To a lot of people, terms like “black budget,” or “black projects,” inspire dark imagery of government figures operating in contrast to the principles of a free and open society. Indeed, with tens of billions set aside every year for classified Pentagon programs and operations, it would be reckless of the public not to be willing to question that which they pay for, but lack the privilege of knowing anything about.
Inherently enigmatic and often grossly misunderstood, The War Zone set out to shed light on the obscure processes that are involved in maintaining the highly intricate ecosystem that works to guard the Pentagon’s most closely held secrets.
For the better part of the last twenty-five years, the manner in which the U.S. government safeguards and restricts access of highly classified information is through a set of compartmentalization protocols termed “Special Access Programs.” Thanks to the government’s love affair with condensing words, most people are likely familiar with this formalized system of security’s acronym—”SAP.”
For most of us stuck on the outside trying to get an idea of what’s inside, the term “Special Access Program” is often misunderstood as being itself a classification level. In truth, SAPs are merely a set of security protocols limiting access of sensitive information to only authorized and necessary individuals. Cue the cliché, “That information is need to know, and you don’t have a need to know!”
Now, before one can gain a real appreciation for how Special Access Programs operate, like any scholar of history will tell you, “To understand the present, one must first appreciate the past.”
How National Security Information Is Classified
The early origins of Special Access Programs can be traced to March 22, 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8381, creating for the first time, three security designations for America’s most crucial information—restricted, confidential, and secret.
In the ensuing years, various presidential executive orders have tweaked how the government designates classified information. The current levels of classification are confidential, secret, and top secret. The determining factor for how information is classified depends on how much damage an unauthorized disclosure would reasonably be expected to cause.
- Top Secret: “Exceptionally grave damage to national security.”
- Secret: “Serious damage to national security.”
- Confidential: “Damage to national security.”
Important to note, established through the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the Department of Energy (DOE) uses two differing equivalent levels of security clearance.
- Q-Clearance: Equivalent to a Top-Secret level clearance.
- L-Clearance: Equivalent to a Secret level clearance.
For clarity’s sake, at times misrepresented by the entertainment industry, a “Yankee White clearance” is not an actual security clearance. “Yankee White” is an administrative nickname for the background check performed for persons who will work within close proximity to the President or Vice President. According to Department of Defense instructions, to obtain a Yankee White clearance one must pass the same Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) necessary for a top secret clearance, and establish “unquestionable loyalty to the United States.”
Within the world of SAPs, a program can involve information from any one of these official classification levels. Further adding to the confusion, in many cases, a single Special Access Program will contain multiple components, each with differing classification levels.
The Dubious Origins Of Special Access Programs
The incredulous mystique surrounding SAPs likely comes from the unofficial, ad hoc nature of their origins. In 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive order 10501, he eliminated classification authority from 28 government entities, limiting only departments and agencies of the executive branch the ability to classify materials. More importantly, President Eisenhower’s directive removed the previously approved “restricted” designation.
Up to this point, “restricted” classifications functioned as a means of limiting certain information from people who may indeed have held an active security clearance, however, they didn’t have a “need to know.”
In light of being given a formal order by the Commander and Chief, some departments within the Pentagon weren’t all that keen on being unable to limit access to their secrets. In response, many agencies began to unofficially use “special access.” Albeit, with no official authority, these informal “special access” classifications would allow for the continuance of closely guarded, tight-knit programs, to be hidden within the government.
Now, it’s hard to argue that the flagrant rejection of national directives wasn’t a recipe for disaster waiting to happen. In fact, it’s likely no coincidence some of the darkest times in government secrecy went on during these unofficial “special access” years. For example, the CIA’s infamous Project MKULtra began in 1953 and remained active until 1973. Coincidently, 1973 was the same year that during an oversight hearing, a report by the Committee on Government Operations brought to light that dozens of unauthorized “special access, distribution, control labels, stamps, or markings” were being used, by “many executive agencies having classification authority and dozens of other agencies who do not possess such authority.”
In all fairness, by the time of their discovery, the precedent of unofficial special access programs was primarily a moot point. Either intentionally or by ironic happenstance, three months prior to five men being caught breaking into the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C., on March 8, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Executive order 11652, legitimatizing and establishing the overall framework for what would eventually become the “Special Access Program” of today.
Still not thoroughly having worked the kinks out, according to the Center for Development of Security Excellence’s (CDSE) Special Access Programs Training Course, from the early 1970s to 1980s, SAPs—referenced even within the government as “black programs,”—were almost exclusively restricted to safeguarding DoD acquisition programs. In fact, the existence of “black programs” wasn’t publicly known until the mid-1980s, when the controversial “Project Yellow Fruit” unceremoniously thrust government secrecy programs in the limelight.
