CIA Reviews “Operational Files” Exemptions from FOIA

The CIA Information Act of 1984 authorizes the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to designate certain Agency records as “operational files.” Doing so makes them exempt not only from disclosure, but even from search and review under the Freedom of Information Act.

The 1984 Act also requires the Agency to perform a “decennial review” at least every ten years in order to determine whether any of the designated operational files exemptions can be rescinded, so that the affected files would become subject to a regular FOIA search and review.

The third such decennial review is now underway.

The CIA is soliciting public comments to help identify categories of Agency records that are of particular historical or public interest value and that have been exempted from normal processing under the FOIA as operational files. Comments are due on May 1, the CIA said in an April 20 Federal Register notice.

The first decennial review of the operational files exemption, completed in 1995, led to the opening of four file categories to FOIA search and review.  The second decennial review, completed in 2005, yielded no newly opened file series but did lead to the designation and exemption of 23 new operational file categories. This was an outcome not contemplated in the statute (50 USC 3141(g)), which says nothing about using the decennial review to create new exempted categories. (Secrecy News, April 19, 2006).

In comments submitted to the CIA today, the Federation of American Scientists offered several suggestions for consideration in the current decennial review, including these:

*    The operational files exemption should not be applied to any records that are 25 years old or older.

*    Clandestine service history records and records of imagery analysis should be removed from the operational files category.

*    Files pertaining to civilian casualties of CIA operations (including covert actions) should not be exempted from regular FOIA processing, nor should records of CIA interrogation and detention practices be considered exempted operational records.

Justice Dept Updates its FOIA Regulations

The Department of Justice last week published newly updated regulations on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, with several notable changes made in response to public comments.

Fifteen sets of comments were submitted by individual members of the public or public interest organizations after the Department released its draft FOIA regulations in 2011. In a lengthy Federal Register notice on April 3, the Department addressed all of the comments, and actually adopted a number of the changes recommended by public commenters.

Among the changes that were approved:

*    The revised regulations explicitly include news organizations that operate solely on the Internet as “representatives of the news media,” making them exempt from search fees.

*    “The revised fee schedule includes a decrease in duplication fees due to advances in technology.”

*    The revision adds language specifying that “in responding to requests for classified information, the component [of DoJ to which the request is addressed] must determine whether the information remains currently and properly classified.”

Some other new provisions should make it easier to use the FOIA, including a procedure for consulting with the Department’s FOIA Public Liaison in advance of making a request. The revised regs also incorporate a statement of policy that would “encourage discretionary releases of information whenever disclosure would not foreseeably harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption.”

It nevertheless remains true that in order to take full advantage of the tools provided by the Freedom of Information Act, it is often necessary for requesters to litigate over information that is withheld or denied.

According to The FOIA Project, there were 422 Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed in federal district court last year, up from 372 the year before and 342 the year before that.

FOIA Reform Legislation, and More from CRS

Two companion bills pending in the House and Senate would amend the Freedom of Information Act “for the purpose of increasing public access,” a new analysis of the legislation from the Congressional Research Service explains.

Among other things, “both the House and Senate legislation would establish a statutory ‘presumption of openness,’ whereby information may only be withheld if it harms an interest protected by a statutory exemption or if disclosure is prohibited by law.”

While both bills “address a number similar topics, often in similar ways, there are substantive differences between them.” The similarities and the differences in the pending bills are summarized in the new CRS report. See Freedom of Information Act Legislation in the 114th Congress: Issue Summary and Side-by-Side Analysis, February 26, 2015.

Other new or updated CRS publications that Congress has withheld from online public disclosure include the following.

Email Privacy: District Court Rules that ECPA Warrants Apply to Electronic Communications Stored Overseas, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 4, 2015

U.S. Periods of War and Dates of Current Conflicts, February 27, 2015

Military Service Records and Unit Histories: A Guide to Locating Sources, February 27, 2015

The Nunn-McCurdy Act: Background, Analysis, and Issues for Congress, March 3, 2015

Growth in Health Spending Remained Relatively Low in 2013, CRS Insights, February 27, 2015

Legislative Actions to Repeal, Defund, or Delay the Affordable Care Act, March 2, 2015

Implementing the Affordable Care Act: Delays, Extensions, and Other Actions Taken by the Administration, March 3, 2015

Foreign Heads of State Addressing Congress, CRS Insights, February 27, 2015

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, February 27, 2015

Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations, March 3, 2015

Cuba: Issues for the 114th Congress, February 27, 2015

Locate an Agency or Program Within Appropriations Bills, February 27, 2015

The EMV Chip Card Transition: Background, Status, and Issues for Congress, February 26, 2015

Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Statistics and Programs, February 26, 2015

Genetic Testing: Background and Policy Issues, March 2, 2015


New Literature on Secrecy

National security secrecy, which remains a source of conflict and consternation, inspires a steady flow of books and journal articles. As in other policy-related fields, much of this literature is tendentious, derivative or dull. Some of it is insightful, original or usefully provocative.

