On Black Special Access Programs

The three-tier standard government security clearance levels are well known: confidential, secret and top secret. However just having a clearance at one of these levels does not automatically give access to any information at that level. There has to be a demonstrable “need to know” in order to be briefed or read in on a given project, program, facility or intelligence product. But this system is merely the “white” side of the security system. There is a massive secret “black” system as well, the existence of which is known while the details (naturally) are deeply hidden. (For a publicly available overview see the Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy: 1997, chaired by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Senate Document 105-2. See also the report In Search of the Pentagon’s billion dollar hidden budgets by Bill Sweetman, North American editor for the British publication Jane’s Defence Weekly, from which much of the following material has been condensed.) This structure has been described as a “shadow military” existing in parallel with open or overtly classified programs. It is for programs considered to be too sensitive for normal classification measures: these are called Special Access Programs (SAPs). They are protected by a security system of great complexity. Many of the SAPs are located within industry funded through special contracts. Under arrangements called “carve-outs” such programs and funds become removed from the usual security and contract-oversight organizations. In 1997 there were at least 150 SAPs.

There are also levels of SAP, the first being a division into acknowledged and unacknowledged SAPs. Black Program is slang for an unacknowledged SAP. An unacknowledged SAP is so sensitive that its very existence is a “core secret.” Indeed, some unacknowledged SAPs are sensitive to the extent that they are “waived” (a technical term) from the normal management and oversight protocols. Even members of Congress on appropriations committees (the Senate and House committees that allocate budgets) and intelligence committees are not allowed to know anything about these programs. In the case of a waived SAP, only eight members of Congress (the chairs and ranking minority members of the four defense committees) are even notified that a given program has been waived (without being told anything about the nature of the program). Such a program is certainly deep black (though I am not sure if that designation is actually used in the business).

The number of people with access to multiple SAPs is deliberately very limited. This virtually assures that hardly anyone knows what is going on in another program. Black programs are often covered by white (normal classification system) or unclassified programs. The U2 spyplane was covered by a weather-research aircraft program. Such covering allows technology to be relatively openly developed until such time as it is ready for application to a black program. The overt cover program is then usually cancelled, having accomplished its purpose. This happened to the X-30 National Aerospaceplane project in 1994. It appeared to be an unrealistically ambitious program that was eventually cancelled, but was in reality a cover for what is almost certainly a black-world hypersonic aircraft according to defense analyst Sweetman. (This may be the source of the phantom sonic boom phenomenon reported since the early 1990s.)

Someone read in on an unacknowledged SAP would be required to deny even its existence, i.e. even a “no comment” would be a serious breach of security. It can also happen that someone, such as a general or admiral, ostensibly responsible for certain types of programs or areas of technology would not be briefed on the existence of a program that should be within his jurisdiction. (If your name is not on the so-called “bigot list” for a program you will not be briefed, no matter what your rank or responsibility. Even the director of the CIA or the DIA would not ex officio and automatically be on all such lists.) The wall of denial in the deep black world can thus be maintained by both deception and deliberately designed lack of cognizance leading to apparently honest denial. In addition to passive security, active measures can also be deemed necessary: disinformation. Again according to the report by Sweetman, two high level commissions have concluded that, among other things, black programs include “systematic efforts to confuse and disinform the public.” One disinformation ploy is to divulge both real and fabricated information of equal apparent credibility mixed together to someone or some group. The fabricated information can then be used to discredit claims, individuals or organizations. This is a highly effective way to keep a major secret: let the secret be revealed but mixed with sufficient disinformation to assure that the secret will not be believed by anyone who actually matters, for example the national media. The cost of such intense levels of security can be quite steep. It has been estimated that an intensively sensitive program may consume half or even more of its secret budget in security.

The products of the intelligence community are termed Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). It is easier to keep a program hidden in a contractor facility than in a government facility. Deeply buried programs in contractor facilities are called “carve outs” (referring to the budget). A crash retrieval or some classified continuation of Project Blue Book would likely exist as a deep black industrially-based SAP. A program involving hardware would be considered technology rather than intelligence and most likely fall under the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Ironically for such a program even someone having an intelligence “ticket” at the highest level would not be considered to have a need to know. All of this results in very effective isolation and virtually no one in a position of open civilian governmental authority being cognizant of this after a time, even though, at least in principle, the Special Access Program Oversight Commitee, SAPOC, should be cognizant of such a program. I do not know of any fundamentally limiting factors in the potential longevity of a program. The extreme compartmentalization and limited oversight would tend to keep a program in existence, perhaps indefinitely. Political leaders come and go, pandering to the masses for votes in the eyes of many within the military and intelligence communities, and as a result have varying degrees of respect and trust in that world. Deep black programs can become quite independent of any given administration, and it would certainly be unrealistic to assume that a given president has been briefed on every SAP. A president does not automatically have a need to know. (See Would the President be Briefed on a UFO Special Access Program; also Some Thoughts on Keeping It Secret.) Moreover Freedom of Information Act requests cannot penetrate unacknowledged special access programs.