The CIA's "Openness" is Laughable, by David Corn
To: [email protected], dave
Subject: The CIA's "Openness" Is Laughable
The following article was in the "San Jose Mercury News," May 12, 1992:
The CIA's ``Openness'' Is Laughable
By David Corn
"Openness"--that's a term that Robert Gates, director of the
Central Intelligence Agency has embraced. When his nomination came
before a skeptical Senate Intelligence Committee last year, he
promised to promote Peristroika in Langley. After being confirmed,
he convened a Task Force on Openness, which recommended how the CIA
could be more forthcoming. (Only under outside pressure did the CIA
make public the task force's report, which proposed among other
things, that the agency release material about its successes, admit
when it is wrong, and "preserve the mystique".)
Gates has called for greater declassification of decades-old
documents and more background briefings for the press. From a
distance, his reforms may seem sincere.
For several years however, I have been working on a book about the
CIA. Like many researchers, I turned toward the Freedom of
Information Act for assistance and found that when it comes to the
CIA, it is almost worthless. The act allows scholars, reporters, and
just plain folks to petition various executive branch agencies for
documents. There are numerous exceptions to what the government has
to release, and amendments to the act in 1984 made it easier for the
CIA to withhold some records.
Still, the FOIA could be of some small and important value to
those seeking to understand what the CIA does, were it not for the
way the agency handles FOIA requests--a process that belies the "new"
CIA of Gates.
Agency responses to FOIA requests are routinely discouraging,
marked by long delays and puzzling answers.
Here's one example: I asked for material on the Hmong, an
indigenous tribe in Indochina, which the CIA armed and directed in
the 1960's and 1970's as part of the so-called "secret war" in Laos.
This was one of the biggest agency paramilitary operations in
history; its existence is not a secret. The CIA said that it had
searched and found not one piece of paper relevant to the request.
Operational material detailing the ins and outs of the agency's
programs is automatically exempt. But I hoped to find intelligence
reports that covered the tribes and its leaders. Surely if the
agency supported the Hmong for so long it must have at some time
looked at its ally. But there was, the agency said, absolutely
It is hard to argue with the CIA. Who know's what's in the files?
But such responses are hard to accept at face value in light of other
Langley decisions. In 1987, the private and non-profit National
Security Archive requested under FOIA an index of all the documents
that the CIA had previously released.
After initial denials, the agency sent the archive 12 volumes of
about 450 pages each that listed the documents in completely random
order. Documents released as part of a single request were scattered
through the books. This is certainly not how the FOIA office
maintains its records, and one can reasonably surmise that it had to
program its computer to devise such a random and mean-spirited dump.
When I requested the index information in electronic form--so it
could be arranged coherently--the agency told me to get lost. The
National Security Archive is still fighting the CIA to obtain the
index in computer form.
The only way to use the index is to plow through the volumes. I
went through one book and found several documents that looked
intriguing. (Almost all the good stuff was released prior to 1981,
the year Ronald Reagan assumed office.) I filed a request with the
agency for these papers and received the material in three weeks--
Olympic speed by FOIA standards.
I then went through the rest of the set and filed subsequent
requests. When the CIA realized what I was doing it seems, it put in
what some researchers believe is the forget-you category. After six
months, only one of my other requests has been fulfilled--and that
only occurred after the intervention of a lawyer.
The FOIA calls for agencies to respond to requests within 10 days.
But that standard has become a farce. Usually it means that the
agency acknowledges the receipt of the request within 10 days. Then
the request goes to the end of the line, and is some instances years
will pass before you hear back. Such delays dilute the power of the
FOIA. Few book authors or journalists have the luxury of waiting so
David Corn is Washington Editor of "The Nation" magazine and is
working on a book about the CIA. He wrote this article for "The
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