CIA Bungles Declassification of Official Histories

12.06.07 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

When the Central Intelligence Agency released several declassified histories of its clandestine services program this week, it seemed like a solid indication of progress towards opening up the historical record of U.S. intelligence.

But upon closer inspection of the newly released documents, the opposite appears to be closer to the truth. It turns out that CIA has engaged in pointless multiple reviews of the same document, and has even attempted to classify and to withhold information that had previously been declassified and disclosed.

Today, the Federation of American Scientists asked the Information Security Oversight Office (pdf) to investigate the matter.

The 1961 “Record of Paramilitary Action Against the Castro Government of Cuba” (pdf) that was posted on the CIA web site this week was first processed for declassification in 1997 in response to a request from Peter Kornbluh, the Cuba expert at the National Security Archive, and the lightly redacted document was posted on the Archive web site in 1998.

In 2007, the same document was again subjected to declassification review. It was re-scanned by CIA reviewers and this time the redactions were made by whiting out the text instead of blacking it out as had been done ten years ago. But appearances aside, a comparison of the two documents indicates that no new information was released since 1997.

In other words, despite the CIA’s expenditure of scarce declassification resources to process the document twice, no value was added by doing so.

Even more problematic is the Agency’s handling of the declassified history of “The Berlin Tunnel Operation, 1952-1956” (pdf), because the CIA attempted to withhold portions of that report as classified even though they had previously been released.

The Berlin Tunnel history has been reviewed several times for declassification. The latest version that was released by the CIA this week was “approved for release” in July 2007. Another version of the same document was previously “approved for release” in February 2007.

Astonishingly, much of the text that was released in February is marked as classified in the July version!

So, for example, the codename of the Berlin Tunnel Operation — PBJOINTLY — was published in the February edition of the history (at page i), but censored in the July edition that was released this week.

More substantively, a fifteen page appendix (App. A) entitled “Discovery by the Soviets of PBJOINTLY” was published in full in February but was almost entirely redacted in July.

Likewise, a six page appendix (App. B) entitled “Recapitulation of the Intelligence Derived” was published in full in February but redacted in July. And there are many other examples of such attempted reclassifications scattered throughout.

A copy of the more complete February 2007 version is posted here.

And for comparison, the more recent but less revealing July 2007 version is here.

“For the CIA to represent the material that was newly redacted in July 2007 as classified when in fact it has been declassified and published by the CIA itself is, I believe, a violation of the executive order,” I wrote in a letter to the Information Security Oversight Office today. “It generates confusion and suggests poor quality control, if not something worse.”

“I hope that ISOO may be able to help clarify the source of CIA’s defective declassification practice in this instance and to identify an appropriate corrective.”

“We’ll look into it,” replied Bill Leonard, the ISOO Director.