More on “Project Yellow Fruit” to come.
By the mid-1990s, these enigmatic workshops shed the “black program” moniker, opting to go by the more contemporarily familiar “Special Access Program.” In addition to the more dexterously sleek title, intelligence, operations, and support programs were added to the SAP repertoire, establishing the Special Access Program regime we’ve come to know today.
Armed with some history on SAP’s, let’s take a look at how they operate.
Enter the Bureaucratic Jungle of SAPs
When considering the term “special access program,” typically, people envision one of the three categories that go on within the Department of Defense, as outlined by DoD 5205.07. Acquisition, intelligence, and operations and support. Breaking these categories down to gain a sense of what they entail:
- Acquisition SAPs: Programs that involve research, development, testing, modification, evaluation or procurement of new technologies. (According to the CDSE, Acquisition SAPs make up 75-80% of all DoD SAPs)
- Intelligence SAPs: Planning and execution of, especially sensitive, intelligence or counter-intelligence operations.
- Operations and Support SAPs: Planning, implementation, and support of sensitive military activities.
It’s important to note, though the DoD’s three main categories are the most well-known, Special Access Programs are inherently just a procedure within the government. In fact, there are many other categories of SAPs that go on outside the DoD. For example, the Secret Service’s Presidential travel support detail is technically a SAP. Additionally, within the intelligence services, these similar sets of protocols are termed, “Sensitive Compartmented Information” (SCI) and not “Special Access Programs.”
Additionally, separate from an objective category, all special access programs fall under one of two distinctive protection levels—”acknowledged” and “unacknowledged.”
- Acknowledged SAPs – Programs that’s existence and purpose can be openly recognized. With Acknowledged SAPs, typically only intimate details, such as technologies, materials or techniques are kept secret. Funding for Acknowledged SAPs is mostly unclassified and can be readily seen in the government’s fiscal budget.
With its existence well known, yet its inner details still remaining mysterious, Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider is an excellent example of an Acknowledged Special Access Program actively going on today.
On the other end of the spectrum, serving as the inspiration for much spy fiction or conspiracy theories of secret space forces, there is the “Unacknowledged” SAP.
- Unacknowledged SAPs or “USAPs”: The shy sibling of the SAP family. When a SAP is designated as “unacknowledged” not only is a program’s purpose carefully guarded, as the name implies, USAPs mere existence may be denied to everyone but a spare few who aren’t a part of the program. Given their shadowy presence, it should come as no surprise, the funding for unacknowledged SAPs is either classified or is intentionally hidden within the Federal budget.
An example of an Unacknowledged SAP would be the RQ-170 before it was officially disclosed to the public.
In rare instances, when information is considered to be of the most extremely sensitive in nature, the Secretary of Defense can formally exempt a program from federal reporting requirements and establish the pinnacle of the secrecy—the “Waived Unacknowledged SAP.”
Due to their ultra-secretive nature, Unacknowledged or Waived-Unacknowledged SAPs, serve as fertile breeding grounds for conspiracies of hidden crashed UFO technology or veiled government “carve-outs” whereby the general public’s benefit is an afterthought. In truth, USAPs or Waived USAPs, like anything else that lacks accessibly verifiable fact, is likely very mythicized. With that said, like any good myth, there’s some truth and historical precedent that give legitimate reasons to be concerned with these deeply hidden programs.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick journey back to the not-to-distant past. To a time that shows Special Access Programs have, and can, operate in a manner opposed to public interest.
“Yellow Fruit,” The Rogue SAP The Government Wants To Forget
In 1983, an arbitrary internal audit turned up enormous inconsistencies in an unacknowledged, covert SAP being run out of the newly formed Special Operations Division of the DoD. Code named, “Yellow Fruit,” the program was established to provide additional operational security and counter-intelligence assistance for missions in Central American. Yellow Fruit was a genuine “deep cover” USAP, with the program’s director, former Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Lt. Col. Dale Duncan outwardly appearing to have “retired” from the Army to start a private consulting firm called Business Security International.
The discovery of financial discrepancies in Yellow Fruit sparked a formal investigation by the FBI. The inquiry into Yellow Fruit would result in Lt. Col. Duncan, Special Operation Division Commander Lt. Col. James E. Longhofer, and several other members of SOD being court-martialed for a hodgepodge of varying crimes. In addition, many never-fully proven allegations, such as millions of stolen dollars hidden in Swiss bank accounts, set-ups of other U.S. military officials with prostitutes and hidden cameras, and even ties to the Iran-Contra affair, still loom over Yellow Fruit.
