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Steven Aftergood, who for years has directed the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, is a trooper when it comes to digging out classified material. A dozen years ago, he was the plaintiff in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that led to the declassification and publication of the total U.S. intelligence budget for the first time since the CIA was founded. In 2006, PGS won a FOIA lawsuit against the National Reconnaissance Office for release of certain unclassified budget records.

But the main focus has been on turning up and publishing policy-relevant government records that have been suppressed, withdrawn or otherwise withheld.  

Since 2000, his blog and associated newsletter, Secrecy News, has been a heavily sourced must-read for any investigative blogger or journalist interested in what the intelligence side of government is hiding, regardless of the concealed material's value in enhancing national security. A monthly hard-copy predecessor, Secrecy & Government Bulletin, appeared from 1991, when the FAS Project on Government Secrecy began.

It can be argued that current law allows far too much to remain classified that shouldn't be. Leaving that ideological point aside, however, the loosening of declassification rules, the FOIA and basic logic still allows for quite a lot of unaccountable, unacceptable hiding to continue. As witness Aftergood's commentary today:

Even though certain information concerning the President's Daily Brief (PDB) was redacted and declassified for use in the prosecution of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby in 2006, that same information is nonetheless "currently and properly classified," the Central Intelligence Agency said (pdf) last week. The Agency denied release of the material under the Freedom of Information Act.

The existence of the declassified PDB material was disclosed in a January 9, 2006 letter (pdf) from Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald to Mr. Libby's attorney. ...

Since declassified PDBs are comparatively rare, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in February 2006 for a copy of the PDB-related material that was declassified by CIA for the Libby prosecution. Last week, the CIA responded that it had located the requested material but that "we determined [it] is currently and properly classified and must be denied in its entirety."

This is a somewhat puzzling development.  It is a pity that the CIA Inspector General does not investigate violations of the law of non-contradiction. (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b12-20.)

Aftergood points out that the CIA typically doesn't release PDBs no matter how old they are or what's in them. A previous exception was when, under massive pressure from the 9/11 Commission, it released the August 6, 2001, PDB entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US" (pdf), which put the lie to the Cheney-Bush administration's claims about warnings of terrorist attacks.

Aftergood continues:

When challenged under the Freedom of Information Act, courts have upheld the CIA's refusal to release specific PDBs.  But a 2007 ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the CIA view that "PDBs are categorically exempt from FOIA."  In particular, the court denied the CIA assertion that the PDB itself is an intelligence method that is protected by law.  "Although PDBs will typically contain information that reveals intelligence sources and methods, this does not mean that PDBs themselves are intelligence methods."

"If we were to accept the CIA's logic," the court said, "then every written CIA communication -- regardless of content -- would be a protected 'intelligence method' because it is a method that CIA uses in doing its work.... We decline to adopt such a boundless definition, and instead hold that whether or not a particular document used by the CIA in its ordinary course of business is an intelligence method depends upon the content of the document." (Larry Berman v. Central Intelligence Agency, September 4, 2007).

Nobody wants to see the public release of intelligence material to villains who might use it to harm Americans or others. But, as Aftergood has shown time after time, leaving release of such material to the whim of those who classify it, in spite of court rulings, puts far too much authority into the hands of people who have proved themselves, time after time, to be perfectly willing, for pernicious ends, to lie to their supposed overseers.    

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 04:56 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Secrecy News (7+ / 0-)

    Declassified Briefing Still Classified, Says CIA

    George Carlin would be on fire.....

    Torture good, Healthcare bad, Marijuana evil.
    Doc in the Twitterverse

    by xxdr zombiexx on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 04:58:57 PM PDT

    •  I've come to the conclusion that we need a (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      neroden, Foxwizard

      Craig's List for classified information.

      Something that would allow anonymous posting of classified information on the web.

      In a free society I do believe it is essential that people be informed as to their government's activities, and the record of the CIA and other intelligence services indicates a lot of unwarranted secrecy, not to protect sources or valuable intelligence, but to protect the intelligence services from appropriate oversight and scrutiny.

      "Sleep offers no refuge from stupidity."

      by rontun on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:21:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Ever hear of (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        neroden, kurt

        Torture good, Healthcare bad, Marijuana evil.
        Doc in the Twitterverse

        by xxdr zombiexx on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:29:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Double rec if I could. This is absolutely true an (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        neroden, rontun, CIndyCasella

        and unrefutable. The whole secrecy regime needs to be revisited and the whole national security state dismantled.

        Of all secrets, national and military secrets are the quickest to lose importance. This means that anything older than the last few months, generally speaking, should be declassified in a free society. In fact, the most pressing secrets are seldom even documented until their usefulness has almost expired. The Bin Laden PDB was important for about 30 days, then it was public knowledge no matter what the CIA did.

