Confirmed: Intelligence Community Claimed Credit and Top Secret Status for Open Source Intelligence

Back when the beltway first declared that Hillary Clinton’s emails (by which they meant, but often didn’t specify, emails received by Hillary) included two Top Secret emails, I warned about being snookered by CIA claims their drone program was secret.

This is CIA claiming secrecy for its drone operations!!! The ongoing FOIAs about CIA’s acknowledged role in the drone war are evidence that even independent appellate judges don’t buy CIA’s claims that their drone activities are secret. Just yesterday, in fact, DC Judge Amit Mehta ordered DOJ to provide Jason Leopold more information about its legal analysis on CIA drone-killing Anwar al-Awlaki, information the CIA had claimed was classified. Indeed, Martha Lutz, the woman who likely reviewed the emails turned over, is fairly notorious for claiming things are classified that pretty obviously aren’t. It’s her job!

I’m all in favor of doing something to ensure all people in power don’t hide their official business on hidden email servers — right now, almost all people in power do do that.

But those who take CIA’s claims of drone secrecy seriously should be mocked,

On Friday, Josh Gerstein confirmed I was right to warn against taking such claims seriously.

Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III made the claim that two of the emails contained top-secret information; the State Department publicly stated its disagreement and asked Clapper’s office to referee the dispute. Now, that disagreement has been resolved in State’s favor, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Intelligence officials claimed one email in Clinton’s account was classified because it contained information from a top-secret intelligence community “product” or report, but a further review determined that the report was not issued until several days after the email in question was written, the source said.

“The initial determination was based on a flawed process,” the source said. “There was an intelligence product people thought [one of the emails] was based on, but that actually postdated the email in question.”

[snip]

In an Aug. 11 memo to 17 lawmakers, McCullough said the two emails “include information classified up to TOP SECRET//SI/TK/NOFORN.” The subject of the emails has never been publicly confirmed, but published reports have said one refers to North Korea’s nuclear program and another to U.S. drone operations. The acronym “SI” in the classification marking refers to “signals intelligence,” and a footnote in McCullough’s memo references the work of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which oversees U.S. spy satellites. [link to memo added]

Here’s the AP’s earlier description of the two emails, which seems to indicate the drone information was commonly known, whereas the email to Hillary included information on North Korea that preceded by days the Top Secret report providing the same information.

The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on. Former CIA director Leon Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have openly discussed it.

The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, the officials said. Several people, however, described this claim as tenuous.

But a second email reviewed by Charles McCullough, the intelligence community inspector general, appears more problematic, officials said. Nothing in the message is “lifted” from classified documents, they said, though they differed on where the information in it was sourced. Some said it improperly points back to highly classified material, while others countered that it was a classic case of what the government calls “parallel reporting” — receiving information the government considers secret through “open source” channels.

While (as Steven Aftergood argues in Gerstein’s article), the implications of this admission for Hillary’s campaign are significant, consider what it also means about the intelligence our spooks claim to Top Secret: it’s often readily available from alternate (unclassified, at least in the case of the CIA’s drones) sources.

What then, is the value of the ~$70 billion a year we spend on intelligence if some of the purportedly most secret intelligence can be gleaned from the press? And to what degree is all this secrecy about hiding that fact?

The intelligence community does have secrets worth keeping. But all too frequently, it has secret shortcomings protected by a classification system it controls.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. VICKI SATTA says:

    Wow! Thank you for the great reporting, as always.

    My interest in this post is purely about only two questions: 1) Does the MSM have it and are they making clear what it means? I don’t have a TV in this house, so I know NOT what the news is saying; and 2) Does the information you’re reporting *clearly reveal* that Hillary has been lying about the classified mail, and how soon (if ever) can we get it to the people who will be voting for the next POTUS in the early states?

  2. Anon says:

    Sometimes I wonder how much even they know about what is and is not available. I remember how they essentially ordered all security holders to stop reading anything derived from Snowden’s disclosures or those of Manning. And as you reported Marcy they sent out that alternate-reality letter directing people to ignore anything that came out.
    .
    In that context I wonder if it is entirely possible that whoever declared the emails were uber-secret simply did not know. Perhaps they were so read-in to the alternative reality of the IC that they honestly believe that this is all secret.
    .
    I’m not sure which would be more sad. Lying about the secrecy or the possibility that they don’t know what everyone else does.

  3. orionATL says:

    yeah, it my well have had consequences too for nytimes washington bureau employees, those geniuses who lit the fuse to the transparently political (except of course to a nytimes political reporter) witchhunt for the next hillary clinton scandel.

    blew their asses right off, they did.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/new-york-times-washington-elisabeth-bumiller_55eef820e4b093be51bc1bbb
    .

    it was (judy) miller time all over again at the nytimes’ washington bureau.