Most works naturally occupy a middle ground including both virtues and defects. Two highly original works on secrecy in recent years — Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Secrecy: The American Experience and Garry Wills’ Bomb Power — also have significant conceptual flaws and factual errors. That is to say, it is hard to write a good book about secrecy.

With that in mind, here are some notable recent additions to the literature.

**     Secrecy in the Sunshine Era: The Promise and Failure of U.S. Open Government Laws by Jason Ross Arnold (University Press of Kansas, 542 pages, 2014).

This is a study of the impact of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act. It presents a survey of how these open government laws were implemented through successive administrations and how they were sometimes circumvented.

“The sunshine laws of the 1970s substantially revised the way information flowed through the American political system,” writes Arnold. “It is hard to deny that the new legal framework placed serious constraints on executive branch officials.”

Nevertheless, “excessive secrecy still reigned in the sunshine era,” he concludes. “All administrations did what they could… to twist around the statutes when they deemed it necessary. All diverged from their own pro-transparency rhetoric and rules.”

**     A Proposal to Reduce Government Overclassification of Information Related to National Security by Herbert Lin, Journal of National Security Law & Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2014.

This article focuses on the perennial problem of overclassification and proposes a solution. It would seek to alter the incentives that currently favor (over)classification by establishing new incentives to reduce classification.

“Classification should not be a free good,” Lin writes. He defines a classification cost metric that would reflect the relative importance of different classified documents, and that would make it possible to “budget” for classification.

Through the application of appropriate incentives, “Those who actually make decisions about classification should benefit from reductions in the amount of classified information produced.”

The author anticipates several objections to his idea, and offers responses to them.

**     Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare by Scott Horton (Nation Books, 272 pages, 2015).

Sometimes secrecy is not simply an annoying artifact of national security bureaucracy, but is itself a weapon in the struggle for power. The use of secrecy in this way is corrosive and has now become disabling to American democracy, according to author Scott Horton.

While most national security attention is focused on threats from abroad, Horton says “the more serious threats to American democracy are internal. They stem from a steady transfer of democratic decision making and authority away from the people and to unelected elites. This has occurred both with respect to the disproportionate grasp of power by wealthy super elites, and by the rise of national security elites who increasingly take the key decisions about national security matters without involving the people in any meaningfully democratic process.”

“More effectively than before, they use secrecy not only to cover up their past mistakes but also to wrest from the public decisions about the future that properly belong to the people.”

CIA Posts Hundreds of Declassified Journal Articles

The Central Intelligence Agency has posted hundreds of declassified and unclassified articles from its in-house journal Studies in Intelligence, in an effort to settle a lawsuit brought by a former employee, Jeffrey Scudder. Until lately, the CIA had resisted release of the requested articles in softcopy format (Secrecy News, March 17), but the Agency eventually relented.

“Of the 419 documents that remain in dispute in Scudder, the CIA has produced 249 in full or in part by putting them up on the CIA website,” the government informed Mr. Scudder’s attorney, Mark S. Zaid, this week. They are posted here. [Update: The preceding link is dead. CIA has integrated the Scudder release into this larger collection of declassified Studies articles].

The newly posted articles cover a wide range of topics, and vary considerably in substance and originality. The CIA said that 170 other articles sought by Scudder had been withheld in full.

Jeffrey Scudder was profiled recently in the Washington Post (CIA employee’s quest to release information ‘destroyed my entire career’ by Greg Miller, July 4, 2014).

CIA Seeks More Time to Declassify Interrogation Documents

The Central Intelligence Agency today asked a court to allow more time to declassify its response to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) activities, which itself is undergoing a time-consuming declassification review.

“This complex process requires the careful review of over 500 pages of highly classified material. In addition, sufficient time must be allowed not only for coordination with other agencies, but — after completion of declassification review — for implementation of security measures to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel and facilities overseas,” according to a May 15 motion filed by the government in a FOIA lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

“Due to the fluid nature of this process, aspects of which are beyond the CIA’s control, the Agency does not yet have a firm date by which it can complete the processing of the CIA Response [to the SSCI report] and the so-called Panetta Report, although it hopes the declassification review and accompanying processing of those documents can be completed this summer.”

The CIA therefore requested an extension of time to respond, to which the ACLU plaintiffs did not consent.

With respect to the Senate Intelligence Committee report itself, the government promised an “expeditious” declassification review of the executive summary, findings, and conclusions.

