Fighting Russia’s “Foreign Agent” Law, Deadline to Submit Comments for CIA Operational Files Review Tomorrow, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 4/30/2015
This afternoon the Archive’s Nate Jones will join other experts at The Kennan Institute in a panel discussion comparing the Russian and American experience and practice of public oversight of the state. The successes in the Russian arena are even more impressive considering the notorious 2012 “foreign agents” law that labels any Russian NGO receiving foreign funding a “foreign agent” and forces them to register with authorities. Russian groups, however, are showing remarkable tenacity in finding ways to operate in the harsh environment. The Moscow Times must-read profile of Freedom of Information Foundation (St. Petersburg), and it’s director Ivan Pavlov, describes how this Russian NGO advocating transparency (a longtime institutional ally of the National Security Archive) is continuing to succeed in Russia’s harsh environment.
Tomorrow is the deadline to submit comments suggesting which CIA operational files should be removed from their exempted status. The CIA is in the process of conducting its third decennial review of its operational files, which is required by the CIA Information Act of 1984, to “include consideration of the historical value or other public interest in the subject matter of the particular category of files or portions thereof and the potential for declassifying a significant part of the information contained therein.” The National Security Archive recently submitted comments, which highlight the need for the CIA to grant the public the ability to request search and review of the Clandestine Service History Program files (the second decennial review in 2005 added a new category of exemption of Policy and Management Files “Including Clandestine Service History Program files”). CIA Historian Dr. David Robarge recently emphasized the need to disclose these important histories, saying during the recent forum, “NDC Prioritization: What Secrets Do People Want to See,” that “I’d like to see us acknowledge more covert actions, but within that set that we have, we need to get more documentation out.” It will be interesting to see if the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, its General Counsel Robert Litt — who announced in 2014 that classifiers and declassifiers must now ask: “not can we classify –but should we?”–, NARA, the Office of the Historian at the Department of State, and history organizations put their money where their mouth is on improving declassification and submit their own comments to the CIA.
The New York Times recently published a redacted version of a joint July 2009 report by the inspectors general for five intelligence and law enforcement agencies that the paper obtained through a FOIA lawsuit. The document found the secrecy surrounding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) post-9/11 surveillance program that vacuumed up Americans’ phone call and email data, Stellar Wind, hampered its effectiveness. The report also notes that law enforcement agencies struggled to identify instances where the program helped deter terrorist actions against the United States; the FBI reported that only 1.2 per cent of surveillance leads obtained through the program made significant contributions in fighting terror between 2001 and 2005. The report also criticizes then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales “for ‘misleading’ Congress in his testimony about the program” before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006, and found that “only a single” Justice Department attorney reviewed the legality of the program for first year and a half of its existence.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill on Tuesday to end the NSA bulk surveillance of American phone records. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said of the USA Freedom Act, “If enacted, our bill will be the most significant reform to government surveillance authorities since the USA Patriot Act was passed nearly 14 years ago.” The USA Freedom Act would require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to provide a provide public summary or redacted version of significant opinions, would grant technology companies “more leeway to report on the scale of national security requests for data they receive, and it would provide for an advocate for the public’s privacy rights at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which generally hears only the government’s side of an argument.” Some civil liberties groups, like the Center for Democracy & Technology, support the legislation, while others, like the American Civil Liberties Union, do not believe it goes far enough and would prefer to see Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which authorizes the bulk collection and expires on June 1, lapse.
In 2013 the White House granted the CIA waivers to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan with more leeway than other parts of the world. Reports are surfacing in the wake of President Obama’s recent announcement that an American and an Italian hostage were killed in a CIA drone strike in that country in January that the CIA is allowed to conduct strikes in Pakistan without “knowing the identities of the people” targeted. Additional reporting notes, “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit.” In the light of recent scrutiny of the drone program, President Obama allegedly plans to make a push to transfer the program from the CIA to the Pentagon, in hopes it would make the program more transparent. The move would maintain a role for the CIA, which would continue to provide intelligence. President Obama tried to move the program from the CIA to the DOD in 2013, but faced stiff Congressional opposition.
The New York Times published the names of three high-level CIA officials in charge of orchestrating drone strikes in a story on Congress’ continued support of the CIA’s drone program. The Times did so against agency wishes. According to NYT executive editor Dean Baquet, while he took the agency’s request not to publish the names seriously, he ultimately decided to publish them because the involved officials are not undercover agents, but rather government officials crucial in “one of the major issues in modern American warfare.” Baquet also noted that the WikiLeaks and Snowden disclosures put more pressure news agencies, once “too quick to withhold information at the request of the government”, to not hold back. “I think the secrecy is now part of the story,” Baquet said.
Steve Aftergood reported this week that the security cleared population decreased by 12.3 per cent last year (down from 5.1 million security cleared persons in October 2013 to 4.5 million in October 2014), thanks to a “concerted effort” by agencies to reduce the number of security clearances. Aftergood notes “Most of the reductions occurred within the Department of Defense, which reported a 15% decrease in clearances.”
The hacking of President Obama’s unclassified emails by Russian hackers raises many complicated questions about the emails and their content, as well as larger questions about the state of the US government’s relatively poor cyber security. Archive FOIA Director Nate Jones notes “it’s currently –by design– impossible for us on the outside to have enough information to meaningfully tackle [these questions]. But if we judge by this administration’s past practice, it will bury its head in the sand, refusing to admit that the need for discussion about access to information actually exists.”
The nuclear inspection agency that is central to the current Iran negotiations is flunking international transparency norms, according to a report posted this week by Freedominfo.org and the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault. Key documents about International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proceedings, found in various national archives and private collections but closed at Agency headquarters in Vienna, are included in the posting.
The FOIA Advisory Committee, established by the second Open Government National Action Plan and tasked to “advise on improvements to FOIA administration,” recently held its fourth meeting. We will post a more comprehensive blog about the fourth meeting once the video is posted; the Committee’s third meeting on January 27th was dedicated to subcommittee reports on proactive disclosure, fee issues, and oversight and accountability.
This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with the Archive’s recent posting on newly declassified White House tape transcripts that reveal LBJ regretted sending U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965, telling aides less than a month later, “I don’t want to be an intervenor,” in mind. This week’s #tbt pick is a 2013 posting on forced disappearance in the Dominican Republic, containing a collection of State Department cables on the May 26, 1994, disappearance of celebrated journalist and university professor Narciso (Narcisazo) González.