from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 37
April 20, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:


The Central Intelligence Agency announced yesterday that it had declassified six World War I-era documents describing the use of "invisible ink" to convey secret messages. The CIA presented the new disclosure as an indication that the declassification process was functioning properly, not that it was dysfunctional.

"These documents remained classified for nearly a century until recent advancements in technology made it possible to release them," CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said in a news release. "When historical information is no longer sensitive, we take seriously our responsibility to share it with the American people."

"The CIA recognizes the importance of opening these historical documents to the public," added Joseph Lambert, the Agency's Director of Information Management Services. "In fiscal year 2010 alone, the Agency declassified and released over 1.1 million pages of documents."

But there are a few things the CIA news release did not say.

These World War I documents remained classified not because they were forgotten or overlooked, but because the CIA had vigorously opposed their release. In response to a 1998 FOIA lawsuit brought by the James Madison Project, the CIA argued that "some of the methods described in the documents in question are still used by the CIA, and that third parties inimical to the interests of the United States may not know which of the [invisible ink] formulas are still considered reliable by the CIA and approved for use by its agents." In 2002, a federal court accepted that argument and ruled in favor of the CIA, affirming the secrecy of the documents.

It is unknown what "recent advancements in technology," if any, might have occurred between 2002 and the present to compel a complete reversal in CIA's view on declassification of these records.

An alternate explanation for the new release is that the records were subject to a pending mandatory declassification review (MDR) request by attorneys Mark Zaid and Kel McClanahan. If CIA had continued to deny disclosure of the documents, that request could have been referred to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which has been known to view extreme secrecy claims with skepticism, and often to overturn them.

Also, if the CIA were to faithfully comply with the President's executive order on classification -- which not all executive agencies do -- then it would have been obliged to release these documents (and all other records older than 75 years) by mid-2013 unless it requested and received special permission from the Interagency Panel.

There is no glass that is small enough to be made "half full" by the CIA's new disclosures. But the latest release may still be viewed charitably, said William J. Bosanko, executive for agency services at the National Archives and former director of the Information Security Oversight Office.

"I see this as a sign the sick system is starting to get well," Mr. Bosanko said. He added cheerfully that there are "lots of chances to make things better."

In the early 1990s, the massive backlog of classified historical attention was just beginning to come to broad public attention. In those days, the scale and persistence of official secrecy often elicited embarrassment from government officials.

"Obviously it seems absurd on the surface," said then-ISOO director Steven Garfinkel, referring to the fact that a World War I document was discovered to be still classified. That document, dated April 15, 1917, had been "the oldest classified document" until it was finally declassified and released in 1992 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists. It is a substantive, lively and quite interesting account of "the intelligence system necessary in case U.S. troops are ordered to the continent."

"Within the next decade there's going to be a need for a complete re-examination of the issue of secrecy," Mr. Garfinkel told Tim Weiner of Knight-Ridder Newspapers in December 1991. "The secrecy issue is a Cold War issue and the world is changing."


The Department of State is not fulfilling its obligation to produce a "thorough, reliable, and accurate" account of U.S. foreign policy and there is no foreseeable likelihood that it will do so, an official historical advisory committee told the Secretary of State this month.

The Department's "Foreign Relations of the United States" (FRUS) series is required to fully document the history of U.S. foreign policy no later than 30 years after the fact, but that's not happening.

"No progress has been made toward bringing the [FRUS] series into compliance with the statutory requirement that volumes be published 30 years after the events they document," said the new annual report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation. "Indeed, the 6 volumes published in 2010 did not even meet the target set by the [State Department Historian's] Office in 2009."

Among other obstacles, "the CIA's resistance to declassifying documents that are already in the public domain presents a severe challenge," the Committee said.

But CIA is not the only obstacle. "The Departments of Defense, Energy, and Justice (including the FBI) have often been as [culpable] if not more culpable than the CIA for the delays."

"The HAC [Historical Advisory Committee] is pessimistic about [the Historian's Office's] prospects for meeting its statutory obligations if its current performance continues," the new annual report concluded.

"The current records management system does not ensure those records of historical significance are identified in such a way as to promote their timely review for declassification and public release," wrote Adm. William Studeman, former Acting Director of Central Intelligence, in the blog of the Public Interest Declassification Board last week. "There is a great danger that, unless changes are made, our nation will be unable to document these historical decisions for future generations," he said.

Last week, the National Security Archive filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency seeking disclosure of an official CIA history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. "The CIA is holding history hostage," said the Archive's Peter Kornbluh.


Some new or newly updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

"Privacy Protections for Personal Information Online," April 6, 2011:

"Department of Defense Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan: Background and Analysis," March 29, 2011:

"Iran Sanctions," April 4, 2011:

"Asylum and 'Credible Fear' Issues in U.S. Immigration Policy," April 6, 2011:

"The Changing Demographic Profile of the United States," March 31, 2011:

Congress does not permit the public to gain direct access to reports of the Congressional Research Service online.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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