John Prados: 'A Tale of Obsessive Secrecy,' On the Newly-Declassified CIA Histories on Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Prados is an analyst of national security based in Washington, DC. Prados holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and focuses on presidential power, international relations, intelligence and military affairs. He is a senior fellow and project director with the National Security Archive, leading both the Archive’s Iraq Documentation Project and its parallel effort on Vietnam.]

Before addressing the substance in the new CIA histories it will be useful to pause and consider what this case also shows about the U.S. Government's broken system for declassifying and releasing records. In actuality, this CIA release was not at all a voluntary contribution to American history, but was compelled by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Filed in 1992, that FOIA request may be the longest running case in the CIA's files, and its treatment shines a blinding light on how the agency handles its statutory duty to release records. A whole series of questionable actions were taken by the CIA's FOIA officers in handling the materials involved here, in fact a sordid story that only begins with the seventeen years that have been necessary to bring this information to light. Only an agency obsession with secrecy can account for the way in which this FOIA request was treated. At the time of the request none of the governments involved in the war any longer existed—even the North Vietnamese state had been transformed—the CIA actors were in retirement, the Vietnam war had entered history, and the most recent events concerned were almost twenty years into the past. By 2001, the time of the CIA's initial response this was even more true, and by 2009 the continued presence of this FOIA request on the agency's books was positively embarrassing.

The original FOIA request called for "any retrospective study or monograph, or official history" compiled on a series of subjects including operations against North Vietnam from 1960-1975, in Laos between 1958 and 1975, and the same plus administrative histories of the CIA and its stations in South Vietnam, and Laos in the years from 1960 to 1975. The CIA took nine years to respond to this request and when it did so, in early 2001, it replied to the effect that no agency records could be identified that were responsive to the FOIA. Not only did that claim not pass the smell test, dozens of CIA monographs that are directly responsive are cited in footnotes in these newly released histories. This analyst had learned in the interim that the present CIA histories, written Thomas Ahern, were in preparation. In an April 2001 letter appealing the CIA finding I cited these works as examples of materials that were obviously within the scope of the request. In response to my appeal, the CIA released these histories through a letter on February 25, 2009...

... These irregularities are not fanciful, they are matters of record, and they illustrate the weaknesses of a FOIA system that largely leaves federal agencies to be the judge of their own action. The agency, it seems, cannot escape from its obsession with secrecy. The Freedom of Information Act makes illegal the "arbitrary and capricious denial" of information but the CIA Act trumps that. Plainly Congress needs to supervise the Agency's actions under the CIA Act to ensure that it conforms to the spirit and letter of the law. This case also points to the need for changes in secrecy policy so that historical information is not treated like today's secrets. A useful change would be oversight by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) of declassification manuals used by federal agencies. Moreover, a new executive order on secrecy policy could end the CIA's veto over decisions by the Interagency Declassification Appeals panel so it will not have that threat to block declassification action on mandatory review requests.

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