The Central Intelligence Agency announced yesterday that it had declassified six World War I-era documents describing the use of “invisible ink” to convey secret messages. The CIA presented the new disclosure as an indication that the declassification process was functioning properly, not that it was dysfunctional.
“These documents remained classified for nearly a century until recent advancements in technology made it possible to release them,” CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said in a news release. “When historical information is no longer sensitive, we take seriously our responsibility to share it with the American people.”
“The CIA recognizes the importance of opening these historical documents to the public,” added Joseph Lambert, the Agency’s Director of Information Management Services. “In fiscal year 2010 alone, the Agency declassified and released over 1.1 million pages of documents.”
But there are a few things the CIA news release did not say.
These World War I documents remained classified not because they were forgotten or overlooked, but because the CIA had vigorously opposed their release. In response to a 1998 FOIA lawsuit brought by the James Madison Project, the CIA argued that “some of the methods described in the documents in question are still used by the CIA, and that third parties inimical to the interests of the United States may not know which of the [invisible ink] formulas are still considered reliable by the CIA and approved for use by its agents.” In 2002, a federal court accepted that argument and ruled (pdf) in favor of the CIA, affirming the secrecy of the documents.
It is unknown what “recent advancements in technology,” if any, might have occurred between 2002 and the present to compel a complete reversal in CIA’s view on declassification of these records.
An alternate explanation for the new release is that the records were subject to a pending mandatory declassification review (MDR) request by attorneys Mark Zaid and Kel McClanahan. If CIA had continued to deny disclosure of the documents, that request could have been referred to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which has been known to view extreme secrecy claims with skepticism, and often to overturn them. [Update: In fact, the request was appealed to the Panel in December 2010, but it had not yet been acted upon when CIA decided to disclose the requested documents.]
Also, if the CIA were to faithfully comply with the President’s executive order on classification — which not all executive agencies do — then it would have been obliged to release these documents (and all other records older than 75 years) by mid-2013 unless it requested and received special permission from the Interagency Panel.
There is no glass that is small enough to be made “half full” by the CIA’s new disclosures. But the latest release may still be viewed charitably, said William J. Bosanko, executive for agency services at the National Archives and former director of the Information Security Oversight Office.
“I see this as a sign the sick system is starting to get well,” Mr. Bosanko said. He added cheerfully that there are “lots of chances to make things better.”
In the early 1990s, the massive backlog of classified historical attention was just beginning to come to broad public attention. In those days, the scale and persistence of official secrecy often elicited embarrassment from government officials.
“Obviously it seems absurd on the surface,” said then-ISOO director Steven Garfinkel, referring to the fact that a World War I document had just been discovered to still be classified. That document, dated April 15, 1917, had been “the oldest classified document” until it was finally declassified and released in 1992 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists. It is a substantive, lively and quite interesting account (pdf) of “the intelligence system necessary in case U.S. troops are ordered to the continent.”
“Within the next decade there’s going to be a need for a complete re-examination of the issue of secrecy,” Mr. Garfinkel told Tim Weiner of Knight-Ridder Newspapers in December 1991. “The secrecy issue is a Cold War issue and the world is changing.”
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