Secrecy News

An Outgoing Wave of Disclosure

In the final days and weeks of the Obama Administration, intelligence officials took steps to promote increased transparency and made several noteworthy disclosures of intelligence policy records.

On January 9, DNI James Clapper signed a new version of Intelligence Community Directive 208, now titled “Maximizing the Utility of Analytic Products.” The revised directive notably incorporates new instructions to include transparency as a consideration in preparing intelligence analyses.

Thus, one way of “maximizing utility,” the directive said, is to “Demonstrate Transparency”:

“Analytic products should follow the Principles of Intelligence Transparency for the Intelligence Community, which are intended to facilitate IC decisions on making information publicly available in a manner that enhances public understanding of intelligence activities, while continuing to protect information, including sources and methods, when disclosure would harm national security. The degree to which transparency will be applied depends upon the nature and type of the analytic product.”

Interestingly, the revised directive was issued without any public notice or press release. Though unclassified and published online, it appears to be genuinely inner-directed rather than a mere public relations gesture.

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The Central Intelligence Agency posted more than 12 million declassified pages (930,000 documents) from its CREST archive on the CIA website. The CREST (CIA Records Search Tool) database had previously been accessible only to those researchers who visited the National Archives in person.

By making the records broadly available online, their utility and the benefits of their declassification are multiplied many times over.

Release of the CREST database had been sought by researchers and advocates for many years. It was advocated internally by the CIA Historical Review Panel and the Panel’s chair, Prof. Robert Jervis. It was recently the subject of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Muckrock news site.

Joseph Lambert, CIA Director of Information Management, said that online access to CREST recently became possible only after technical limitations on the CIA website were “dissolved.” He said that the quality of the online search engine would not be inferior to that on the original CREST system.

One experienced researcher disputed that. Based on an initial survey, “I think it is safe to say that the level of functionality for searching is less than CREST,” the researcher said. From his perspective, “the losses are very significant.” A detailed comparison was not immediately available.

In any case, Mr. Lambert said that newly declassified records, and less redacted versions of previously redacted records, would be periodically added to the online collection.

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Also last week, the CIA released updated guidelines for the collection, retention and dissemination of U.S. person information. The Agency also posted declassified documents concerning its interrogation program, released in response to FOIA litigation by the ACLU.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an updated report on counterterrorism strikes outside of areas of active hostilities, a report on equal opportunity and diversity in the Intelligence Community, and a paper on the Domestic Approach to National Intelligence describing the organization of U.S. intelligence. ODNI published the remainder of the captured bin Laden documents that have been declassified, the third annual SIGINT progress report, and three semi-annual reports on compliance with Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

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With the exception of records released in response to litigation or legislation, these moves and these disclosures were voluntary. They seem to represent a realization that increased transparency, though occasionally awkward in the short term, serves the long-term interests of U.S. intelligence.

“Today, whether you are a U.S. citizen or a non-U.S. citizen abroad, you now have more confidence about what the United States does and does not do with regard to signals intelligence collection because of steps this Administration has taken to provide an unprecedented level of transparency regarding these activities,” according to an Obama Administration report on privacy that was briefly published on the White House web site last week.

This posture of increased transparency, if not these specific disclosures, can be easily reversed or abandoned. But an infrastructure of disclosure has been established, along with a pattern of releases, that will generate expectations for the future and a certain momentum that may yet be sustained and developed.