While CIA’s FOIA office does provide the occasional surprise by being helpful, they often seem to stymie FOIA requests, either deliberately, through incompetence or indifference. There are three lies that their office tell particularly often:
- Our records begin in 1947, when CIA was created.
- We can neither confirm nor deny.
- A possibly altered photocopy of an article is more reliable than one posted to the New York Times website.
Our records begin in 1947, when CIA was created.
I most recently encountered this lie when I requested a copy of the Simple Sabotage Field Manual produced by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later used by CIA. In response, I was told that CIA was created after the OSS was dissolved and that they turned over the OSS records to the National Archives (NARA) and I should direct my request to them. I appealed the rejection, pointing out that CIA had a copy of the manual posted to their website, and that they therefore had a copy that was subject to FOIA. The denied my appeal on the grounds that they did not grant me the right to an appeal. You can read their rejection of the request and the appeal at the bottom of the page.
This highlights a larger problem with CIA’s handling of FOIA. While the Agency did hand over many of its OSS records to NARA, they retain copies of many OSS records and other records that predate the Agency. In addition to the many thousands of pages of OSS records on the CIA CREST database, (which CIA maintains strict ownership and control over, despite being located at NARA), a look at the online FOIA reading room on CIA’s website reveals:
- Over 200 documents in a multi-volume series of OSS, SSU and CIG records. All three of those Agencies are CIA predecessors that predate the Agency.
- Documents declassified as part of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which include up to 1.2 million pages of operational files of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). While the main records were transferred to NARA, there are over 1,300 subjects and 50,000 files posted to CIA’s website (mirrored in a single download here).
- According to the online metadata, there are over 6,750 files produced before 1947 that are part of CIA’s online reading room.
A look at CIA’s website also reveals they were the ones to declassify the government’s oldest classified documents, any assertion which thoroughly undercuts any claim that there’s no need to search for records because they’re too old. If they cite a specific record saying the materials requested were transferred then they may not have them anymore, otherwise…
We can neither confirm nor deny.
CIA recently tried to trot out a Glomar response to my request for files on Khalid bin Mahfouz, who was a Saudi Arabian billionaire, banker, investor and former chairman of the National Commercial Bank (NCB), a non-executive director of the CIA-linked BCCI bank, a financial conglomerate later convicted of money laundering, bribery, support of terrorism, arms trafficking, and many other crimes. In spite of all of that, CIA might have been justified of its claim that the “existence or nonexistence of of such records is itself currently and properly classified,” if not for the fact that Congressional testimony from CIA Director James Woolsey had incorrectly claimed that Khalid bin Mahfouz was the brother-in-law of Usama bin Laden. While he later stated that the evidence came to the government from non-government sources and referred to someone else, CIA’s press office would have developed records while handling the matter and correcting the records.
A possibly altered photocopy of an article is more reliable than one posted to the New York Times website.
CIA regularly rejects requests that provide a link to an obituary article, insisting that the URL is not sufficient proof of death and that the linked article must be directly attached. A copy of an article can be easily modified or completely fabricated, and can be more difficult to verify – especially if it’s not a national publication. In contrast, a URL can be used to quickly verify the existence, content and provenance of an article. Of course, for an agency that still doesn’t use email…
90% of the time, these are simply stalling tactics used by the Agency to slow things down or get the requester to give up. When it comes to FOIA requests, though, you just need to remember five words: Never give up, never surrender.