        We need to see that the national security state is a tool erected by politicians that were either naieve, captivated by the military, or intent on turning this into an authoritarian society.

    •  lewis black is prolly pissed...... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xxdr zombiexx

      In the land of the G.O.P. the man with one brain cell is king.

      by Molotov on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:38:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  If the PDBs... (2+ / 0-)

    haven't served overseas for 5 years, don't they lose their covert status?

  •  Joseph Heller Lives (2+ / 0-)

    This story reads like a part of Catch-22.

    "It's the planet, stupid."

    by FishOutofWater on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:09:32 PM PDT

  •  It would have been nice to have declassifed the (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kurt, rontun, CIndyCasella

    Aug 6th 2001 briefing on like Aug 7th 2001 maybe a few less folks would have died on 9/11

    Dear GOP&Conservatives If all you have to offer are Cliches and Hyperbole then STFU. Thanks XOXOXO

    by JML9999 on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:12:58 PM PDT

  •  Shame (6+ / 0-)

    Much of what is still classified is not done so out of national security but out of embarrassment. Other than say nuclear weapons schematics, how much from the 50's and 60's genuinely needs to be protected other than the issue of we will look bad if it's released.

    A good case in point is Iran. Almost every single actor involved in the 1953 coup is dead and buried by this point. Other than embarrassing ourselves by our actions, what "national security" issue do we have by hiding some documents?

    It's not convenient to release such things. It also may make us look bad temporarily under the world stage, but there would be less Cheneys running around in our government if they knew that eventually all their misdeeds would be public record.

    Depression II: Electric Boogaloo

    by trifecta on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:17:29 PM PDT

  •  I've used Secrecy News as a source for yrs (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kurt, CIndyCasella, Tomsank

    and I have spent countless hours reading things few have ever seen. My hat is off to those that can make heads or tails of most of it. Aftergood is one of those rare people that can tell us about what he has rad and make it mean something.

  •  So the CIA says a declassified (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    neroden, Foxwizard, buildrail

    briefing is still classified, at least in the bizarro world inhabited by The Company. If it weren't so sad (not to mention hideously expensive), it would be funny.

    When the cold war ended, America needed an enemy to replace Communism and chose Islam.--Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State

    by Mnemosyne on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:31:40 PM PDT

  •  The Biggest Failure of the Obama Admin.... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    neroden, kurt, Foxwizard, CIndyCasella in the arena of government transparency and accountability. Government secrecy is an affront to a free and democratic society, and only the most vital and sensitive material should be classified.

    We need 200+ mph grade separated high speed rail and free universal 100% government funded health care

    by buildrail on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 05:31:56 PM PDT

  •  Not to mention ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Nobody wants to see the public release of intelligence material to villains who might use it to harm Americans or others.

    Not to mention ne'er do-wells.

    Or scalawags.

    My name is Douglas Watts.

    by Pometacom on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 06:11:44 PM PDT

  •  If that PDB had not been secret, but posted (0+ / 0-)

    on the back of milk cartons, 9/11 probably never would have happened.

    We spend oodles of tax dollars on the military and intelligence to keep us safe, but 9/11 happened nonetheless.  Had every citizen known what Dubya didn't pay much attention to while he was on vacation in Texas, that Al Qaeda may fly planes into buildings, the public would have demanded better security at our airports and the terrorists likely would have been stopped.  Look at how ordinary citizens thwarted the shoe bomber thanks to knowing about the threat of terrorism.  

    With all their thinking in tanks, one would think that they would have figured out that secrecy aids and abets the bad guys, and informing the public about their nefarious plots ahead of time doesn't cause widespread panic, but vigilance, heroism, and crime prevention.

    Information is the currency of democracy. ~ T.J.

    by CIndyCasella on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 07:34:12 PM PDT

  •  lol, now the highly secret format of memorandum (0+ / 0-)

    is an intelligence method to be hidden from the public.

    does provide good insight though that when CIA claims intelligence document must be kept secret based on sources and methods, we really need the courts to check their claims.

    Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Mohandas K. Gandhi

    by Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 07:36:33 PM PDT

  •  Should be a slam-dunk court case (0+ / 0-)

    Enter the proof that the CIA has declassified portions of the document, and request an immediate court order requiring the CIA to release said portions immediately, with no delay allowed.

    Legally, the CIA can only contest the proof that it declassified portions of the document.  Nothing more.  I believe that proof is in federal court records (!) and is therefore uncontestable.  Accordingly the request should be made for summary judgment without hearing.

