US agencies in turf battle over classification level of COVID-19 meetings

Department of Health & Human ServicesA number of United States government officials have expressed dismay about the White House’s treatment of top-level meetings about the coronavirus (COVID-19) as classified, a move described by some as “not normal”. On Wednesday the Reuters news agency cited “four Trump administration officials” in claiming that several dozen meetings to discuss COVID-19 were held in top-secret settings. This, they say, was unnecessary and posed barriers to coming up with an effective response to the contagion. Other sources, however, claim that the meetings had to be classified because they included secret information on China.

The meetings in point have been held since mid-January at a high-security conference room located at the headquarters of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in Washington, DC. The HHS is largely in charge of the US government’s response to COVID-19, as it oversees several relevant agencies including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From the very beginning, the National Security Council —a White House decision-making body chaired by the president— ordered that the meetings be treated as classified. This meant that participants had to have top-secret security clearances in order to attend.

This decision allegedly excluded several government officials from these meetings, including leading US government biosurveillance and biosecurity experts who should have had a place at those meetings. “We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go”, one source said. Reuters quotes an unnamed “high level former official […] in the George W. Bush administration” who describes the decision to limit access to these discussions “about a response to a public health crisis” as “not normal”. But another government source told Reuters that the meetings were classified because they “had to do with China”. Yet another source said that the small number of participants was necessary to prevent potentially damaging leaks to the media.

Meanwhile, Time magazine alleged on Wednesday that a timely report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which includes a section on pandemics, has been delayed. In previous years, the report, entitled Worldwide Threat Assessment, has warned that the world is not prepared for new strains of influenza that could prompt a pandemic. The report was scheduled to be released to Congress on February 12, but it remains unaccounted for. Members of the intelligence committees in Congress told Time that they did not expect the report to be released any time soon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 March 2020 | Permalink

Israel extends intelligence document classification period to 90 years

MossadThe government of Israel has increased to 90 years the period during which documents belonging to intelligence and security agencies can remain secret, extending it by 20 years. Until last month, government documents produced by Israeli spy agencies, such as its external spy organization, the Mossad, or its domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, could remain hidden from public view for up to 70 years. Last year, however, the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commissioned a study into the possibility of extending the classification period for such documents. Israel’s Supreme Council of Archives, a body within the Israel State Archives that advises the Office of the Prime Minister on matters of classification, recommended against extending the classification period by more than five years.

Last month, however, Netanyahu rejected the recommendation of the Supreme Council of Archives and managed to pass an amendment to the classification regulations that will keep documents secret for 90 years from now on. The existence of the amendment was revealed publicly for the first time on Monday of this week. In addition to agencies such as the Mossad and the Shin Bet, the extended regulation will also apply to several cyber-oriented military units, as well as to government-run research institutes and commissions, including the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which published news of the amended regulation on Tuesday, said that documents from 1949, the year that the Shin Bet and the Mossad were founded, would normally have been published this year. But now they will remain hidden from public view until 2039. Documents relating to more recent cases, such as the death of Ben Zygier, Mossad’s so-called ‘prisoner X’, or the assassination of Hamas arms procurer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, which took place in 2010, will not be released until 2100.

The office of President Netanyahu said on Monday that the goal of the amendment was to protect Israel’s assets and informants who remain alive, or their descendants in foreign countries. It added that many documents produced by Israel’s spy agencies described operational methods that were “still in use today” and could therefore “harm national security”. Last but not least, said the Prime Minister’s Office, some of the information in classified documents “could harm Israel’s foreign relations”. The statement did not elaborate on these claims.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 February 2019 | Permalink

Uproar as UK government classifies details of weapon expert’s death

Dr. David Kelly

Dr. David Kelly

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Public speculation over the alleged suicide of UK biological weapons expert Dr. David Kelly is bound to increase, after a senior state official secretly ordered that details of his death be kept secret for 70 years. Dr. Kelly, a British Ministry of Defense scientist, who had been employed by the United Nations as a weapons inspector, caused a major stir by becoming one of the sources of a 2003 BBC report disputing the British government’s claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons at 45 minutes’ notice. He was later called to appear before a Parliamentary committee investigating the government’s claims about Iraq’s purported ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But on July 18, 2003, four days after appearing before the committee, Dr. Kelly’s was found dead at a wooded area near his home. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0159

  • US Congress wants to change locks in document safes. Some Congress members have revived “a decade-old debate” on replacing security locks on government safes for storing classified documents with new electromechanical locking mechanisms. According to one independent security consultant, existing mechanical locks in classified document safes “can be penetrated surreptitiously within 20 minutes”, and older barlock containers still in use “can be penetrated within seconds”.
  • A US spy in wartime Ireland. The interesting story of Major Martin S. Quigley, one of three US spies sent by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, CIA’s forerunner) to Ireland, on a mission to find out whether the country’s government, which was officially neutral in the War, was actually siding with Nazi Germany.

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DNI nominee advocates major overhaul of US intelligence classification rules

Dennis Blair

Dennis Blair

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Confirmation hearings for retired US Navy Admiral Dennis Cutler Blair, who is expected to succeed Mike McConnel as Director of National Intelligence (DNI), have already begun on the Hill. Last week, Admiral Blair was questioned by several Senators about the classification system for intelligence records, which is frequently the subject of criticism by open government advocates. In responding, Mr. Blair conceded that “[t]here is a great deal of over-classification, some of [which] is done for the wrong reasons, to try to hide things from the light of day”. His remark prompted Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to relay his personal experience, which “is that over and over and over again, we have seen official secrecy used not for national security purposes, but to mislead the public”. Read more of this post