Open Secrets

The nation's spy agency steps into the public eye, releasing documents and airing candid assessments of past operations.

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The multipronged action plan includes proactive declassification of historical documents, slick new publications, public speaking engagements by leaders, daily responses to media and citizen inquiries, symposia in cooperation with academia,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."

Open Book

The CIA's push for openness comes amid broader transparency trends. The long-held secret of the nation's overall intelligence budget, for example, was revealed for the first time in October 2010. The figure-now at $80.1 billion-was released through prearrangement by Pentagon veteran James Clapper Jr., now director of national intelligence. In the same month, the chief of the CIA's counter-part in the United Kingdom, MI6, gave an unprecedented public speech defending the need for a secret agency in Britain in the face of threatened budget cuts.

The main impetus behind the CIA's initiative is a December 2009 Office of Management and Budget directive on open government that applied to all agencies, even though it gave the CIA some extra "protections," as one administration official puts it. But the new openness at Langley actually has been "going on for at least a decade," Lambert says, citing executive orders mandating declassification during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Lambert ticks off precise numbers of historical classified documents made public, numbers he is required to report to the Justice Department. Since 1995, his office has processed about 130 million pages while responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act and mandatory declassification orders. In fiscal 2009, his team processed 11 million pages. It also received 1,795 FOIA requests and processed 2,042, making up for a backlog. In 2010, the office received 1,942 FOIA requests and processed 1,806.

"The number of requests has grown over time," Lambert says. "The more information we put out, the more requests we get as the public goes through the material." The agency's information management office receives some 4,000 requests for document releases per year, many of them containing multiple inquiries. "If the documents are declassified, then we answer with alacrity," he says. Often, the releases prompt family members of agency employees involved in the historical events to contact the CIA and offer enriching anecdotes.

The proportion of documents that can be released is maximized by the agency's "labor-intensive approach-page by page, line by line," Scott says. That means sensitive words can be redacted but the document as a whole is released, rather than using a pass-fail approach. "That's why we have experienced people looking at each document," he adds, referring to topic specialists from all agency directorates rather than full-time information managers. "They may see things you or I might not see simply going by face value."

Occasionally, there are disagreements over whether a document or section of it should be made public. "It comes down to me to adjudicate those differences," Lambert says. "We're typically able to work it out to all parties' satisfaction."

One offering that's touted in the spy agency's action plan is the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) database, which is available at the National Archives and Records Administration facility in College Park, Md. "Unlike other agencies, we try to make as much material available as possible," Lambert says. "CREST has over 10 million documents and gets good use. We're now seeing it referenced in footnotes in books and articles."

One limitation to CREST, according to Steven Aftergood, a transparency advocate who is a senior research analyst and director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, is it can be accessed only by visiting the College Park reading room in person. "The agency has refused to put the database online, or even to release a copy of it to someone else who would do so," he says. "This policy does not make sense to me. I think it is a sign of bad faith."

Lambert says the agency recognizes the interest in making CREST available online. "But like a lot of organizations, we have things competing for our resources," he notes, adding that mounting documents on a database often requires the expense of converting different formats. "Our intention over time is to make it available on the Internet," he says.

In the meantime, Scott says, researchers using can find CREST's metadata, or titles and dates of documents, that are available in College Park.

CIA officials meet twice a year with a group of noted academics from across the country to help decide which historically significant documents might be suitable for release. That is combined with indicators of what the public is most interested in, Lambert says. "We don't want to spend lots of taxpayer money processing documents that are so replete with classified material that not much comes out at the end," he adds.

Critics of the CIA have long suspected the agency might redact information simply because it casts an employee or operation in a bad light. Not so, according to Lambert. "We only remove information that's classified. It's spelled out in the executive orders that we can't classify something because it's embarrassing. When we look at the past, we don't simply cherry-pick the good things, but provide information on both successes and failures," he says. An example, Lambert says, is the recent release of Korean War papers, marking the 60th anniversary of that stalemated conflict. The CIA produced a booklet of documents, including a much-debated national intelligence estimate from 1950, when the agency was only three years old, informing top U.S. policymakers that the Chinese were unlikely to enter the conflict. China did. The 2010 publication was done in consultation with historical review panels and "culled the entirety of the archive," he says.