“While all declassification decisions are guided by the need to protect national security interests, the President has expressed a clear intent to declassify as much of the executive summary, findings, and conclusions of the SSCI Report as possible, and intends the declassification process to be expeditious,” the government motion said.

According to an April 18 letter from then-White House counsel Katherine Ruemmler, appended to the new motion, “The President supports making public the Committee’s important review of the historical RDI program, as he believes that public scrutiny and debate will help to inform the public understanding of the program and to ensure that such a program will not be contemplated by a future administration.

ODNI Seeks to Obscure CIA Role in Human Intelligence

Updated below

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is attempting to conceal unclassified information about the structure and function of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the leading role of the Central Intelligence Agency in collecting human intelligence.

Last month, ODNI issued a heavily redacted version of its Intelligence Community Directive 304 on “Human Intelligence.” The redacted document was produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Robert Sesek, and posted on ScribD.

The new redactions come as a surprise because most of the censored text had already been published by ODNI itself in an earlier iteration of the same unclassified Directive from 2008. That document has since been removed from the ODNI website but it is preserved on the FAS website here.

Meanwhile, the current version of the Directive — without any redactions — is also available in the public domain, despite the attempt to suppress it. (Thanks to Jeffrey Richelson for the pointer.)

A comparison of the redacted and unredacted versions shows that ODNI is now seeking to withhold the fact that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency functions as the National HUMINT Manager, among other things.

ODNI also censored the statement that the Central Intelligence Agency “Collects, analyzes, produces, and disseminates foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, including information obtained through clandestine means.”

Among intelligence agencies, in my experience, ODNI is usually the most responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests, while CIA leads the competition to be the least helpful and cooperative. In this case, it appears that CIA’s pattern of defiance overcame ODNI’s better judgment.

Update, May 8, 2014: The redactions to ICD 304 were a mistake, an ODNI official said. The full, unredacted text of the Directive was posted May 6 on the ODNI website.

CIA Agrees to Provide Softcopy Records to Requester

After the Central Intelligence Agency refused to release records requested under the Freedom of Information Act in softcopy format, requester Jeffrey Scudder filed a lawsuit against the Agency demanding that it comply, and he received a rather sympathetic hearing from the judge. (CIA’s Refusal to Release Softcopy Records Challenged in Court, Secrecy News, March 17, 2004).

Yesterday the parties to the dispute reported that they found “a creative solution… that will render the issue moot.”

“Defendant [CIA] has agreed to provide the 419 records that Plaintiff has requested in an electronic format by putting PDF copies of the requested records on its website,” where they can be downloaded at will. CIA will also refund the charges it demanded for printing out the electronic documents.

While this seems like a satisfactory solution for requester Scudder, it leaves the underlying problem, which is also faced by other requesters, unresolved.

CIA’s Refusal to Release Softcopy Records Challenged in Court

Even when the Central Intelligence Agency possesses a releasable document in a softcopy format, the Agency typically refuses to release the softcopy version in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, and insists on providing a hardcopy version of the document instead.

A federal judge said last week that that may be a violation of law.

The issue arose in a FOIA lawsuit seeking electronic copies of 419 articles from the in-house CIA journal Studies in Intelligence. The lawsuit was brought by Jeffrey Scudder, an information technology specialist who has worked in the intelligence community for 23 years.

Mr. Scudder told the court that he has detailed knowledge of CIA information systems and capabilities. In his FOIA requests, he was able to inform the CIA FOIA staff “as to where within the [CIA] computer systems the electronically stored documents [that he is requesting] are located.”

However, CIA refused to release the documents in the requested electronic format. Instead, the Agency proposed to print them out and to release them only in hard copy, ostensibly for security reasons. But this practice may be inconsistent with the requirements of the FOIA.

“Congress anticipated that recalcitrant agencies would resist being responsive to requesters’ format choices,” wrote Judge Beryl A. Howell of the DC District Court last week, and so Congress required agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate requesters’ preferences.

“Where, as here, an agency asserts nearly twenty years after the passage of the E-FOIA Amendments that it cannot provide any electronic formats because of a lengthy process the agency has created, a court is required by the FOIA to evaluate that process to determine if it meets the statutorily mandated ‘reasonable efforts’ standard.”

“The defendant [CIA] avers that if it were ordered to honor the plaintiff’s [FOIA] request [for soft copy records], it would have to print the existing electronic documents to paper and then rescan them into electronic documents so that they may be reproduced and released on removable media,” Judge Howell summarized.

In fact, she wrote in her March 12 opinion, “Under this Rube-Goldbergian process, the same document, even if unclassified, must be printed from the defendant’s classified system in paper form at least twice…, and rescanned into the same classified system at least twice….”

