Cult of Secrecy

excerpted from the book

Inside the Shadow Government

National Emergencies and the Cult of Secrecy

by Harry Helms

Feral House, 2003, paper


While the United States has long had official secrets-military plans, diplomatic codes, and similar items-classifying information did not become a mania until World War II and its aftermath. Many of the decisive developments in the war, such as the planning of the Allied invasion of Normandy and the creation of the atomic bomb, took place in secret and took the Axis powers by surprise. But, as was learned later in the 1940s, spies kept Stalin informed about the United States' atomic bomb program and greatly accelerated the USSR's. This created a mindset by 1950 that information deemed vital to national security had to be kept not just from potential enemies but also from the American people. And while that may sound reasonable, "the American people" included most elected officials (including members of Congress) and the federal judiciary. While such extreme caution makes sense in the context of the times and was justifiable in most cases, it also created components of the executive branch and military that are exempt from normal constitutional checks and balances. While Congress could not pass "secret" laws, nor courts issue "secret" decisions and verdicts, the executive branch and military were allowed to make decisions and undertake projects exempt from normal Congressional and judicial oversight. Some accommodation was made by briefing key Congressional leaders on various secrets and giving security clearances to judges in cases involving classified information, but the net impact was that large sectors of government activity, and spending, simply became invisible to any meaningful review.

The information that any government wants to protect can be divided into two main categories: unique and objective. Unique is information (such as the president's nuclear missile launch codes and a general's battle plans) ..

There are two main legal authorities for classifying information. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allows classifying information about U.S. atomic programs as either restricted data or formerly restricted data; the former is information not known to have been learned by other nations (such as a new nuclear process), while the latter is information believed or known to have been acquired by other nations. The "formerly restricted data" type applies when the United States does not want to alert other nations that we know that they have the information, or when public disclosure of the information is undesirable. The other legal authority for classification, and the one most commonly used, is the National Security Act of 1947. This act authorized classification of almost every type of government information, including diplomatic, scientific, military, and intelligence, as well as a type called "miscellaneous." "Miscellaneous" alone could apparently include anything the government does or knows.

The classification system and terminology used today are refinements of the system used in World War II, with the major differences being the deletions of the "restricted" and "official use only" types in the 1950s. The current guidelines for classification come from Executive Order 12356, issued on April 2, 1982 by President Reagan, and were expanded upon in Executive Order 12958, issued by President Clinton on April 17, 1995. Those orders classify three main types of information:

* Top Secret: "information, the disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."

* Secret: "information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security."

* Confidential: "information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security."

Neither executive order clearly defines "exceptionally grave" or "serious" damage. Information eligible for classification includes military plans and weapons, vulnerabilities of defense systems and installations, foreign relations, intelligence-gathering methods, and "other categories of information that are related to the national security." The last category admits almost any information, although the order specifically forbids classification of information "to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; to restrain competition; or to prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national; security."


Executive Order 12958 defines a special access program as "a program established for a specific class of information that imposes safeguarding and access requirements that exceed those normally required for information at the same classification level." While this was the first time the term "special access program" appeared in an executive order, SAPs were nothing new. The Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb during World War II was one by a different name. Other SAPs built Mount Weather, the SR-7 1 spy plane, and the first Stealth aircraft. All of those projects shared the defining characteristic of SAPs: even the existence of such programs is kept secret from almost all of Congress and others in the government with oversight responsibility, even if they have clearances for Top Secret information. The SAP designation on a project frees its managers to ignore the law and to lie whenever or however they wish.

What kind of activities can be covered by a SAP? "Special Access Programs (SAPs)," a document prepared for Headquarters, Department of the Army, October 12, 1998 and declassified in 2000, gives these answers:

(1) A specific technology with potential for weaponization that gives the United States a significant technical lead or tactical advantage over potential adversaries.

(2) Sensitive technology that is especially vulnerable to foreign intelligence exploitation without special protection.

(3) An emerging technology, proposed operation, or intelligence activity risking the compromise of other SAPs.

(4) Exposure of sensitive activities that could jeopardize the lives of U.S. citizens.

(5) A capability that is so unique or sensitive that it requires protection beyond normal procedures.

(6) An extremely sensitive activity requiring special protection from disclosure to prevent significant damage to national security or the reputation or interests of the United States.

(7) Methods used to acquire foreign technology or equipment.

(8) Sensitive support to DOD and non-DOD agencies.

