Wednesday, November 24, 2004

National Security Archive

We've mentioned the National Security Archive in a couple of places before (here, here), but I recently caught a presentation by their executive director, Thomas Blanton, and it was awesome. I actually expected it to be a fairly dull affair, but it far from dull.

Tuesday, November 16 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm: Mr. Blanton did a 45-minute slide presentation called 'Freedom of Information and Democracy' at the GWU Elliot School of International Affairs, and then hung around for 45 minutes taking questions and shooting the breeze. Seemed like a real good guy.

The flyer for the event (that I picked up at the event) read, in part, like this:

Thomas S. Blanton manages one [of] the most impressive collections of declassified documents at the George Washington University's Gelman Library, the National Security Archive. Under his administration since 1992, the Archive has won the U.S. journalism's George Polk Award in April 2000 for "piercing self-serving veils of government secrecy, guiding journalists in search for the truth, and informing us all."

Blanton has authored many books about the freedom of information and democracy including White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan-Bush White House Tried to Destroy (The New Press) and Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brooking(s) Institution). His articles have appeared in many national dailies and scholarly journals.

A graduate of Harvard University, Blanton was an editor of the independent university daily newspaper The Harvard Crimson, where he wond the Harvard's 1979 Newcomen Prize. He also received the 1996 American Library Association James Madison Award Citation for "defending the public's right to know." He is a founding editorial board member of, the virtual network of international freedom of information advocates.

Checking the Brookings Institution link tells us that Blanton was only one of several contributors to the 'Atomic Audit' book. Thus, his name is not listed as an author on the book jacket - only an editor's name is listed.

I think I found out about the event at the last minute at Washington Citypaper event listings. I have no idea what the press release was doing posted up on the Graduate Studies site (by analyzing the URL's), but there does not seem to be any links to the press release from either that site or the National Security Archive site. Ummm....maybe that explains why only ten or so people showed-up to a kick-ass presentation that included free snacks and beer (yes, beer). I emailed some folks to see if they'll better advertise in the future.

The human-readable URL for the National Security Archive is The URL linked-to by all of the GWU sites and Google is It's a pain constantly Googling a site that should have a human-readable URL.

Blanton made some very interesting points about government secrecy, and spying, and classification, and what Clinton and Bush, respectively, have done with regards to all secrecy in their terms. He makes four points - I forget which order they came in - I'll just list them below:

Secrecy is Expensive
Keeping government secrets costs money, a lot of money. I don't like throwing away tax money, so I think it should be fairly obvious that I only want to make secret what is absolutely necessary so I can have more money to spend on beer. In 2003, it cost us $6.5 Billion to do all of our secrecy stuff. Ummm....that's a lot of PBR.

Secrecy can be Dangerous
It's a knee-jerk reaction to think that keeping everything a secret is good for U.S. national security, but sometimes we need to put a little thought into these things. Take one example. Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged money man behind the 9/11 attacks, told investigators after his arrest in 2002, that the 9/11 attack would have been called-off, at least temporarily, if he'd have known about the arrest of Moussaoui in 2001. Ashcroft, however, as with this ever-secretive Administration, kept Moussaoui's arrest a secret. This Post article reads:

A report on the case released this week noted that "publicity about the threat" posed by Moussaoui "might have disrupted the plot." Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean (R) said the conclusion is based in part on extensive psychological profiles of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who were "very careful and very jumpy."

I'm curious what that 'report on the case' is. What report, exactly, are they referring to? I'm curious because the wording in the final 9/11 Report(PDF, 7.22 MB) lets Bush/Tenet off the hook easier (Ch. 8, p. 293):

However, publicity about Moussaoui's arrest and a possible hijacking threat might have derailed the plot.107 With time, the search for Mihdhar and Hazmi and the investigation of Moussaoui might also have led to a breakthrough that would have disputed the plot.

Footnote 107 of Chapter 8 of the 9/11 Report (p. 541) reads:
107. According to Ramzi Binalshibh, had KSM known that Moussaoui had been arrested, he would have cancelled the 9/11 attacks. Intelligence report, interrogation of Ramzi Binalshibh, Feb. 14, 2003.

Secrecy Allows Corruption to Flourish
Stopping government corruption is what prompted the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act - shortly after the Watergate debacle. If the government knows that nobody will be able to look at their dealings, they'll be operating above the law, without the consent of the American people, by definition. To stop corruption we need to be able to see what our hired hands are doing. Secrecy allows all sorts of corruption to go unchecked.

