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August 29, 2013

With tensions mounting, the US is beginning to make its case for strikes against the Syrian government. Reports indicate that the White House will release the declassified document demonstrating Syria used chemical weapons against its citizens as justification for US military intervention as early as today.

Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

The Syrian question has some asking why the use of chemical weapons is the ‘red line’ whose crossing now demands American involvement, and recently declassified CIA documents don’t make the debate any clearer. The CIA documents prove that the US provided intelligence to Saddam Hussein during the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War with knowledge that he intended to gas Iranian forces with it. Foreign Policy reports, “[i]n 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.” Three decades ago the Reagan administration gambled that it was safer to let the Iraqi chemical attacks happen if the attacks would turn events definitively in Iraq’s favor and bring the lingering conflict to an end. The administration further justified its decision by noting that “the Soviet Union had previously used chemical agents in Afghanistan and suffered few repercussions.”

The rationale behind, and the predicted success of, military intervention in the Middle East is a notoriously difficult thing to gauge.  CIA officials only recently admitted to their official involvement in the 1953 Coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, despite the fact that it has long been public knowledge. The CIA-orchestrated coup to return the Shah to the Peacock Throne critically altered modern Iranian history and our relationship with the Islamic Republic, which is currently threatening to attack Israel if the US strikes Syria.

The ACLU argued against the National Security Agency’s phone data collection program in court this week. In papers filed in a federal court in New York the ACLU claimed NSA surveillance practices violate the Constitution, infringe on the First Amendment, and should be stopped; the DOJ urged the judge to dismiss the case. Also this week, a federal judge ruled that the CIA cannot use the CIA Act of 1949 as a catchall for avoiding FOIA disclosures. Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, praised the important victory, saying, “Congress never intended for intelligence agencies to have a carte blanche, blanket exemption from FOIA. This is an important ruling that will stifle the CIA in its long-running efforts to create such a blanket exemption out of whole cloth.”

Recent disclosures illuminate an increasingly close relationship between the NSA and the CIA, agencies that have historically had a competitive and acrimonious relationship. Of major interest are revelations surrounding the Special Collection Service (SCS), the joint clandestine SIGINT organization that operates out of 25% of U.S. embassies around the world. Detailed information about the collaboration resides on four computers currently in Edward Snowden’s possession. Officials at both agencies “know that the public disclosure of these operations would cause incalculable damage to U.S. intelligence operations abroad as well as massive embarrassment to the U.S. government.”

To be sure, any further surprise revelations about US’ surveillance practices abroad would be bad news for the US, already on the defensive in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks. Reports that the NSA bugged EU offices, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, on the heels of President Obama’s promise that NSA activities exclusively target potential terrorists are particularly embarrassing. Perhaps yesterday’s launch of the National Reconnaissance Office’s latest spy satellite, the massive Delta IV Heavy capable of distinguishing the make and model of cars hundreds of miles below, was bad timing.

Finally this week, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office has released its report for the Reducing Over-classification Act of 2010, which requires that “each executive branch agency that classifies information to evaluate the agency’s classification practices and to report on the results by the end of September 2013.” Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood notes that while the report clarifies classification procedures, it conflates over-classification with misclassification and misses the larger problem of classifying  “information that arguably does meet the standards of the Executive Order but that need not or should not be classified.” Other agencies reports should be released by the end of next month.

Happy FOIA-ing!

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