While most items in that list are situations in which an extraordinary degree of security would be reasonable, item (6) opens the door to all sorts of mischief and abuse, especially when the goal of a SAP is to prevent significant damage to "the reputation or interests of the United States." For example, the revelation that the U.S. government was sending funds to a favored political party in a European country would cause significant damage to the reputation of the United States if disclosed; therefore, such a policy would qualify as a SAP. The potential for abuse of SAPs is enormous.

While no reliable details are available about current SAPs, histories of previous SAP programs, like those that created Area 51 in Nevada and the U-2 and SR-7 1 spy planes, give an idea of the level of security around them. Potential employees of the SAP are drawn from those who already have Top Secret clearances and then heavily vetted, even to a seemingly absurd degree (such as interviewing elementary school teachers). Potential employees generally learn nothing about the nature of the project until the last interview and often have only a day or two to accept the job. Construction workers for any buildings the project requires may ride to work in buses or planes with blacked-out windows, having no idea where they are working. In his book Dark Eagles, Curtis Peebles wrote that the pilots of transport planes into what became Area 51 during the U-2 project had no idea where they were flying. All flights were made at night, Peebles said, and pilots were instructed to fly to a point along the California/Nevada border, where they were to contact "Sage Control." "Sage Control" would reply, tell the pilots not to acknowledge further transmissions, and then give the pilots new headings and altitudes. "Sage Control" would steer the plane into the Area 51 site, even telling the pilots when to set the flaps for landing and when to lower the landing gear. They descended into a dark desert area with no landing strip indicated on air navigation charts (had they known where to look). Suddenly runway lights would appear and the pilots would receive clearance to land. When the flight landed, the runway lights would go out, and a truck would lead the plane to taxi to an unloading area.

Congress learns of SAPs only through briefings given to senior members of Congress on a "need to know" basis, such as the chairmen and ranking minority members of committees with budget authority over the SAP. The depth and level of detail of the briefings are unknown. Do lawmakers get details about delays, cost overruns, and operational effectiveness of various SAPs, or just assurances that things are going well? Do they learn enough to make rational decisions about whether to continue funding the programs? Since the informed members of Congress cannot consult independent experts about any technical aspects of SAPs they may know, they must rely on the honesty and good will of those who brief them. Critics such as Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, have charged that SAPs are frequently used not to protect national security but instead to hide program failures, mismanagement, waste, overly cozy relationships between defense contracts and the military brass, and even outright fraud. Such problems occur throughout government programs that are not classified and subject to public review and investigation; one can only wonder at what happens inside programs of which any meaningful public oversight is impossible.

An example of the lengths to which agencies will go to protect SAPs from Congressional oversight came in 1999, when the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence tried to investigate "Echelon," the National Security Agency's global eavesdropping system. The committee's chairman, Porter Goss (R-Florida), requested that the NSA provide legal opinions, decisionmaking memoranda, and policy guidelines for handling intercepted telephone, fax, and email messages involving U.S. citizens. The NSA rejected the committee's request, arguing that, since the NSA's r general counsel had developed the guidelines, the request violated attorney-client privilege, with the general counsel being the "attorney" and the NSA being the "client."

SAPs hide deep within the budgets passed by Congress. They are referred by acronyms only, or by code names such as "Tacit Blue" or terms such as "miscellaneous research" or "special evaluation program," or, in some cases, as simply "miscellaneous" (the 1997 Air Force budget included a single item for "miscellaneous" that totaled $4.67 billion-the largest item in the Air Force budget). The use of SAPs has proliferated over the past three decades, with the result that each year members of ,, Congress approve billions of dollars in funding for programs of which they have no knowledge whatsoever. This appears to violate Article 1 J Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, which says, "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement of account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time."


There have been cases where a SAP eventually becomes public knowledge yet still performs essentially the same functions as when it was classified. Perhaps the two best-known examples are the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The National Security Agency is the eyes and ears of the U.S. ) intelligence community, including the Shadow Government. It intercepts nearly all international telephone calls, faxes, and emails that travel by satellite or microwave link over any part of their journey. The same goes for cell phone calls (NSA maintains satellites devoted to intercepting cell phone calls), radio transmissions, and other electronic communications that cross international borders. Domestic communications can be, and have been, monitored with equal ease. NSA has the most advanced computers in the world, and their text and speech recognition software scans all intercepted communications for key words and phrases; if they detect any of these, then the entire communication is analyzed. Email encryption and telephone scrambling offer no security. NSA can easily crack such encryption, and it is reported that using encryption only arouses NSA's interest. In fact, it is safest today to assume that any communication you make via electronic means-by phone, fax, the internet, radio, etc.- may be intercepted and analyzed by the NSA.

