Spy agency steps into the public eye

CIA Director Leon Panetta has given a series of public speeches on national security priorities. CIA Director Leon Panetta has given a series of public speeches on national security priorities. AP file photo

In April 2010, some of the most secretive professionals in government launched their contribution to the Obama administration's transparency campaign. CIA officials released their open government plan on the agency's website, "mindful," as it states, "that continued public support for CIA is very much dependent upon public understanding of its mission and activities."

The multipronged action plan includes proactive declassification of historical documents, slick new publications, public speaking engagements by leaders, daily responses to media and citizen inquiries, symposia in cooperation with academia, stepped-up collaboration with other agencies, and encouragement of online feedback from the public.

It's a far cry from the Cold War days when the Kennedy administration demanded the removal of roadside signs indicating the spy agency's mere presence behind the trees of Langley, Va.

While past CIA directors such as Allen Dulles and William Colby largely avoided the limelight, Leon Panetta in his first two years as agency head has given a series of public speeches on national security priorities including counterterrorism and counter- proliferation. He also has appealed for greater hiring diversity at the CIA in speeches to Hispanic, Asian and Muslim groups.

This is not your father's CIA.

New data suggest that for the average American, some of the Central Intelligence Agency's spookiness is dissipating. In 2010, the CIA averaged 4 million visits a month to its website. The most popular features are World Factbook, a compilation of economic and political data on 267 world entities, a Freedom of Information Act electronic reading room and resource materials for job seekers. The agency attracted tens of thousands of e-mails, faxes, letters and phone calls, and produced thousands of historical publications. Subscriptions to its RSS feeds grew by 10 percent per quarter, topping out at 255,000. The site even includes a kids page.

At today's CIA, the public affairs office routinely staffs booths on the National Mall during Public Service Recognition Week and on McLean Day near its headquarters to maintain good relations with its neighbors. And at the Smithsonian Institution in 2010, CIA historians and retired operatives offered the public the first-ever six-part course on the agency's history-including acknowledgments of which once-mysterious covert actions succeeded and which failed.

Perhaps the trickiest component to manage in the open government effort is the ongoing declassification of documents. It is a task CIA officials take to heart. "Many here believe that we hold these records in trust for the American people, and that when the sensitivity of this information attenuates over time, they should be released so that people can judge for themselves the effectiveness of the agency and their government," says Joe Lambert, director of information management services. "Deciding when a secret is no longer a secret is a very difficult job."

In fact, adds Scott, a CIA colleague who declines to publish his full name and title, "it's the hardest thing in government."

In the February issue of Government Executive, Charles S. Clark looks at the issue of transparency at the CIA. Click here to read the full story.

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