Not only that, but CIA would charge the requester extra for its trouble. “As a result of this process, the defendant [CIA] asserts that the cost of electronic production to the plaintiff would be higher than that of producing the records in paper format, since the defendant would incur all of the costs associated with the paper production as well as the additional costs of re-scanning the printed responsive records, and the cost of any removable media provided to the plaintiff.”

But all of that is ridiculous, said Mr. Scudder, who contended that CIA is attempting to “frustrate [the] core purpose [of the FOIA] through administrative gimmicks designed to impose unreasonable financial burdens upon requesters.”

“The only reason CIA does not produce electronic versions of documents responsive to FOIA requests is that they choose not to do so,” said attorney Mark S. Zaid, who represents Mr. Scudder. “There is no technical reason to prevent it.”

Crucially, Judge Howell determined that “A FOIA request for records in an existing format should not be frustrated due to the agency’s decision to adopt a production process that nonetheless renders release in that format highly burdensome.”

Judge Howell found that CIA’s understanding of its legal obligations and of the role of the Court was “incorrect” in various respects, and she concluded that several of its factual assertions were materially disputed.

“The plaintiff [Mr. Scudder] has, for example, alleged that he has personally used the defendant’s classified system to create a PDF file, something the defendant has stated is impossible,” Judge Howell noted.

In view of the unresolved factual disputes, and considering that “both parties allege bad faith on the part of the other,” Judge Howell refused to grant summary judgment to either side.

Instead, she granted Mr. Scudder’s motion for discovery, and the case will proceed to trial.

While the substance of the case concerns CIA’s information and FOIA practices, the Department of Justice that made its own independent decision to defend CIA’s handling of the Scudder FOIA request.  The skeptical comments voiced by Judge Howell may be understood as an implicit criticism of that Justice Department decision.

This week is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government values. As it happens, however, the federal government is closed today due to snow.

Assessing the Intelligence Implications of Virtual Worlds

Digitally-based virtual worlds and online games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft represent a qualitatively new phenomenon that could have profound impacts on culture, politics and national security, according to a newly disclosed report  (large pdf) prepared in 2008 for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“This technology has the potential to be an agent for transformational change in our society, our economy, and our efforts to safeguard the homeland,” the report stated. “If virtual world technology enters the mainstream, criminals and US adversaries will find a way to exploit this technology for illegal and errant behavior.”

The study was conducted as part of the 2008 ODNI SHARP (Summer Hard Problem) program and was just released under the Freedom of Information Act in redacted (and partially illegible) form. Though sponsored by ODNI, it was prepared by a mix of governmental and non-governmental authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. intelligence community. See “3D Cyberspace Spillover: Where Virtual Worlds Get Real,” July 2008.

Around the same time (2007-2009), U.S. intelligence personnel were actually exploring online games and gathering information on their users, according to classified documents released by Edward Snowden and reported in the New York Times last month.  See “Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games” by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott, New York Times, December 9, 2013.

The authors of the ODNI-sponsored report acknowledged that the empirical basis for their inquiry was thin.

“Much of the information in the public domain about the alleged terrorist exploitation of virtual worlds has been speculative rather than based upon substantive evidence. Although there is reliable information available concerning extremist and terrorist exploitation of the internet, for example Web 1.0, the same cannot be said of virtual world or Web 2.0.”

“As of this report, there is little evidence that militant Islamist and jihadist groups have begun extensively exploiting the opportunities presented by virtual worlds.”

“However, given that the more sophisticated groups of this type, including al-Qa’ida, have exploited the internet in very refined ways, they will likely soon seek to exploit newer virtual world technologies for recruiting, raising and transferring funds, training new recruits, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and planning attacks by using virtual representations of prospective targets.”

Fancifully, the authors envision the creation of a virtual Usama bin Ladin carrying out his mission for centuries to come.

“Imagine that jihadist supporters create a detailed avatar of Usama bin Ladin and use his many voice recordings to animate the avatar for up-close virtual reality experiences that could be used to preach, convert, recruit, and propagate dogma to the media.”

“The Bin Ladin avatar could preach and issue new fatwas for hundreds of years to come, as the fidelity of his likeness would be entirely believable and animated in new ways to keep him current and fresh.” (p. 72)

The report includes various incidental observations of interest. It notes, for example, that “In many ways, South Korea is the world leader in adopting new technologies” including online games.

But it also reaches far afield, including references to Barbie Girls (“a quickly growing virtual world,” though now closed) and Club Penguin (“over 12 million active users,” now over 200 million, but most of whom are probably under ten years old) (p. 82).

“The growing number of global users, in conjunction with ongoing technological changes, will likely increase the difficulty that the Intelligence Community (IC) will encounter in its efforts to monitor the virtual realm,” said the study, which was classified at the Confidential level. “Accordingly, outreach programs that enlist users as educated observers and reporters will be required to survey current and emerging systems more effectively.”