Secrecy News

CIA: Cost of Personal Computer in 1987 is a Secret

Updated below

Under the prevailing information policies of the Central Intelligence Agency, even some well-known public facts, such as the price of a popular personal computer, may be withheld from public disclosure.

“We bought our first Commodore Amiga in 1987 for less than [price redacted] including software,” according to a paper entitled “NPIC, Amiga, and Videotape” from the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence. It was among hundreds of papers posted online this month in response to a FOIA lawsuit brought by Jeffrey Scudder.

The redacted Amiga price figure is marked “(b)(3)(c)”, signifying that the information is being withheld under The CIA Act of 1949, by which CIA may withhold information about the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency.

But is the cost of a publicly available consumer item like the Commodore Amiga computer properly subject to this exemption? A CIA information management official did not respond to an inquiry on the subject from Secrecy News.

Based on previous official statements, however, the CIA would likely say that even if the cost of the Commodore Amiga in 1987 is not intrinsically sensitive, the fact that CIA expended that amount makes it so.

Moreover, CIA seems to have adopted a declassification rule dictating that all of its expenditures, no matter how trivial, shall be withheld from disclosure, except in extraordinary cases (or the occasional mistake). The Agency might go on to argue that such a rule actually facilitates disclosure by expediting the declassification review process. That’s because instead of needing to pause to consider the potential ramifications of any individual spending disclosure, the Agency can proceed more quickly by simply withholding all such figures.

However, by adopting such sweeping non-disclosure practices, the CIA inevitably withholds more information than it should. And it lacks a reliable mechanism for correcting errors and excesses.

This has been a longstanding problem when it comes to withholding information concerning “intelligence sources and methods,” as authorized and required by the National Security Act [a FOIA exemption designated “(b)(3)(n)” in CIA’s internal notation].

The 1997 Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the Moynihan Commission) said that the “sources and methods” justification for secrecy had been invoked too broadly and required clarification.

“Neither the National Security Act nor any of the relevant executive orders has defined what constitutes a ‘source’ or a ‘method,’ and the use of these provisions has been the subject of frequent criticism. Protection of sources and methods has been used to justify the classification of a range of information sometimes only indirectly related to a specific source or method,” the Moynihan Commission said (in Chapter 2 of its Report).

“In practice, the sources and methods rationale [for withholding information] has become a vehicle for agencies to automatically keep information secret without engaging in the type of harm analysis required by executive orders as a prerequisite to keeping other kinds of information secret. The statutory requirement that sources and methods be protected thus appears at times to have been applied not in a thoughtful way but almost by rote,” the Commission said (in Chapter 3).

But no action was taken on the Commission’s critique, and 15 years later the Public Interest Declassification Board still found reason to recommend that “The specific protections afforded intelligence sources and methods need to be precisely defined and distinguished.” So far, the Board’s 2012 recommendation to clarify the parameters of the National Security Act on this point has also gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, based on CIA’s promiscuous use of its withholding authorities as evidenced in the newly posted Studies in Intelligence papers, similar remedial action seems to be required with respect to the CIA Act as well.

And what was the cost of the Commodore Amiga in 1987 that CIA believes is exempt from disclosure today?

According to an online history, the Amiga 500 cost $699 in 1987, while the high end Amiga 2000 (with 1 MB RAM and a monitor) cost $2395.

Update: A CIA official said on October 1 that the redaction of the cost of the Amiga was an error, and that it would be corrected.

Update 2: The paper has been re-posted by CIA with cost figures restored here.