Jeffrey LewisNo More 721 Reports

The FY 2013 Intelligence Authorization Act repeals the requirement for “721 Reports” — officially known as the biannual Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions.

This is a terrible decision.  Most transparent administration in history, my ass. Barack Obama should not be held to a lesser standard than George W. Bush.  At some point, historians will realize that Obama is actually a lot worse than Bush on many national-security issues relating to transparency and civil liberties.

I know, cognitive dissonance. Bush is also a sensitive, introspective painter.  Life is weird like that.

Here is the language of the repeal, followed by the justification provided by the intelligence community, and some choice comments of my own:

SEC. 310. REPEAL OF CERTAIN REPORTING REQUIREMENTS.

(a) REPEAL OF REPORTING REQUIREMENTS.—

(1) ACQUISITION OF TECHNOLOGY RELATING TO WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION AND ADVANCED CONVENTIONAL MUNITIONS.—

Section 721 of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 (50 U.S.C. 2366) is repealed.

The justification from the Intelligence Community is, well, less than compelling:

Justification: This reporting requirement should be repealed because it is 15 years old and the Intelligence Community routinely provides finished intelligence products, regular Congressional Notifications, and briefings on this topic. This approach ensures that significant developments are brought to the timely attention of Congress, rather than waiting for an annual report. Furthermore, this topic is addressed in the Annual Threat Assessment hearing.

Let’s go through these terrible arguments.

“This reporting requirement should be repealed because it is 15 years old…”  

Gee, we wouldn’t want consistent reporting requirements over time.  That might make them useful!  Seriously, one of the real advantages of the 721 report is that one can compare past reports for shifts in language.  We’ve been able to spot signs that Iran sold ballistic missiles to Syria, track Syria’s growing interest in nuclear weapons, and observe declining concerns about Iran’s chemical weapons stockpile.  That’s just off the top of my head.

“… and the Intelligence Community routinely provides finished intelligence products, regular Congressional Notifications, and briefings on this topic.”

In addition to the limitations of ad hoc reporting, the reason that Congress is provided with an unclassified report is to permit an open debate. The public at large does not have access to finished intelligence products, regular Congressional Notifications, and briefings. The public has a stake in this.  Congress is not the Executive Branch.  The electorate has a legitimate interest in ensuring that Congressional debates are open to public scrutiny, which we get to exercise every other year.

This approach ensures that significant developments are brought to the timely attention of Congress, rather than waiting for an annual report.

“Ensures” is an interesting word.  Ad hoc reporting can complement annual reports, but members of Congress ought to know by now that replacing regular reporting with ad hoc reporting confers significant discretion on the Executive Branch to determine what information to share, and what to withhold.

Furthermore, this topic is addressed in the Annual Threat Assessment hearing.

This one makes me crazy.  DNI Clapper’s statement contains about two pages in 2013 on WMD Threats.  The 721 report is usually about 6 or 7 pages (excluding the front matter at the beginning).  To say that “this topic is addressed” does not tell you that the IC addresses it in the same depth or manner. Second, why is this a choice?  The annual threat assessment addresses all issues.  Does that mean we should eliminate all additional reporting requirements?  No, that’s preposterous because this is a preposterous argument.

The bottom line is that the 721 report has been one of the best products that the intelligence community produces for outside analysts, who have been able to use it keep abreast of any number of proliferation-related issues.

I will miss it.

Comments

  1. archjr (History)

    Agreed, but I suspect there will be such information available in the continuing, unending series of reports required by the Congress that all Executive branches chafe at and file several months late. While authoritative, these things are least-common-denominator in terms of useful information provided that can’t be had elsewhere.

    Here’s the nut I want to crack, as a private citizen: https://opensource.gov/public/content/login/login.fcc.

    Why is “the US Government’s premier provider of foreign open source intelligence” open only to government employees and contractors? Lack of server capability? We are all paying for legions of collecters, interpreters, and editors to produce unclassified translations of open-source foreign media. “opensource.gov” is an irritating misnomer; it used to be the “Foreign Broadcast Information Service,” (which was great when I was able to read it) and is no more “open” than was FBIS, unless you have a government contract or a government job.

    I think there is a huge difference between public access to some boiled-down report and public access to the open-source info our taxes are paying to collect.

  2. Chris McGuire (History)

    It’s worth noting that the FY 2013 Intelligence Authorization Act also repeals the Annual Report on the Safety and Security of Russian Nuclear Facilities and Nuclear Military Forces (sec. 310(a)(2). In the past, this report has proven useful in assessing the effectiveness of MPC&A programs inside Russia.

    The DNI offers a similar justification for the repeal of this report, noting that the 2012 NDAA imposes “a new, similar reporting requirement.” However, the new NDAA reporting requirements (sec. 1240) only pertain to “nuclear forces…warheads, and delivery vehicles” and make no mention of the security of facilities and material.

    Either we have reached the point where Russian nuclear material is so secure that public reporting on it is no longer warranted, or the administration is reducing transparency on one of Obama’s signature issues: securing the world’s supply of fissile material.

  3. SW (History)

    archjr, re: nutcracking

    1. Copyright. The US Government can get away with a disclaimer on republishing foreign copyrighted matter to its own employees and contractors, but not with placing that matter in an entirely open public domain without paying the copyright owners.

    2. Opensource.gov is not just FBIS on steroids, but also has analytical content. That content is mostly graded FOUO, ie. the Government would not necessarily want to publish it for general public consumption, in the exact same form of words that it uses for its own purposes.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > 2. Opensource.gov is not just FBIS on steroids, but also has analytical content.

      A minor nit, but FBIS Classic did have an Analytical Group that did produce analytical product at, mostly, the FOUO level. There may be a matter of emphasis between the classical and current organizations.

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    Ok, so…

    WHY?

    Were they tired of the report? Did they think it was feeding info somewhere they don’t want to? Cost basis?

  5. rba (History)

    Well given your response, Jeff, would you say there’s other (ulterior) motives behind canning the 721 reports? Maybe what GWH wrote above?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think the Executive Branch is always looking to get out of reporting requirements imposed by Congress.

  6. Chris Kessler (History)

    Shouldn’t conflate the Executive Branch with the intelligence community, they are not the same thing and do not always pursue the same approaches. I won’t speculate on the motives for this particular move, but I don’t think I’d lay it at the door of the White House. A decade ago we (in State) were trying to reduce the number of such reports, as there were many & redundant requirements. And part of the reasoning was in fact that the same info was provided in, among other reports, the 721.

    As the classified intelligence reports provided to Congress have restricted distribution, termination of the 721 report means that many Members not on key committees have lost an authoritative source of important information. The “justification” in this case is entirely specious.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I was looking for a vague phrase that conflated the IC and the White House so that I could remain agnostic about who is to blame, pending further investigation.

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