Publishing With Fanfare

One of the key components of the CIA's openness plan, the "meat and potatoes, where we spend the most time and resources," says Lambert, is the growing catalog of historical publications. Thousands of citizens have requested and received copies of illustrated booklets (with accompanying DVDs) on the CIA's handling of such turning-point events as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and communist Poland's imposition of martial law in 1981.

The information office works with history staff at the agency's Center for the Study of Intelligence to roll out new releases in high style, often at a presidential library, or an academic conference. Featured at the events are national security luminaries such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. "We use historians frequently to add color and flavor to compelling stories," Lambert says. The agency cooperates with the media to reproduce archival images, and in the case of the Korean War release, even broadcast a news conference on C-SPAN.

The CIA also has stepped up outreach to colleges and universities. Scott points to publication of a paperbound set of raw, primary source documents on Soviet interventions in Latin America from the late 1940s to 1980, which the agency assembled with the National Intelligence Council. "A university can use it as a textbook in a course," he says. "A professor could tell students, 'Here are the real documents the government was looking at during that time; what would you do with them?' "

The agency also posts on its website and distributes hard copies of its unclassified flagship journal Studies in Intelligence. It dispatches CIA historians and analysts to academic and military conferences and to serve stints as "officers in residence" on campuses around the country.

One particularly gratifying publishing event, CIA staffers say, was a symposium releasing documents on Air America in 2009 at the University of Texas at Dallas. Known as the world's most shot-at airline, Air America was a team of search-and-rescue plane and helicopter pilots who served covertly alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam and Laos in the late 1960s and early '70s. The CIA event made for a unique reunion of some 500 Air America veterans who had received little public credit for their feats.

Perhaps a sign of CIA confidence in the openness campaign was the January 2010 re-release (in PDF format) of discomfiting internal documents officials call the "family jewels." They comprise some 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from then-Director James Schlesinger that they report activities that might have violated the agency's charter-domestic wiretapping and assassination attempts on Cuban leader Fidel Castro, for example.

More to Come

An ongoing challenge for a secret agency embracing openness is the need to collaborate with other governmental bodies. Some documents contain what are called equities, or material generated by more than one agency, that complicate a decision on whether to release them. "We get great support from other agencies," Lambert says. And in a post-9/11 world, "positive information sharing is necessary to protect the country."

An annual tally of declassification activity by the CIA and others is reported to the president by the Information Security Oversight Office, a part of the National Archives that is guided by the National Security Council. The Defense Department received the most requests from the public for mandatory declassification review in fiscal 2009-93 percent of the governmentwide total-followed by the National Archives and then the CIA. The CIA's rate of declassification per request for the past two years is 31 percent, only half the governmentwide average of 61 percent. But the oversight office gives CIA credit for its advanced capabilities in electronic declassification.

Open government groups are tracking the CIA's moves with a dose of skepticism. Amy Bennett, a program associate at, notes her organization's latest federal transparency audit included the CIA's plan among several that are works in progress. "We commend the CIA for producing a plan," she says, "but we felt it did not include enough substance to fairly evaluate it."

She says the CIA plan does a "fine job of making commitments" to release information and engage the public. But it falls short in such areas as identifying who should receive the releases, how best to provide it, and how to "embed openness into the way the agency does business," Bennett says. "The CIA's plan-and results-would be greatly improved by going through a more thorough planning process," she adds.

Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists is harsher. "In response to the administration's openness initiative, CIA has emphasized the declassification and release of historical documents, not current ones," he says. "Yet even in that limited domain, its response so far is not as impressive as one might hope."

CIA officials decline to respond directly. But they note the new declassification center Obama ordered at the Archives will require CIA's collaboration with other agencies to process hundreds of millions of classified documents by the end of 2013.

"Once information is out, it's very difficult to get it back," says Lambert. "That's one reason we take this job so seriously, and put in time and effort to review the material to ensure it will not damage national security."

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