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
HOW AND WHY INFORMATION GETS CLASSIFIED
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
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
SPECIAL ACCESS PROGRAMS
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
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
(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
(7) Methods used to acquire foreign technology
(8) Sensitive support to DOD and non-DOD
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
TWO SAPs THAT "CAME IN FROM THE COLD"
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
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.
the Shadow Government