  4. orionATL says:

    “The intelligence community does have secrets worth keeping.”

    of course there are a few, but precious few i’d bet; far, far, far fewer than have in fact been classified.

    that there are millions upon millions, literally, (how many millions of documents did the ssci staff review as part of its torture oversight?) which remain unnecessarily hidden serves to clearly paint the picture of classification’s central purpose – to avoid the law, to avoid political responsibility, to shield incompetence and stupidity.

    classification should operate on a mandatory sliding time scale with a short horizon. right now i believe there is a 25-year scale, sort of thru the national archives.

    anybody seen the cia’s incompetence, subversion, stupidity, and criminal activity files? you know, the files relating to guatemala, cuba, greece, iran, dag hammerskold, kennedy, central american contras, quadaffi, just to name a few.

    it’s only been 50 years, give or take.

  5. orionATL says:

    and of course we have the secrecy used to entrap and imprison former cia employees jeffrey sterling (who had filed a civil rights suit against cia) and john kiriakou. both had also written books, coincidentally.

  6. IAN TURNER says:

    YOU SAY:
    What then, is the value of the ~$70 billion a year we spend on intelligence if some of the purportedly most secret intelligence can be gleaned from the press? And to what degree is all this secrecy about hiding that fact?

    I SAY:
    The question you asked was answered in 1975 when DAVID YOUNG went back to Oxford Univ having completed his task in Washington of compiling the PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEF for President NIXON [officially it was compiled by National Security Advisor KISSINGER & Young was his Administrative Assistant].
    .
    In discussing what he was to do with his life after Washington with his old tutor (or ‘Don’ as Oxford Univ calls them) he made the point that the vast majority of the contents of an American President’s Daily Brief, even as energetic a foreign policy President as Nixon,were “restatements of the obvious” [or at least ‘obvious’ to the specialist of the field/subject/discipline in question] & with that comment i) his old tutor offered him a position at Oxford to complete his academic degrees & ii) if I recall an interview with Young correctly he said
    ” I was able to find $250,000 [in 1975 dollars] from family sources” & founded OXFORD ANALYTICA.
    What Young had realized was that by gathering the opinions of those who specialized in various fields AND WHO HAD TAKEN THE TIME TO GATHER ACCURATE INFORMATION FROM VARIOUS SOURCES IN MULTIPLE LANGUAGES TO ACCURATELY INFORM THOSE OPINIONS he could accurately replicate even a [US] PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEF–& even establish a track record of accuracy in prediction superior to a US Presidential Daily Brief perhaps?
    Initially using just Oxford Univ academics,later a worldwide network of specialists,initially marketing their product to [non-US] Heads of Government & their Foreign Ministries, later to CEOs etc etc of “Major Corporations” OXFORD ANALYTICA is still performing & has continued to thrive by all acccounts.
    .
    By contrast to David Young’s insight, during the Snowden documents revelations the “Training Manual”/”the Case Study”(if you will) of “How & When to listen in to a [foreign] Head of Government” was revealed using the Brazilian Head of Government as an example. —-IF I RECALL THE DOCUMENTS CORRECTLY–In that case,the State Dept (the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs ,I believe) had asked for surveillance of “about 20” of the “closest telephone contacts” of the Brazilian Head of Government “for about two[2] weeks” SOLELY to discover the answer to that all important question —to the Assistant Secretary of State—“Would the Republic of Brazil introduce a motion at the next meeting of the OAS[Organization of American States] to admit the Republic of Cuba to membership of that organization?”—& the documents included a “Well done,boys & girls, without your invaluable help I could not do my job at all” letter from the Assistant Secretary of State to the NSA recipients.
    The State Dept & the NSA together had completely “forgotten”that Brazil [204m population:$3.2trn GDP at PPP rates,1 (of 5) BRICS countries,Federal structure,multi-party democracy] WAS HIGHLY UNLIKELY to have suddenly decided to EITHER bring forward at the OAS such a motion without prior debate & public/semi-public discussion OR decide to bring forward such a motion AND THEREFORE MAKE IT AS HEAVILY CLASSIFIED A PROJECT AS the Obama/Kerry/Raul Castro rapprochement with Cuba using the “Confidential” assistance provided by Ottawa & the Vatican [& any such “confidential assistance” would have been caught by GCHQ’s “Tracking of [All-Countries] Diplomats’ Movements across the Globe” program & provided to Washington [& Ottawa & Canberra & Wellington] as a matter of routine anyway.