In the spring of 1999, reports began to appear in the media about a new system called "Echelon," a network of spy satellites and worldwide listening posts run by the NSA. The May 27, 1999 issues of Business Week and The New York Times carried stories about Echelon and its sinister ability to intercept telephone calls, faxes, email, and radio signals and then analyze their contents with powerful supercomputers looking for key words or phrases. As Business Week told its readers, "Just get used to the fact-Big Brother is listening."

The NSA does not, to the best of public knowledge, actually install wiretaps on phone lines. It does not need to, because most electronic communications today involve wireless links. Cell phone and long-distance calls use satellites; many local calls use microwave relays beyond the local switching office. And when a wireless signal travels, the NSA is listening to it, storing it, and processing it. If something in the communication catches the NSA's interest, the NSA analyzes it to see if it has any "national security" implications. If the analysis yields something suspicious, or if the NSA cannot figure out what the communication is about, the parties involved may be targets of more intensive surveillance, including possible wiretaps authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FASA) Court.

While it is the NSA's interception of telephone calls and faxes that disturbs most people who know about it, the NSA also tracks everything sent electronically, including e-mail, financial transactions (such as stock trades and credit card sales), travel reservations, etc. In addition, recent reports have claimed that the NSA is tapping into undersea cables and network access points that local internet service providers (ISPs) use to connect to the Internet.

No act of Congress created the NSA, and no statute establishes the agency or defines the scope of its permissible activities (in sharp contrast I with the CIA, which was created by an act of Congress and thus has clearly defined missions and accountability). The NSA came into being on November 4, 1952, through a National Security Council intelligence directive issued by President Harry Truman under the authority of the National Security Act of 1947. President Truman's directive consolidated the various signal interception and analysis activities of the U.S. government, including those of the military, under the umbrella of the NSA. The directive itself was classified Top Secret until the 1970s; even the name "National Security Agency" was classified for over two decades. (A joke among NSA employees at the time was that "NSA" stood for "no such agency.")

The NSA's operating authority is to gather "foreign intelligence" for the purposes of "national security." Those terms, however, have never been precisely defined and are open to broad and creative interpretation. No law has ever been enacted by Congress to prohibit the NSA from engaging in any activity; however, Congress has enacted numerous laws prohibiting anyone from divulging information about the NSA or its activities.

Loose definitions of "foreign intelligence" and "national security" let the NSA turn its attention to surveillance of American citizens in the 1960s and 1970s. Senate hearings chaired in 1975 by Idaho Senator Frank Church revealed that the NSA began to compile "watch lists" of American citizens in 1962. The purported intent of snooping on American citizens , was to determine if any "foreign powers" were lending support to the civil rights movement. These lists and surveillance efforts against Americans greatly expanded in 1967, as the NSA targeted antiwar groups and more civil rights organizations. Among the Americans whose names appeared on NSA watch lists during that era were Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Eldridge Cleaver, and Abbie Hoffman. The NSA also began to get requests for surveillance from other government agencies, like the CIA and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (forerunner of today's Drug Enforcement Administration) that were prohibited by law from conducting it themselves.

The NSA's program of domestic spying was ended by Attorney General Elliott Richardson in October 1973 as the rapidly unraveling Watergate scandal threatened to expose it. In the wake of Watergate, NSA Director Lew Allen finally revealed the NSA's surveillance efforts against Americans to the Church committee in 1975; these revelations accompanied promises to establish safeguards against such abuses in the future.

... the NSA maintains computerize "dictionaries" of personal names, political groups, names of criminal organizations, and other expressions. All intercepted communications are checked against these dictionaries. If there is a match between any of the dictionaries and the intercepted communication, both the sender and receiver of the communication are placed on a watch list. All future communications to and from the sender and receiver are then intercepted and analyzed. For example, suppose someone sends you an email with something that matches a name, word, or phrase in one of the dictionaries. You are then placed on a NSA watch list. Anyone to whom you send email joins the list; so does anyone who sends you emails. You get off the watch list when it is determined that you pose no threat to national security. Who determines whether you pose a threat to national security? The NSA. And no, the NSA does not have to tell anyone that you are under surveillance, nor does it need any warrant to monitor your communications.

In the mid-1990s, Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists ... calculated that the Pentagon's annual "black budget" was likely in excess of $30 billion.

Inside the Shadow Government

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