Though career military officers allowing their moral compasses to diverge from pointing ethically north is somberly disappointing, it’s regrettably far from unprecedented. Instead, what made Yellow Fruit such a significant turning point in the formative growth of current classified operations came from the embarrassing lack of DoD control and oversight that was revealed.
As the rotting stench of Yellow Fruit made its way up the military hierarchy, top Army leadership, including Army Chief of Staff John Wickham and his Vice Maxwell Thurman, were stunned. The level of shock conveyed from the Pentagon’s leadership was understandable when you consider that in “The Dilemma of Covert Action,” published by the U.S. Army War College in 1989, it’s said none of the DoD brass had ever been briefed on the program and literally had no clue that a mere 15-minute drive from the Pentagon, tucked amongst a suite of commercial offices, a multi-million-dollar clandestine military operation was being run.
Determining exactly what all went on within Project Yellow Fruit can prove to be a rather difficult task. Spare a few newspaper articles from the 1980s, publicly available information is extremely limited. With that said, the required CDSE’s training course for all persons participating in DoD SAPs, repeatedly mentions “Yellow Fruit” as being an inspiration for a wave of oversight and controls put in place to stem off the ability for a small group within government to literally go rogue.
The Inner Workings of Special Access Programs
In the Department of Defense’s mind-numbing behemoth of formal policies and directives, five volumes totaling 151 pages are now dedicated solely to Special Access Programs. Of course, if a light book’s worth of reading wasn’t enough, there are also specialized manuals for many divisions within the Pentagon that also provide their own expansive volume of rules and regulations.
For example, there’s a Joint Army-Navy-Air Force SAP manual, offering service members of these three branches an extra 129 pages of supplemental reading. Lest we forget, since a significant amount of secret government activity is farmed out to private industry, government contractors who are involved with SAPs get their own 131 pages of “National Industrial Security Program” operating manual to peruse.
Needless to say, though a considerable amount of government’s covert goings-on are indeed hidden from prying eyes, substantially more regulation and control have been implemented since the days when Project Yellow Fruit was turning in $56,000 receipts for desk calculators.
A word of note before proceeding, for all those fans of flowcharts, this would be an excellent time to break out the markers and whiteboard, because as promised, no matter how “unconventional” SAPs may be, at the end of the day, they’re still subject to all of the customary administrative confusion that’s characteristic of civil service.
Special Access Program Central Offices
Within the DoD, The Secretary or Under Secretary of Defense are the principal authorities for all Special Access Programs. Assisting the military’s Chief Executives in this endeavor involves a vast complex of ministerial powers.
Serving on the front lines of the secrecy mosaic is the “Special Access Program Central Offices” (SAPCO). With a process that thrives on compartmentalization, it should come as no surprise, by “central” the DoD actually means there are three different types of SAP Central Offices residing in the corridors of the Pentagon—Component-Level SAPCOs, OSD-Level SAPCO, and DoD-Level SAPCO.
- Component-Level SAP Central Office (SAPCO): They can be found within each branch of the military, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and The Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The Component-Level SAPCOs are responsible for initiating the prospective process for accessing the need for a Special Access Program. Once a SAP has been established, a Component-Level SAP Central Office serves as the hands-on manager for the SAPs that fall under their purview.
- Office of the Secretary of Defense-Level SAP Central Office (OSD SAPCO): Specifically established to assist the Deputy Secretary of Defense, The Office of the Secretary of Defense-Level Central Office serves as the oversight authority for all SAPs.
- Department of Defense SAP Central Office (DOD SAPCO): Serving to help streamline this entire fragmented and confusing process, the Department of Defense SAP Central Office functions as an ambassador by communicating and advising agencies of the executive branch and Congress on all issues relating to SAPs.
Now if that wasn’t enough delegated authority for you, have no fear, because roaring alongside the SAP Central Offices like forking whitewater rapids of procedural hierarchy, comes the “SAP governance structure.”
The Special Access Program Governance Structure
Spearheading the SAP governance structure is the SAP Oversight Committee (SAPOC). Made up of a who’s who of Pentagon Under Secretaries, Vice Chiefs, and Assistant Directors, the Oversight Committee’s primary role is to advise and assist the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense in the governance, management, and oversight of all DoD Special Access Programs.
Ensuring that the limitation of secrecy to only a select few isn’t a decision made in a vacuum, assisting the SAP Oversight Committee is:
- Senior Review Group (SRG): The principle working-level body who governs the process of SAP oversight.