    -5.63, -8.10. Learn about Duverger's Law.

    by neroden on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 08:31:58 PM PDT

  •  We're screwed. Now up at FDL. (0+ / 0-)

    "They pour syrup on shit and tell us it's hotcakes." Meteor Blades

    by JugOPunch on Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 09:07:23 PM PDT

  •  Classification is usually a joke. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Meteor Blades
    We Americans like to over-classify stuff.  Period.  I was an intel analyst w/the Army for almost 20 years and it was a constant battle to get info to who needed it.  So much info that needed to be shared with our allies couldn't be because too many people in charge were too lazy to do more than stamp SECRET: NOFORN (No foreigners) on it.

    Once had a case where the Brits gave us a report that we used to generate almost 90% of another report and that other 10% was just 'ordinary' SECRET: Keep it under your Hat sort of stuff, yet somebody felt this info was so sensitive that they marked it SECRET: NOFORN so we couldn't give the product to the Brits...who gave us the info in the first place.

    Prior to deploying to Afghanistan, I did 'open source' searches and would often find BBC articles that gave much more info than SECRET: NOFORN reports on the same incident.

    I once asked why the 10 digit grid coordinates for our bases was classified when everyone of our bases in Afghanistan had been attacked and thus the enemy knew exactly where we were...nobody could give me a rational answer.  =[

    So I would bet that much of what the CIA insists is "national security" is not anything of the sort.

  •  Steve Aftergood has long been a personal (0+ / 0-)

    hero of mine. Glad to see you give him and Secrecy News their props.

  •  Classified at Birth (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Meteor Blades

    MB: this has been going on in the US since the atomic age.  The McMahon Act of 1946.

    The law was used for purposes other than what was officially intended:

    The McMahon Bill was submitted to Congress on December 20, 1945. Under the heading “Purpose of Act,” the second item was “ A program for the free dissemination of basic scientific information and for maximum liberality in dissemination of related technical information.”

    Section 9 of the bill was titled “Dissemination of Information.” It called for release of nuclear technology information “with the utmost liberality as freely as may be consistent with the foreign and domestic policies established by the President.”

    However, by August 1, 1946, when the Atomic Energy Act reached President Truman for signature, the new second purpose was “ A program for the control of scientific and technical information . . .,” and Section 9 was gone, replaced by a new Section 10, “Control of Information.” This new section contained the novel doctrine later described as “born secret” or “classified at birth.” It defined a new legal term “restricted data” as “all data concerning the manufacture or utilization of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power,” unless the information has been declassified. The phrase “all data” included every suggestion, speculation, scenario, or rumor—past, present, or future, regardless of its source, or even of its accuracy—unless it was specifically declassified.

    This restriction on free speech, covering an entire subject matter, is unique in American law. It is still in force.

    This was the legal rationale in the US. v. Progressive case in 1978 when the Carter Administration engaged in prior restraint with the Madison-Wisconsin based Progressive, which published an article by one Howard Moreland, "how to build an atomic bomb," which he wrote using PUBLICALLY sourced information only.

  •  This isn't weird (0+ / 0-)

    There are two different rules when accessing classified material. One is whether you have the right clearance: Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, and 8 bazillion layers above that. The other is 'Need to know'. There are tons of government documents that are not classified but are stamped 'For Official Use Only', just as private industry has "internal use only". That the CIA declassified the PDB so that judges, attorneys  and a jury without actual security clearances could examine them does not from what I see remove the Agency's ability to rule them as the equivalent of 'For Official Use Only' on a 'Need to know' basis.

    I had a Secret clearance when I was in the Navy, but that did not mean I had free access to all material classified Secret, for that matter I didn't have free access to material classified at the lower level of Confidential, I didn't have the Need to Know.

    There are all kinds of reasons to be outraged at the Obama Administration's continued willingness to continue the Bush secrecy regime, I mean why shouldn't we have a list of Health Care lobbyists and execs that visited the WH. But getting upset because a document that was declassified for a specific and limited reason is not freely available is a little misplaced here.

    This is not Orwellian, it isn't even Carlinesque.

  •  Cheney Peak Oil circa 911DAY (0+ / 0-)
    We would certainly like to have unabridged minutes of the VP meetings with oil executives and analysts to look at the ramifications of Peaking Oil.

    Less titillating for the general population than uncovering the various secrecy issues just prior to, and following 911DAY, but much more critically important.

    See "The Long Emergency" By Kunstler, and as an upbeat companion read, see "ELECTRIC WATER", by Christopher C. Swan.

    The release of VP Cheney's secret Energy Policy Meeting minutes -verbatim- shall get the public discourse into a more useful channel.

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