Politico recently ran a cringeworthy story about how the CIA is going to comply a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) effort by placing a database of 12 million documents online—by the year 2021. The funny thing is that this particular database—called the CIA Records Search Tool, or CREST—is already declassified and available in paper format at a Maryland storage facility run by the National Archives.
The issue seems to be placing these documents into an electronic format. As the Chief of the CIA’s Litigation Support Unit noted in her declaration, the Agency’s standard FOIA practice “requires the deletion of the metadata from each document, DTO CD burning process, and final security and quality assurance review before any CDs could be released.” Furthermore, she had previously said that it would take 28 years for this effort to be completed. Yes, it could be done by the year 2043.
According to the attorney representing the organization suing to release the CREST database:
“[CIA] insists on burning all the records to CD even though they would all fit on a single $60 external hard drive, which we offered to provide…CIA says that this request will take 6 years to process. A reasonable person, even working within CIA’s security limitations, could do it in that many weeks, if he used all the available tools.”
On the face of this, the Agency’s footdragging on this extremely minor issue—the documents are already public!—mocks the FOIA process and does little to bring honor to the organization. By hiding behind ridiculous bureaucratic protocols, the Agency is underscoring how far it was willing to go to avoid fulfilling its obligations as a government agency to the taxpayers.
It also gives those who think the Intelligence Community is a sclerotic enterprise in desperate need of a shakeup more ammunition. And some of those people are Members of Congress, who can do a lot of shaking.
FOIA is one of the tools the average citizen can make government more responsive—even intelligence agencies. Secret things should remain secret, of course. But not a single document in CREST is classified.
And let’s put it this way – why is it faster for CIA to design, build, and operationalize the legendary A-12 OXCART reconnaissance aircraft that now graces the Agency’s parking lot than to put these documents online?
Not every battle is worth fighting.
photo: The first page of the Freedom of Information Act of July 4, 1966, Public Law 89-487. (National Archives)