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
     Washington Post."
                                             daveus rattus
                                   yer friendly neighborhood ratman
   ko.yan.nis.qatsi (from the Hopi Language)  n.  1. crazy life.  2. life
       in turmoil.  3. life out of balance.  4. life disintegrating.
         5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.
** End of Article **

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