a growing number of threats. And so we’ve got to shake ourselves out of this pretty soon and understand that our intelligence services are not the bad guys.”

The latest Inspector General report released by the intelligence community doesn’t shed much light on how much praise or criticism the intelligence community deserves. According to Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood, the highly redacted IG report reveals that “during the nine-month period from July 2012 to March 2013, the IC IG internal hotline received 70 contacts or complaints from intelligence agency personnel, as well as 77 contacts from the general public. Investigators conducted 75 investigations revealing some occasionally creative forms of misconduct.”

A watch tower near the Polish intelligence school outside of Stare Kiejkuty, Poland, now the focal point of allegations of secret CIA prisons in Poland.  ( AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

A watch tower near the Polish intelligence school outside of Stare Kiejkuty, Poland, now the focal point of allegations of secret CIA prisons in Poland. ( AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The European Human Rights Court held a rare public hearing Tuesday regarding Poland’s role in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, during which lawyers for two men held by the CIA in a secret “black” site operating in Poland argued that Poland should be held responsible for their torture. The Guardian reports that the “two-day hearing at Strasbourg was the first time a European country has been taken to court for allowing US agencies to carry out “enhanced” interrogation and “waterboarding” programmes. In a highly unusual legal move, the media and public were barred from the opening day’s session.”

In other legal news, lawyers for Stephen J. Kim, the former State Department employee accused of leaking sensitive defense secrets, are arguing for the Justice Department to drop its case against him. Kim’s lawyers claim that the case would never have been brought under the DOJ’s current guidelines on leak investigations, namely that the new leak policy “would have stopped investigators from obtaining some of the evidence they are now using to prosecute Kim.”

In declassification news, the CIA has declassified the September-December 1951 Director’s Logs for CIA director General Walter Bedell Smith, which “are replete with interesting goodies about the type of CIA clandestine intelligence gathering and covert action operations that the agency’s National Clandestine Service has traditionally refused to declassify,” including instances of secret sabotage operations with Chinese guerrillas, who, in the employ of the CIA, “blew up a oil refinery in the former Portuguese colony of Macau on December 1, 1951.” Also of interest, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project has publicized a document that sheds light on 1951’s Operation Buster Jangle, in which scientists in DC listened for atomic explosions taking place in Nevada so that they could hone the skills to be able to tell when the Soviets detonated nuclear weapons thousands of miles away.

Finally this week, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) recently held its latest meting seeking advice from the requester community “about what the government should prioritize for declassification.” Over the next few weeks the PIDB will also be posting topics for its prioritization list on its blog, Transforming Classification, through mid-January 2014, and is asking the public to comment. The topics on the blogs fall into one of five categories: Topics 25 Years Old and Older, Topics 25 Years Old and Younger, Topics Related to Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) Information, General Topics of Interest, and Topics Specifically Gathered from Presidential Libraries. Please check out their blog and provide your feedback!

Happy FOIA-ing!

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