    IN SUMMARY:
    If you are looking for monetary value–I would suggest David Young in 1975 got the answer right–for gathering information purposes perhaps 90% of the $70bn is wasted money
    If you wanted to promote the interests of those US citizens based in Washington DC that are incapable of understanding “Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do something” & inevitably promote the image of the USA to the Rest-of-the-World as “the-world’s-largest-Rogue State”–then I would say perhaps 100% of the money is well spent.
    .
    Of course, I will leave it your readers to decide whether you want to follow that path for much longer.

  7. IAN TURNER says:

    Can I post a CORRECTION PLEASE:

    YOU SAY:
    What then, is the value of the ~$70 billion a year we spend on intelligence if some of the purportedly most secret intelligence can be gleaned from the press? And to what degree is all this secrecy about hiding that fact?

    I SAY:
    The question you asked was answered in 1975 when DAVID YOUNG went back to Oxford Univ having completed his task in Washington of compiling the PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEF for President NIXON [officially it was compiled by National Security Advisor KISSINGER & Young was his Administrative Assistant].
    .
    In discussing what he was to do with his life after Washington with his old tutor (or ‘Don’ as Oxford Univ calls them) he made the point that the vast majority of the contents of an American President’s Daily Brief, even as energetic a foreign policy President as Nixon,were “restatements of the obvious” [or at least ‘obvious’ to the specialist of the field/subject/discipline in question] & with that comment i) his old tutor offered him a position at Oxford to complete his academic degrees & ii) if I recall an interview with Young correctly he said
    ” I was able to find $250,000 [in 1975 dollars] from family sources” & founded OXFORD ANALYTICA.
    What Young had realized was that by gathering the opinions of those who specialized in various fields AND WHO HAD TAKEN THE TIME TO GATHER ACCURATE INFORMATION FROM VARIOUS SOURCES IN MULTIPLE LANGUAGES TO ACCURATELY INFORM THOSE OPINIONS he could accurately replicate even a [US] PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEF–& even establish a track record of accuracy in prediction superior to a US Presidential Daily Brief perhaps?
    Initially using just Oxford Univ academics,later a worldwide network of specialists,initially marketing their product to [non-US] Heads of Government & their Foreign Ministries, later to CEOs etc etc of “Major Corporations” OXFORD ANALYTICA is still performing & has continued to thrive by all acccounts.
    .
    By contrast to David Young’s insight, during the Snowden documents revelations the “Training Manual”/”the Case Study”(if you will) of “How & When to listen in to a [foreign] Head of Government” was revealed using the Brazilian Head of Government as an example. —-IF I RECALL THE DOCUMENTS CORRECTLY–In that case,the State Dept (the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs ,I believe) had asked for surveillance of “about 20” of the “closest telephone contacts” of the Brazilian Head of Government “for about two[2] weeks” SOLELY to discover the answer to that all important question —to the Assistant Secretary of State—“Would the Republic of Brazil introduce a motion at the next meeting of the OAS[Organization of American States] to admit the Republic of Cuba to membership of that organization?”—& the documents included a “Well done,boys & girls, without your invaluable help I could not do my job at all” letter from the Assistant Secretary of State to the NSA recipients.
    The State Dept & the NSA together had completely “forgotten”that Brazil [204m population:$3.2trn GDP at PPP rates,1 (of 5) BRICS countries,Federal structure,multi-party democracy] WAS HIGHLY UNLIKELY to have suddenly decided to EITHER bring forward at the OAS such a motion without prior debate & public/semi-public discussion OR decide to bring forward such a motion AND YET FAIL TO MAKE IT AS HEAVILY CLASSIFIED A PROJECT AS the Obama/Kerry/Raul Castro rapprochement with Cuba using the “Confidential” assistance provided by Ottawa & the Vatican [& any such “confidential assistance” would have been caught by GCHQ’s “Tracking of [All-Countries] Diplomats’ Movements across the Globe” program & provided to Washington [& Ottawa & Canberra & Wellington] as a matter of routine anyway.

    IN SUMMARY:
    If you are looking for monetary value–I would suggest David Young in 1975 got the answer right–for gathering information purposes perhaps 90% of the $70bn is wasted money
    If you wanted to promote the interests of those US citizens based in Washington DC that are incapable of understanding “Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do something” & inevitably promote the image of the USA to the Rest-of-the-World as “the-world’s-largest-Rogue State”–then I would say perhaps 100% of the money is well spent.
    .
    Of course, I will leave it your readers to decide whether you want to follow that path for much longer.

