CIA Expands Operational File Secrecy

04.19.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Central Intelligence Agency conducted a review of its “operational files” last year, as it is required to do every ten years under the CIA Information Act of 1984, to see if any such files could have their “operational” designation rescinded, making them subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

But instead of removing any files from operational status, as contemplated by the 1984 Act, the CIA added nearly two dozen new categories of files that will now be exempt from search and review under the FOIA, according to a newly disclosed report to Congress.

Remarkably, the CIA report to Congress misstated the requirements of the 1984 law. The CIA told Congress that:

“The CIA Information Act… required that not less than once every ten years, the DCI review the operational files exemptions then in force to determine whether such exemptions could be removed from any category of exempted files or portion of those files, and whether any new categories of files should be designated as exempt.”

Only the first half of that sentence is true.

The statute that governs these reviews — 50 U.S.C. 432 — refers only to the removal of the operational file exemption based on “historical value or other public interest.” It says nothing about adding new designations.

Having misstated the law, CIA proceeded to implement its own misrepresentation.

The Agency did not remove any operational file exemptions at all. Instead, it added twenty three new file category exemptions.

The CIA has the legal authority under the 1984 CIA Information Act to create new operational file designations at any time. But that is not the purpose of the decennial reviews, which were established by Congress specifically to correct and curtail prior designations that were no longer necessary or appropriate.

In this case, the corrective mechanism designed by Congress was defeated by CIA.

The Report of the Second Decennial Review of CIA Operational File Exemptions was transmitted to Congress on June 28, 2005. It was publicly released this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act appeal from the Federation of American Scientists.

In the first decennial review in 1995, the operational file exemption was removed from four file categories and they were opened to FOIA requests. See the report of the first decennial review here.

If rigid and arbitrary secrecy were preconditions for a superior intelligence product, then advocates of greater openness would confront a dilemma. But we know that is not the case.

CIA secrecy policy as it exists today is not a sign of vigor but of decay.

In the latest sign of institutional turmoil at the Agency, the editor of the somewhat respected CIA journal Studies in Intelligence has resigned, and so has the chairman of its Editorial Board.

“The most chilling aspect is that there are newly established editorial hurdles at the journal. Merit is no longer the sole criterion governing publication,” wrote Max Holland, a sometime contributor to Studies.

He reported on the resignations in a new article in Washington Spectator, “Lessons Not Learned,” April 15.