Here we go again. Maybe. Ten years ago Colin Powell publicly presented the United Nations with formerly top-secret information about a Middle East tyrant and weapons of mass destruction to justify military action against him. The tyrant was Saddam Hussein and the briefing turned out to be a concoction of misinterpretation, wishful thinking, and, in the case of information from a German spy codenamed “Curveball,” complete fabrication. In a memoir published last year, Colin Powell wrote that this presentation would forever be a blot on his reputation. The same could be said for U.S. efforts at creating global support for armed action.
Reports from various sources this week suggest that the Obama administration has hard evidence—communications intercepts—proving Syrian government involvement in the recent chemical weapons attack on civilians that left at least 350 dead. Although the Los Angeles Times is reporting that some of this information comes from Israel, other reports suggest that the information is the product of CIA eavesdropping. It also appears that Washington is preparing to release some of it. How can we do it right this time?
There are only two officials in the U.S. government who can declassify information on their own authority: the president and the director of the CIA. During the Bush years Dick Cheney argued that the vice president could, too, but no one hears Joe Biden making that argument these days.
Presidents have used this power to influence policy. Leaving aside the Bush administration’s great fail, the efforts have brought mixed results, and these efforts don’t happen often. The two most famous examples took place in 1962 and 1986. During the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy decided to show the world photographic evidence that the Soviets were placing offensive missiles on Cuba. In 1986, Ronald Reagan revealed intercepts from the Libyan government to make his case that Muammar Qaddafi was involved in targeting U.S. service members in Europe and bombing the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin, which killed three people and wounded scores more.
The U.S. intelligence community does not like this kind of declassification. The eavesdroppers, in particular, worry that once you blow a communications source by revealing intercepted information, the target country will react by improving its communications security. The favorite example in NSA-world is ULTRA, the information obtained by breaking Nazi ciphers during World War II. Had Hitler learned how vulnerable his communications were, ULTRA could have been lost and the battle for Europe would have lasted considerably longer.
But presidents are elected to make the bigger call and overrule intelligence security officers when necessary. There are times when international reputation requires giving up an intelligence source to show that the United States is not engaged in some imperial adventure. In light of recent events in Syria, this is one of those times.
Kennedy decided to reveal actual U-2 photographs of Cuba, in the process giving away some tradecraft secrets, such as the resolution of these spy photographs. Reagan was a little more circumspect. In his televised speech on April 14, 1986, he provided paraphrases of the intercepted information and not the raw reports themselves.
[indent] “On March 25th, more than a week before the attack, orders were sent from Tripoli to the Libyan People's Bureau in East Berlin to conduct a terrorist attack against Americans to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties. Libya's agents then planted the bomb. On April 4th the People's Bureau alerted Tripoli that the attack would be carried out the following morning. The next day they reported back to Tripoli on the great success of their mission.”[end indent]
Nevertheless, Tripoli learned enough from this revelation to improve its security.
There was, however, a big difference between President Kennedy and President Reagan’s motives: Kennedy released the information to build international support for the removal of the missiles. Reagan released the information after the U.S. Air Force had bombed Tripoli, to justify unilateral action.