    • IAN TURNER says:

      Thank you for linking to John R Schindler’s website The XX Committee and his excellent “Training Manual Example” of how an IC Analyst writing the report
      “(S) Economic, Political Problems for Zendia Ahead” [Aug 16,2015] should determine what classification level the sources & methods mentioned in the IC Analysts report should have & what information an end-user of such report could—or could not—-reveal to others without the same level of classification.

      Be aware that:
      .
      i) I had already had read Masterson book The XX COMMITTEE [in plain English The Double-Cross Committee] so already knew of the allusion
      .
      ii)I also had already read F.W.Winterbotham’s book THE ULTRA SECRET including his “Chapter 10: Naval Affairs & Briefing the Americans” on the WWII rules adopted, at the insistence of the ancestor to GCHQ, covering the distribution of decrypted German & Japanese & Italian encoded classified messages to Senior Political & Military figures in the Western Allies of the UK/USA/CAN/AUS/NZ alliance.
      .
      OPEN SOURCE MATERIAL CLASSIFIED AS OFFICIAL/GOVT USE:
      iii)I also had known that during the Cold War the USA’s CIA had been responsible for the USA’s FBIS[Foreign Broadcasts Information Service] –& now transformed into the website http://www.opensource.gov—with the following notice posted on http://www.opensource.gov home page:
      —“Join the OpenSource.gov community to get access to the latest open source reporting and analysis.-Accounts are available to US federal, state, and local government employees and contractors.” [———I would draw your attention to the lack of a mere US citizen’s right to access this website]

      The 2 main Foreign Equivalents to the FBIS (& its successor http://www.opensource.gov) are called: a) the BBC’s MONITORING SERVICE & b)DEUTSCHE WELLE—-both the British & the Germans take the view that translating a foreign news service/source into German or English DOES NOT THEN MEAN IT SHOULD/CAN BE CLASSIFIED AND BOTH HAVE CHOSEN TO ATTACH SUCH A BODY DIRECTLY TO THEIR MAIN INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTERS–even though both the costs of the “gathering & translating” institutions have to be covered by the national taxpayers………It was if Washington had decided to attach the CIA’s FBIS & opensource.gov to VOICE OF AMERICA (& PRN/PBS perhaps]—& not classify it for US Federal,State & City employees only
      .
      The CIA & the US Govt [at opensource.gov] has,since at least the Cold War, ALWAYS CLAIMED THE RIGHT TO CLASSIFY OPEN SOURCE MATERIAL.In the example by John Schindler the description For Official Use Only [FOUO] was regarded as appropriate for news reports noted by US Embassy staff based in Zendia—& users/readers of the report were prohibited from repeating the reports without Official Approval.

      HEAVILY CLASSIFIED MATERIAL BEING ROUTINELY DISTRIBUTED WITH LITTLE OR KNOWN ATTEMPT TO KEEP THE INFO SECRET:
      In the training example cited by Schindler the widespread distribution of decrypted or ultra-secret sources & methods contrasts markedly with American ( & British) practices during WWII as Winterbotham details which were:
      i) NO repeating of an ULTRA message
      ii) No retention of an ULTRA message
      ii)EVERY message went only to the intended recipient,never more than 4 or 5 individuals per military command,never more than a 1 or 2 Head of a Govt Department
      iii) If a messages CONTENT was to distributed within a Govt Dept or Military Unit the source & methods must never be mentioned at the same time (i.e ‘The
      enemy will attack at 1000hrs tomorrow’ must never be mixed IN THE SAME MESSAGE WITH HOW WE KNOW THE ENEMY WILL ATTACK)
      iii)If ACTION is to be taken based on the information in a [USA Govt parlance A SPECIAL INFORMATION[SI] message] then a COVER ACTION must be initiated to explain the gaining of the knowledge–similar to the “parallel construction” that the DOJ & the Fusion Centers use when handling FISA/FISC court material with the DEA & State Police

      Neither of those wise practices are followed by Schindler in his “textbook” example of How to write an IC analysts report

      IN SUMMARY:
      YES the US GOVERNMENT believes that Open Source Information should be kept,at least,confidential,not for public discussion—-& has done for decades.
      .
      NO none of the very wise rules followed during WWII, dealing with information “Secret for a Very Good Reason” seem to be currently being followed by Washington—not with the OPM,nor the NSA, nor……..need I go?

      • bmaz says:

        You have to be fucking kidding me. John Schindler is so full of shit his eyes are brown.
        .
        But, hey, thanks for all the screaming capital letters. Very effective that.

        • orionATL says:

          “so full of shit his eyes are brown.”

          my, my. i’ve got to add this one to my collection, bmaz.

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