Monday, June 15, 2009

Declassified Docs Offer New Revelations of Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program

Written by The Public Record
Friday, 05 June 2009 20:25

Recent Actions by Declassification Panel Show Pattern of CIA Overclassification and Tight Grip on Early Cold War History

New Declassification Releases by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP)

During the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research was one of the few U.S. intelligence organizations to dissent from the Bush administration's allegations of a revved-up Iraqi nuclear program. Secretary of State Colin Powell ignored his own experts, but INR's prescience raised its prestige.

INR also got it right in its forecast of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, according to a recently declassified post-mortem on the U.S. intelligence failure during the October War, published today by the National Security Archive. In the spring of 1973, INR analysts wrote that, absent diplomatic progress in the Middle East, "the resumption of hostilities will become a better than even bet."

INR analysts argued that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would go to war not for specific military objectives, but to take "military action which can be sustained long enough" to get the United States and the Soviet Union strongly involved in the Middle East peace process.

The authors of the October War post-mortem saw the INR estimate as a "case of wisdom lost," because as the signs of conflict unfolded in the fall of 1973, the intelligence establishment forgot those warnings. The post-mortem, which reviewed failures to take into account communications intelligence (COMINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT), quickly became a secret "best seller" in the intelligence establishment after it was published.

When the Archive filed a mandatory review request for the post-mortem, the CIA denied much of the document, and it took a decision by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) in response to the Archive's appeal to reverse the CIA decision and declassify much more of the withheld information. Acting as the court of last resort for mandatory declassification review requests, ISCAP recently reversed other CIA initial denials of documents from the 1960s and 1970s. While it exempted material it regards as sensitive, ISCAP nevertheless found that much of the information denied by the CIA could be declassified without harm to national security.

Among the ISCAP Releases Are:

  • The U.S. government's first intelligence estimate--a Special National Intelligence Estimate from December 1960--on the purposes of Israeli nuclear activities at a nuclear reactor complex near Beersheba: "We believe that plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort."
  • Biographical sketches of members of the Soviet delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks in 1969. For years, the CIA routinely refused to declassify its biographical reporting.
  • A top secret report from November 1973 on the possibility that Moscow shipped nuclear weapons into Soviet bases in Egypt during the 1973 Middle East war.
  • A National Intelligence Estimate from April 1986 on "The Likelihood of Nuclear Acts by Terrorist Groups" which found that the "prospects that terrorists will attempt high-level nuclear terrorism" was "low to very low." While the CIA analysts speculated that even the terrorist groups of the 1980s may have had inhibitions against actions that produced civilian mass casualties, they suggested that the inhibitions could erode and that groups "with a different state of mind" could emerge.

ISCAP's decision to declassify these documents is commendable, but the CIA's initial denials suggest that the Agency is following overly restrictive declassification review standards. Just as troubling, the Agency used the CIA Information Act to prevent ISCAP from making a decision on the classification status of a history of early covert operations, "Office of Policy Coordination, 1948-1952."

These CIA examples suggest that the rules and regulations that support the U.S. government secrecy system enable government agencies to follow unreasonably narrow standards. Moreover, as the CIA's action on the covert operations history suggests, laws on the books give the Agency inordinate power to keep the veil of secrecy over important parts of its history. Indeed, President George W. Bush's executive order on secrecy policy, still in force, gives the CIA veto power over ISCAP decisions on intelligence records. These problems point out the need for significant change in the U.S. government's secrecy policy.

The declassified documents can be accessed at this link.