CIA Editing 65 Million Pages Of Classified Documents For Release

By Carla Anne Robbins
The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1998


SOMEWHERE NEAR DULLES AIRPORT -- In a nondescript office building in an
undisclosed Virginia suburb, the Central Intelligence Agency is sifting
through millions of its old secrets -- one page at a time. 
  
Joe Ozefovich, a 33-year CIA veteran, reviews a 1956 folder on the
ultra-secret U-2 spy plane. One memo from the project's "cover officer,"
charged with keeping the program secret, rejects a proposal to have the
highflying jet set a world altitude record. "We could establish a
record," the officer concedes -- but not without letting everyone know
what the spy plane, officially just a weather aircraft, was really
capable of. 
  
"Here was someone who wanted to wave our flag," says Mr. Ozefovich
wistfully. "But cover and security had to prevail." 
  
Protecting Sources 

Forty years later, the CIA is just as reluctant to give up its secrets
-- except it has no choice. Under a White House executive order, by
April 17, 2000, the CIA and every other U.S. government agency must
release every classified document in its archives that is more than 25
years old, unless the information falls into nine supposedly narrow
exemptions, including protecting human intelligence sources, current war
plans, weapons technology and sensitive diplomatic relations. 
  
The CIA's task is especially daunting: It has an estimated 65 million
pages of secrets at least 25 years old. And while some agencies have
judged whole rooms full of files too old or too arcane to worry about,
the CIA has decided to "redact" every page, editing out sensitive
information line by line. 
  
To pull it off, the agency has set up a declassification factory -- the
address is secret -- here in northern Virginia. Staffers open every
archive box, scan each page into computers and read every document, not
once but three times, to make sure nothing dangerous slips by.
Redactors, like Mr. Ozefovich, make their cuts according to a 44-page
declassification guide -- its contents also classified -- excising names
of CIA employees, descriptions of clandestine methods, and almost every
overseas CIA location, including the obvious ones like Moscow and
Beijing. If the CIA confirmed them, "it would become an undeniable,
uncontestable fact," explains project director Rich Warshaw. 
  
The work is expensive: $2.50 a page just in labor costs. And it is so
time-consuming that Mr. Warshaw concedes they will be lucky to have a
third of their workload, about 20 million pages, done by the deadline.
Mr. Warshaw, nevertheless, defends the process. "It's the only way to
make sure that security is protected and the public gets to see as many
documents as possible," he says. 
  
A Bug in the Palace 
  
Some are skeptical. The National Archive's Steven Garfinkle, who
oversees declassification governmentwide, worries that CIA definitions
of damaging information may be too vigilant. Twenty-five years, he
agrees, is too early to reveal the name of a CIA source or overseas
agent. "The families of sources could be searched out and tortured," he
says. But he is less certain about the agency's insistence that spycraft
methods also need to be as fiercely protected. "Revealing that in 1955
they bugged the Patagonian presidential palace?" he asks hypothetically.
"Much of it isn't very subtle or unusual." 
  
Others are more worried about what the CIA has chosen not to review. The
agency is asking that another 106 million pages, nearly all from the
covert-action Directorate of Operations, be automatically exempt to
protect overseas sources and methods. The costs for holding back so much
information are real, says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York
Democrat who crusades against what he calls excessive government
secrecy. "We don't know our history very well," he argues. "You also
don't correct your mistakes because nobody knows you made them." 
  
For all that, nearly everyone here seems enchanted with the secrets they
do get to see. Pointing to steel cages stacked with archive boxes, chief
of operations Kirk Lubbes jokes that they come from the " 'Raiders of
the Lost Ark' warehouse," Hollywood's imagined repository for all the
wonders the public isn't ready to know. 
  
What arrives one morning looks a lot less glamorous. A box marked "phone
files" includes carbon flimsies of a January 1954 memo announcing
changes in CIA telephone prefixes; another sheet lists overseas phone
charges for a four-week period. 
  
But the work in an adjoining room would make a historian's juices run. A
microfilm scanner clicks off pages of 1945 files of the OSS, the CIA's
World War II predecessor, on de-Nazification efforts in occupied
Germany. A few feet away, a young woman feeds 1958 Soviet military
railroad maps into a computer scanner. 
  
For the factory's redactors -- all 55 are retired CIA veterans hired for
this job -- the work is an exercise in ambivalence, a daily struggle
between their training never to give up secrets and a more natural human
desire to want to tell their stories. 
  
"My whole career was based on the belief that letting out information
could get people killed," says Armand Vallieres, 76, an overseas
operative who began with the OSS in China in 1944. "After I got used to
it, I saw that this was history and it showed we had a done a good job." 
  
Salacious Secrets 
  
The work has given Betty Grim even more: a peek at the office goings-on
while she served as secretary to 1960s-era CIA director John McCone. Ms.
Grim has been redacting the daily work diaries of Mr. McCone's top
administrator, Col. Lawrence K. "Red" White. 
  
Some of it, she says, can be downright salacious. She has recently been
caught up in the saga of a CIA manager Col. White fired after the
official had a questionable liaison with an agency secretary. "We've
been reading some of it aloud to our team," she says. "But we haven't
found out yet whether she got pregnant." 
  
The White diaries also give a fascinating window on the political times
and challenges of managing the CIA's growing bureaucracy. Pages from the
spring and summer of 1964 note a half-dozen meetings on how the agency
should respond to the newly minted civil-rights law. "The director's ...
opinion [was] we should continue our passive [minority hiring] program,
make sure we defend ourselves against any allegations of discrimination
but avoid any drive to place select persons in key positions so they
would be noticed." 
  
The diaries also include calls to beef up administrative support for
U.S. intelligence efforts in Vietnam, and growing frustrations over
press leaks -- including one tantalizing reference to a reporter from
the now-defunct Washington Star who, judging from the deletions, may
also have been on the agency's payroll. 
  
Playing the Numbers 
  
For Gerry Helfenstein, who spent most of his career as an intelligence
analyst, the work gives him a chance to re-examine the agency's, and his
own, intellectual triumphs and failures. A July 1972 memo prepared for
Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, describes the "Status
of Communist Forces" in South Vietnam as "48% ineffective." The CIA's
view of the war "was always like the rest of the nation," explains Mr.
Helfenstein. "It started out somewhat realistic, and then the fog of war
and politics took over." 
  
For nearly all the veterans, the work raises questions about how secrets
are made and kept. Working on the U-2 plane files, Mr. Ozefovich has
been patiently excising the names of commercial contractors who worked
on the project, "even though whole books have been written on the
subject," he says. Explains Mr. Warshaw: "We have to live with a lot of
ambiguities." Almost all redactors complain about the amount of useless
paper that collects in classified files. One favorite is a 136-page
series of weekly reports from the agency's "forms branch" that prints
bureaucratic forms. 
  
Pat Bogen, a retired secretary working as an indexer at the factory,
says she knows how all ''the junk'' got there. Every time her boss would
ask her to clean out his safe drawers, ''I didn't feel I could decide
what should be kept and what to dump. So I'd put it all in a box and
ship it off to the archives,'' she says. ''Now it's come back to haunt
me.'

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