Friday FOIA Fun: Reading Between the Lines

Sometimes, with redacted material the government releases under the Freedom of Information Act, what they redact is less interesting than what they don’t, if only because it provides a tantalizing hint at what was really said, and what really happened.

Today’s document, released a while back by the USAF, is one such example. More than half the document was redacted – under the (b)(1), “national security” exemption, no less – but what remains lets one paint a pretty clear, and pretty interesting, picture.

Our story begins in April 1977 – thirty-two years ago. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were fairly high, and negotiations for what would eventually become SALT II were going nowhere fast; they wouldn’t be concluded for another two years. Things weren’t helped much by the USSR’s tendency to have their jets probe our air defenses. Most of the time, this was fairly routine. Once in a while, though, things got interesting…

What happened on April 14th, 1977, will probably never be known in its entirety, largely because – and I don’t want to sound too cynical here – it looks like the U.S. was severely embarrassed by the Russians – embarrassed enough that the report on the incident is basically, for all intents and purposes, classified forever. The USSR is no more, pretty much everything has changed in the decades since, but the details in question are still “properly classified in the interests of national security”, according to the Air Force.

Here’s what I can tell you, though:

Interesting tidbit number one: The report on the incident, compiled just six months after the incident, is subtitled “A Case for Sanitization of COMINT“. So, while the details may never be known, we can probably safely infer that someone, somewhere made an OPSEC/COMSEC boo-boo that was exploited by the Soviets.

Eight pages are spent on the chronology of events involving both the incident in question, and COMINT practices in general; eleven are spent on “COMINT Sanitization”, and the rest of the report is notes, glossaries, and appendices.

The (unredacted bits of the) COMINT section, by the way, are all finger-pointing; the stateside/CONUS Air Defense Command didn’t want to adopt policies developed in Southeast Asia, and were resistant to change; they saw – even after the April incident – nothing wrong with the way they handled things.

Everything in what’s unredacted points a finger at some kind of security or intelligence failure…


Reading between the lines in all of this, it looks pretty much as though a previously-undetected Soviet TU-95 reconnaissance airplane (or two, perhaps, flying in close formation) entered U.S. airspace – the US ADIZ – off the coast of South Carolina and overflew a U.S. Navy task force at sea… a fairly large task force at that, one which contained an aircraft carrier. Two USAF jets were scrambled to intercept the Russian plane, and failed to do so; the TU-95 evidently overflew the task force and departed, without the naval force having ever been alerted to its presence.

Somewhere in all that, apparently, was a full-blown COMINT SNAFU. What it was, I have no idea, but it was apparently big enough of one that apportioning blame for it overrode all other finger-pointing: never mind the lackluster Navy situational awareness, or the pretty poor performance of the USAF interceptors; someone involved with COMINT at the Air Defense Command screwed up, and heads must roll.

I’ve omitted most of the report, since nearly all of it is redacted under good old overused exemption (b)(1), “classified in the interests of national security” – including one of the TU-95 photos in the appendix. (Go figure.)

Russia has recently begun long-range TU-95 patrols again, though they no longer seem to be operating out of Cuba, as the one in 1977 probably was. If you look at the Wikipedia page on the plane, you’ll see a long list of recent incidents involving the aircraft, including un-intercepted overflights of at least two U.S. aircraft carriers. The USAF, it seems, learned some important lessons from the April 1977 incident (though whether anything was done as a result is another matter entirely); the Navy, though, might not be as on top of their game as they should be, it seems.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on March 20th, 2009| Comments Off on Friday FOIA Fun: Reading Between the Lines

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