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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CIA finally declassifies century-old documents

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta virtually crowed Tuesday about the agency’s release of  the “oldest documents in [the] U.S. government collection.”

The nearly century-old documents related to the formula for “secret ink” and the clandestine envelope-opening methods that spies used during World War One.

“These documents remained classified for nearly a century until recent advancements in technology made it possible to release them,” Panetta said, in reference to current techniques to transmit information clandestinely. “When historical information is no longer sensitive, we take seriously our responsibility to share it with the American people.”

B.S., replied the directors of two organizations that had been fighting the CIA for years to get the 1917-1918 documents released.

“I'm very pleased to see that the CIA has finally seen fit to declassify these records after many years of fighting tooth and nail to keep them classified,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an Arlington, Va.-based, public-interest law firm that specializes in Freedom of Information Act suits to obtain national security-related government records.

Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who heads the James Madison Project,  a similar organization, “tried in vain to get them declassified in the 1990s, even filing a FOIA lawsuit in 1998 on the matter,” McClanahan added.

Zaid told SpyTalk that "the CIA claimed that revealing the information, which pertained to German World War One formulas, would cause the most unspeakable harm, including assisting terrorist organizations."

In 2009 he and McClanahan joined forces to file a Mandatory Declassification Review request with the CIA to expedite the process.

“After an initial cursory response … the CIA proceeded to do nothing for a year,” McClanahan maintained. The two appealed.

“To see our efforts come to fruition like this is very rewarding, but I am admittedly a little confused by the fact that the agency seems to be acting as though it reached this decision out of the goodness of its heart after much soul searching, and not that it was responding to a specific request that it declassify the records,” McClanahan said.

“Even more perplexing is the fact that we learned of our ‘victory’ by way of a public press release posted on the CIA website, while nobody from the CIA has seen fit yet to inform us directly that our request was granted,” McClanahan added.

In response to a request for comment, CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf said that not all of the documents were the same ones McClanahan and Zaid had been pursuing, and that today's release "was not in response to any specific request."

McClanahan said he was happy with the outcome, no matter who was responsible.

"In the end ... " he said, "it is indeed a victory, and now a chapter in U.S. intelligence history can finally be closed."