Edmund Cohen Speech at the Cold War Conference
Cold War Conference on
"The Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History"
National Archives at College Park
Paper Presented by Edmund Cohen Director of Information Management,
Central Intelligence Agency
September 25, 1998
"Cold War Documentation, National Security, and the Fullest Possible Accounting: Restriction vs. Access"
I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation for the invitation to speak today to this conference. The topic this panel is addressing is important, not only to historians and archivists, but to the American people as a whole. It clearly deserves our serious attention.
In my role as the Director of the CIA's Office of Information Management, I intend to speak candidly about the Central Intelligence Agency's declassification programs and plans, and about the problems and constraints we face in balancing competing interests and requirements. We must measure our desire to release as much historical information as possible against our need--and legal mandate--to protect the nation's national security interests.
CIA Contributions to Cold War Scholarship
An effort to allow for more openness and public accountability has been going on for some time at the Central Intelligence Agency. The effort began in the 1980s with the declassification and transfer of nine million pages of OSS records to the National Archives. Former Directors Robert Gates, R. James Woolsey, John Deutch and the current Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet all have supported vigorous declassification review and release programs.
Under programs put in place by these Directors, I believe CIA has made a significant contribution to the academic literature on the Cold War during the past decade. This effort has involved a three-part strategy designed to contribute, both directly and indirectly, to objective assessments of the US Government's programs and policies to manage the threat posed by the Soviet Bloc nations during the Cold War period.
The first part of the strategy has involved the Agency's support of the Department of State's Office of the Historian efforts to publish thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary records of major US foreign policy decisions and significant US diplomatic activity--the Foreign Relations of the United States series known as FRUS. In point of fact, CIA released almost 2,200 pages of materials--in redacted or full text form--to State historians last year for possible use and inclusion in FRUS volumes.
We understand the need for ensuring that these volumes are accurate and reliable, and I can assure you that CIA is committed to making the FRUS process work. Indeed, last May DCI Tenet announced that supporting the FRUS process is one of the top priorities of the Agency's declassification and release programs. Toward that end, CIA has assigned the "FRUS account" to a senior Agency official who is overseeing the review and release of documents requested by State historians. The Agency also is participating in new procedures designed specifically to facilitate discussion of the possible declassification of historical covert action materials relevant to FRUS volumes--perhaps the most difficult hurdle in the FRUS process. There is now in existence a high-level panel, chaired by the NSC with representatives from CIA and the State Department, whose mandate is to decide whether or not historical covert actions can be acknowledged and, if so, to provide specific guidance for doing so. This panel is systematically dealing with matters that have been at issue over the past several years. I expect that all of the backlogged issues will be resolved in the very near future.
The second part of the strategy has been to declassify materials that are 25 years old or older as required by Executive Order 12958. The Agency has in place a large and costly process to review, declassify, and release some 40-60 million pages of classified materials originated by CIA. This effort should provide, over the next several years, a large corpus of documents for historians to use in analyzing and assessing Cold War events.
The third part of the strategy has been to contribute directly to the scholarly literature where it makes sense for the Agency to do so. On a variety of Cold War subjects of interest to the American people, and using in-house resources, we have targeted specific sets of historical documents for declassification. We have published studies based on records that have been declassified and held conferences centered around these studies.
Indeed, during the past few years, CIA has sponsored or co-sponsored numerous public conferences and released important documentation on America's early imagery satellites (Corona), the Cuban missile crisis, communications intercepts directed against Soviet espionage efforts (Venona), and Agency analyses of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. One of these published volumes titled "Assessing the Soviet Threat: The Early Cold War Years" should be of particular interest to this group. Earlier this month we also declassified an official CIA history of the U-2 program in conjunction with a conference held at the National War College. In addition, thousands of pages of targeted documents have been reviewed, declassified, and released to the National Archives--including more than 500 National Intelligence Estimates, more than 25,000 pages of finished intelligence on the former Soviet Union, over one-quarter million pages of records on the assassination of President Kennedy, and more than 4,000 pages from our intelligence journal, Studies in Intelligence. While these materials involve only a fraction of the Agency's records, they nonetheless provide an important window into the history of American intelligence activities during the Cold War period.
A Seriousness of Purpose
Agency officials take seriously their responsibility to the American people and to history to account, to the greatest extent possible, for our actions and the quality of our work. At the current time, we have a number of programs in place to identify and release as much information as we can, as so as we can, without harm to the nation's security interests. We are striving to strike a reasonable balance between being open and accountable and the need to protect the nation's security.
We live in a robust democracy in which people want and deserve to know more about the governmental organizations they pay for and that exist to serve them, even the secret ones. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it." We work for and serve the interests of the American people. When the protection of information is no longer required, we owe it to our fellow citizens to disclose that information.
