from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
December 21, 2000


The Federation of American Scientists yesterday asked the CIA Inspector General to initiate an investigation of classification policy and practice at the Agency after CIA officials claimed that all historical intelligence budget information from the earliest days of the cold war through 1970 is properly classified today.

In 1997 and 1998, the CIA declassified the intelligence budget totals for those years (under pressure of litigation). But last week CIA officials said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that the same information from several decades earlier could cause damage to national security and must remain classified.

The latest CIA claim "is so far outside the bounds of reasonable disagreement over information disclosure policy that it appears to constitute official misconduct," FAS wrote in a December 20 letter to CIA Inspector General L. Britt Snider.

"If the CIA personnel involved here are not dishonest, then they actually believe that 50 year old budget data could damage national security -- in which case they are dangerously incompetent. No one who holds such an opinion should be permitted to serve the nation in an official intelligence capacity."

"When CIA uses transparently false claims to obstruct good faith requests for information through established legal channels, it undermines the legitimacy of the national security classification system," FAS wrote.

"Your office could do a great public service by helping to ground CIA classification policy on a legitimate foundation of national security requirements," FAS wrote. "The CIA's violation of the FOIA in this case brings the larger problem of classification abuse into sharp relief and would make an excellent starting point for investigation and remedial action."

The FAS letter to the CIA Inspector General is posted here:


The principles underlying national security classification and declassification policy were explored with unusual rigor and insight by Arvin S. Quist in a book-length study that he authored in 1993 under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy. It is now available online.

Quist posed the fundamental questions about classification and declassification practice and answered them with surprising depth, historical nuance and occasional dry humor. Under exactly what conditions is classification justified? (Chapter 3) How does one evaluate the costs and benefits of classification (Chapter 5) and balance one against the other? (Chapter 6) Quist explored the underpinnings of the various classification levels (Chapter 7), examined the duration of classification (Chapter 8), and even provided mathematical models of how unauthorized disclosures occur and propagate (Appendix G).

Though it does not encompass the upheavals in classification and declassification that occurred in the 1990s, the Quist study provides an unsurpassed account of the roots of classification theory that continue to define secrecy policy today.

"Principles for Classification of Information," which is volume 2 of Quist's opus entitled "Security Classification of Information," is now posted here:

The preceding volume, "Security Classification of Information: Introduction, History, and Adverse Impacts," is available here:


The vast bulk of classified government files are documents of crushing banality that are not worth the time it would take to read them. Often, however, they are of interest as the definitive record of official action. Occasionally, they are of particular importance when classification is used improperly to hide malfeasance, criminal activity, or embarrassment.

But every once in a while declassification shows that classification has concealed official acts of surprising generosity and nobility of character.

In a classified December 17, 1965 memo, President Lyndon B. Johnson told his Secretary of Agriculture that "I am deeply concerned on humanitarian grounds with the near famine conditions which are developing in India, and which may require a dramatic rescue operation on the part of those nations able to assist."

President Johnson directed the Secretary "to examine urgently how to cope with the looming Indian famine problem. I want you to regard all available resources of the U.S. Government as being at your disposal for such an effort."

"After assessing the likely dimensions of the crisis and what would be required to meet it, you and your group should recommend whatever imaginative emergency techniques and devices which may be necessary to help prevent mass starvation in India."

President Johnson's directive, National Security Action Memorandum 339, like nearly all such memoranda, was classified Secret as a matter of course. It may be viewed here:

This document and numerous others concerning the Indian food crisis were published on December 4 by the State Department in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume XXV, South Asia, which is posted here:


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