- SAP Senior Working Group (SWG): Provides recommendations to the Senior Review Group and serves as a senior program protection forum coordinating, deconflicting, and integrating special programs.
Pausing for a moment to take a breath, don’t put down those markers and flowchart just yet. As twisting and turning as all the aforementioned regulatory authorities might be, we’re far from having the whole picture of the Special Access Program process.
The Importance Of Maintaining Secrecy
In the late 1970’s NASA began operating an extensively modified Boeing 747 airliner to ferry the Space Shuttle around. By the late 1980s, two were in operation. Unimaginatively, these modified jumbo jets were called the “Shuttle Carrier Aircraft” (SCA).
A decade after NASA began toting around the Space Shuttle Orbiter on the back of a wide-body plane, Russia started soaring through the skies in their brand new Antonov An-225 Mriya (meaning “dream” in English).
Powered by six turbofan engines, the Mriya, to date, is the heaviest aircraft ever built. Oh, and as it happens, the Mriya was built to offer piggyback rides to Russia’s own space shuttle, the Buran. In case you don’t see where this is going, according to the Center For Development Security Excellence (CDSE), it was later determined Russia had “borrowed” technical information on the SCA to help develop their own massive orbiter transport aircraft.
Protecting technological advancement isn’t just about maintaining military dominance. Instead, in terms of time and developmental dollars, the cost associated with the loss of industrial secrets can be enormous. When Russia “acquired” the fine technological details to develop the An-225 to carry their version of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, the Soviet Union effectively saved themselves considerable time and money at America’s expense. Noting only one Mriya has ever been built, the argument can be made, without the unwilling help of the U.S. aerospace industry, Russia’s shuttle ferry may never have entered operation.
Ultimately, examples like Russia’s An-225 serve as distinct reminders that the most vital part of protecting national secrets doesn’t necessarily occur at desks and in boardrooms of the Pentagon. Instead, it goes on within the Special Access Programs themselves.
Securing Special Access Programs
In all fairness, with the intelligence field supposedly being one of the last bastions of “gentleman warfare,” it’s safe to assume America has its fair share of hush-hush programs geared at “borrowing” other nation’s research and development. In fact, known past and present Foreign Materiel Exploitation (FME) programs alone are shining examples of this.
That aside, in the span of SAP controls, the Office for the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSDi) SAP Control Office fills the very vital role of monitoring and investigating counter-intelligence matters, security violations, or infractions within all DoD SAPS.
Assisting OSDi’s Central SAP Office in this effort is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the powerful 17 individual agencies which make up the United States intelligence community. Bolstering this mighty SAP Central Office, the U.S. Defense Security Service (DSS) helps provide operational support and security oversight for all DoD SAPs.
Of course, the first line of defense in protecting the integrity of SAP secrecy starts with who is granted access to a program. Regardless, if a person is in the military, a federal-civilian employee, or a private contractor, several prerequisites must be met before one can work within a SAP.
Working Inside A SAP
The path to working in a SAP begins with a currently accessed person nominating a potential candidate to the “access approval authority,” or the central office that the SAP emerges out of. If a candidate does not presently possess an active secret or top secret clearance, the appropriate clearance must be obtained before one can be considered for involvement.
Finally, all persons who will be involved in a SAP must agree to be subject to random “counter-intelligence scope” polygraph examinations and sign a DoD-approved SAP indoctrination and non-disclosure agreement.
Once inside a special access program, there are yet still several vital roles that help ensure the secure integrity of each individual program. Some of these are:
- The Government Program Manager (GPM), and their private industry equivalent, the Contractor Program Manager (CPM): The person who manages all overall aspects of a specific program.
- Program Security Officer: The person responsible for all aspects of security in the program. Every SAP has a PSO, however, large or complex SAPS can also have additional Government SAP security officers or contractor program security officers to assist the Program Security Officer.
Further protecting who knows what, a SAP’s overarching scope and purpose can fall under one program “umbrella.” However, multiple compartments, which can further breakdown into separate sub-compartments, and finally, numerous projects, can all emerge out from under a single SAP umbrella.
It’s entirely possible for a compartment, sub-compartment, or project not to have access, or even to be aware of the work that’s going on in other sections of the same SAP.
When it comes to the extreme isolation of work, it’s not just about keeping information out of the hands of foreign adversaries. Sometimes components are cordoned off from each other because you may have two different contract partners from the same industry working on different aspects of a SAP. In essence, caution must also be taken to ensure industrial partners don’t “borrow” each other’s trade secrets.