We also realize that the release of historical information is in the best interests of the Agency itself. We are proud of CIA's history and accomplishments in helping to win the Cold War and promote democracy around the world. All too often the work of explaining intelligence to the public is left to writers of spy novels or journalists. The result is a highly colored and often inaccurate picture of what the Intelligence Community actually does. We want our history and our role in the foreign policy decisionmaking process to be written accurately and fairly.
The fact that information, if released to the public, could be embarrassing to the Agency does not prevent its release. Let me give you an example. An early intelligence assessment done by the Agency was on the Korean War. It stated that the Chinese probably would not cross the Yalu River and attack UN forces advancing into North Korea. That judgment, of course, was wrong. The point is, however, that the document was reviewed for declassification and released. The fact that the judgments contained in it were wrong was not a consideration in the review process.
To put this into context, I should also point out that the Agency's declassification and release programs are unprecedented around the world. No other nation's foreign intelligence service has come close to releasing as much information about its past as has the Central Intelligence Agency. For example, the British Security Service, popularly known as M.I.5, only recently made its first-ever release of records to the public--some 8,000 scanned images of original documents. It is important to note, however, that these records relate to British political and intelligence history before and during the First World War.
A Continuing Need for Vigilance
What I have discussed thus far is, of course, just half of the picture, and I would be less than candid if I stopped here. There is more to the declassification issue. The Director of Central Intelligence is responsible for mobilizing the collection and analytical capabilities of the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies to ensure that our national leaders have the military, economic, and political information, both strategic and tactical, necessary for informed policy decisionmaking. Put simply, CIA engages in espionage in order to collect information vital to this country's national security interests. In doing so, the Agency relies heavily on the cooperation of individuals, organizations, and other governments. Such cooperation will continue only as long as the US Government and the CIA protects the identity of the individuals and organizations providing the information we need.
The DCI's responsibility and authority to protect intelligence sources and methods is found in the National Security Act of 1947 and the CIA Act of 1949, as amended, as well as in Executive Order 12958. These authorities embrace a fundamental principle, namely that we will never betray the trust of those who provide us with critical information and help, whether it was during the bleak years of the Cold War or today. For those people in Eastern Europe, for example, who dared to imagine the fall of the Berlin Wall and who helped to make it happen, the best and only way to express our gratitude for their heroism is to respect their safety, their privacy, and their dignity. We owe them that loyalty, and we will not betray it. We also will not disclose information which could jeopardize other intelligence assets and technical capabilities that are critical to our work.
This concern is not trivial. The stakes and risks involved in the intelligence business are high. It may sound reasonable, for instance, to suggest that we should protect sources for only a limited amount of time, and that we certainly need not concern ourselves any longer about keeping their identity a secret when they are dead. We believe such reasoning is flawed. Other countries have traditions that go back much further than ours; events in other parts of the world often are triggered by resentments many hundreds of years old. The events in the former Yugoslavia, in Ireland, and in the Middle East readily come to mind. It makes no sense for CIA to inform prospective sources that we will protect them "for a while." Revealing the identification of sources and their deeds at some subsequent time could subject them and their families to personal danger, ridicule, or persecution in their homeland for generations to come, hardly an incentive for cooperating with us. Even more serious is the chilling effect on possible future collaborators who will refuse to assist us out of fear their names will one day be revealed by the US government. I am aware of no other government that would sign up to such a program; certainly no intelligence service can operate under such constraints.
With this in mind, the types of information potentially available for review and release include what we call "raw information," such as cable traffic, and finished intelligence in the form of regular and periodic publications as well as other forms of intelligence analyses. Some "raw information" and operational material can be released if it is not source revealing--the information that is usually most sensitive deals with names, operational methods, and tradecraft. "Raw information" is the most difficult to review for release, but it probably is less interesting to a diplomatic historian than finished intelligence analyses. In any event, we must continue to protect references to CIA operational activity in specific foreign countries where the Agency is acting as the executive agent for US government policies. The details of this type of activity are not critical to an understanding of the diplomacy at work in a particular country and, if released, could put Agency personnel and the operation itself at risk.
Finished intelligence, on the other hand, often times is less source revealing, and it adds significantly to an understanding of past US government policies and diplomacy by providing a direct window into what the Intelligence Community was telling policymakers about a particular event or crisis. A large volume of finished intelligence, such as NIEs and analyses done by the Directorate of Intelligence on the former Soviet Union, has already been made available to the public.