Secrecy is not Openness, and Openness is an American Value
The U.S. is supposed to be a different kind of government. Ideally, it's supposed to be the ideal government - totally open, totally free of corruption, totally bent to the will of the people. This simply cannot happen without openness in government. Blanton stated that the term 'secrecy' (and related terms) is only mentioned once in the Constitution:
Each House shall keep a journal of its proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such parts as may in their judgment require secrecy; and the yeas and nays of the members of either House on any question shall, at the desire of one fifth of those present, be entered on the journal.

This is a far cry from what we've come to today - layers of secrecy galore! This last point on openness sums up the four major points that I believe Blanton was trying to make in his presentation - though, I'm not a great note-taker.

On the shadow secrecy within the Bush administration, which is commonly agreed upon by folks all across the political spectrum, Blanton told us about how Tom Ridge's Department of Homeland Hilarity got a bill passed which created an entirely new set of classifications that go completely outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA is, more than anything, an anti-corruption tool - i.e. that is it's primary justification. The Busheviks, no doubt, think that fearless leader and everyone in his administration is Godlike in their ability to not commit sins, but for those of us living in the reality-based community, it's important not to underestimate the power of FOIA to keep us America and not, say, Mexico, or one of the umpteen corrupt-ass African countries. does a good write-up on the new provisions, dubbed SBU - Sensitive But Unclassified. I don't remember for sure, but I think Blanton indicated he thought this nonsensical SBU provision would eventually be overturned by the Supreme Court.

One thing Blanton mentioned that I haven't found in all the SBU-related documentation I've found on the net is that disclosing SBU information can be criminally prosecuted. I'm unclear on this point, but I found this doc (PDF) from Powell's Department of No Integrity which says:

Unauthorized disclosure of SBU information may result in criminal
and/or civil penalties. Supervisors may take disciplinary action, as
appropriate. State offices responsible for the protection of records are
outlined in 5 FAM. See 3 FAM for regulations and process on disciplinary
actions. (12 FAM 550 provisions regarding incidents/violations do not
pertain to SBU.)

So, basically, the way Blanton explained it was to think of the chilling effect this law would have on every federal/state/local employee who falls under these regulations. Let's say any of these government officials learns about a massive toxic chemical spill in your back yard. They will no longer go to the press and let them know that your entire neighborhood is in danger because they'll be afraid to go to jail. Instead, they'll just move out of town for a while and tell you, their neighbor, something cryptic like this:

Hey man, it's probably a good idea to get out of town for a while, and I mean now! and don't come back until you hear it's safe. You'll know what I mean in a month or so, I hope.

If this sounds far-fetched - it shouldn't. One of the fiercest fighters in this battle against government secrecy is all sorts of conservation groups. They know how the government covers up information regarding toxic spills, waste sites, etc. Shoot, we don't have to go past Christine Whitman and Bush for their work in telling New Yorkers (and all others who visited from around the country and world, with friends and family in tow) that the air and water in downtown Manhattan was safe in the immediate aftermater of 9/11 when they had plenty of evidence suggesting otherwise. Now the evidence is starting to seap out, via lawsuits filed via the FOIA, that indicates it may not have been safe to breathe the air and drink the water. We'll see how many people end up with cancer and other difficulties. Thanks Christy. Thanks George.

One thing Blanton did not mention, that I thought I should, is Operation Northwoods. The National Security Archive just got a bunch of documents from that little ditty in which the U.S. military, at least, wanted to kill some Americans using terrorist tactics in order to drum up support for a war with Cuba. Nice guys. I'm going to dedicate a later post to this topic because of it's importance. But without the National Security Archive, we might never have known about this little covert terrorist operation.

Can't recall if Blanton talked about, or took any questions on, Bush's gutting of the FOIA by executive order.

Finally, Blanton made reference to Condi Rice's 2002 closed-door Senate testimony in which she testified that the name of the August 6, 2001 PDB - the document warning the President about the impending 9/11 attacks - was 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike U.S.'. This is very misleading, in that Condi seems to have purposefully left out the word 'in' when referring to the title. The U.S. has been attacked countless times overseas, but only very rarely inside the U.S., and even less rarely by al Qaeda in the U.S. Somehow Blanton must have had access to Condi's testimony from her 2002 testimony - I wasn't able to find it. If the Senate heard that Bin Laden was prepared to attack in the U.S., they would have asked Condi, "Well, why the f*ck didn't you do anything, then?!" Instead, she lied by omission, and was able to get off relatively unscathed.

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