The Realities of Openness
In addition to the protection of intelligence sources and methods, a number of other factors complicate our declassification efforts. Most important is the growing demand for declassification reviews. These demands, when aggregated, represent a significant charge on the Agency's resources in an ever-tightening budget environment. The resources required to address declassification reviews often have to be diverted from the Agency's core missions.
Skilled personnel and advanced, expensive technologies are required to establish historical review and release programs. CIA currently has the full-time equivalent of 350 people reviewing millions of documents for release under various release programs. About half of them are retired intelligence officers who are helping us with this important effort. There are no shortcuts here. It takes experienced, knowledgeable people sitting down with each document and going over it page by page, line by line. We call this process of extracting sensitive information "redaction." Our approach contrasts with the so-called pass-fail strategy adopted by some other agencies whereby whole documents are withheld because of a single classified passage.
We chose the "redaction" strategy because we believe we can release more information with a page-by-page review. Because of the nature of our business, it is rare for an intelligence document to contain no sensitive information. Intelligence sources are inherently fragile and expensive collection systems can be defeated if they are not adequately protected. Therefore, we must carefully review our documents in order to avoid inadvertent disclosures of intelligence assets and sensitive collection methods. We estimate that under a pass-fail approach we could release only about 15 percent of the materials being reviewed. By redacting documents, we estimate that we can release 50 - 75 percent, although this approach obviously is more costly.
The demand for declassification reviews by CIA under a number of other programs also is growing exponentially. The CIA receives, for instance, in excess of 6,000 Freedom of Information Act, Privacy Act, and Executive Order mandatory declassification review requests each year. We have been able to respond to more than 5,000 cases per year, but the new electronic FOIA amendments require us to reduce our backlog or face severe court-imposed penalties. Thus, we are faced with the daunting task of raising our response rate to about 6,000 - 8,000 cases a year.
The Agency also must deal with the requirements of special searches mandated by Congress, the Executive Branch, or litigations. These have recently included Gulf War illness, human rights violations in Central America, Operation Peter Pan (in which CIA was falsely accused of instigating the exodus of Cuban children), and the Contra cocaine controversy (in which CIA was falsely accused of responsibility for bringing drugs into Los Angeles). Regardless of the truth of such claims, significant resources had to be diverted to address these issues. The expenditure of significant declassification resources also is required to respond in a timely fashion to growing numbers of criminal, civil, and non-party litigations.
What is the bottom line in terms of the release of information to the public? I am optimistic that we are on the right track to meet your expectations and those of the American people, although I am under no illusions about the difficulty of our task.
Let me summarize the reasons for my optimism.
First, Director Tenet has consolidated the declassification and release oversight activities as well as the planning and oversight of the "life cycle" of recordkeeping in one place in the Agency—the newly formed Office of Information Management (OIM). OIM is focusing on ways to improve the Agency's ability to store, retrieve, review, and release information. Our goal is to ensure that all of our programs are effectively coordinated and that our scarce resources are efficiently managed, taking the fullest possible advantage of the latest computer technology.
Second, our 25-year automatic declassification program is now moving forward at a vigorous pace. We plan to release one million pages of historically valuable (permanent) material this year. Next year we expect to review five million pages, and eight million or more pages per year thereafter. Our Freedom of Information and Privacy Act programs also are moving forward aggressively to reduce our backlog of requests while at the same time keeping up with new ones.
Finally, clear guidelines have been set for the review and release of historical documents. The DCI announced in May the priority order we will use to guide the Agency's historical declassification efforts into the foreseeable future. Those priorities are as follows:
- The review and release of information related to the JFK assassination. We must satisfy our statutory obligations in this regard;
- The State Department's Foreign Relations series; and,
- The review and release of information on Guatemala-Honduras human rights violations, as requested by Congress.
At the next level of priority are records that will enable the public to understand the role of the Intelligence Community in shaping national policy. These include National Intelligence Estimates, the National Intelligence Daily, finished intelligence analyses on the former Soviet Union, and office files of former Directors of Central Intelligence.
Finally, with regard to the review of the 11 covert actions undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s announced by previous DCIs, work is continuing on Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs. We will initiate declassification reviews, as soon as resources are available, of the materials relevant to the covert actions undertaken during the Korean War, and in the Congo, Laos, and Dominican Republic during the 1960s. The remaining covert actions identified by Directors Gates and Woolsey will be reviewed thereafter.
In closing, let me reiterate that we believe the American people are best served by having available the information necessary to understand how their government works. Therefore, while we will continue to protect intelligence sources and methods, and our ability to carry out our clandestine mission, we also will remain committed to being as forthcoming as possible about intelligence activities in a way that can help educate, inform, and enlighten the American public. We are making significant progress, and we pledge our best efforts to do even better in the future.