Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fun and Games With the CIA's CREST Database

CREST or the the CIA Records Search Tool is a system used by the CIA to make available declassified records since 2000. It  is located at NARA II in College Park, Maryland. For years, this system and the records contained with were available on just four computers housed on the second 3rd floor of the NARA II building. The reasons this limited access were, according to Mother Jones's reporting: fear of hackers altering the information, an implict desire to keep foreign intelligence from accessing those files, and a general wish to prevent mischief.

This has changed. The "CIA has now also begun to include documents images in addition to the metadata for a select group of documents referred to as the "Best of CREST: (BOC)." This means that some documents will be visible while others will be mentioned but you'll have to FOIA them to see them.

Metadata Leaks Still Secret Information

This inclusion of "metadata" makes for interesting reading. Recently, I discovered that metadata can compromise information the CIA wants withheld on national security or privacy grounds. Here is a safe example of such. Enter the name "Ann Caracristi" (she was the first female deputy director of the NSA) into the CREST search engine. You get back one document.

Now, request that document from the CIA. Here's what you get. Notice how Ms. Caracristi's name is withheld. Oops.
Caracristi Turner Letter                                                           

Half-Baked Declassification

Another problem with CREST is that it's subjected to the same half-baked CIA declassification standards as any FOIA, MDR, or statutory-required release. Here are two versions of a 3/14/1984 memorandum from Herbert E. Meyer to the Director of Central Intelligence,the deputy Director of Central Intelligence, and the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council titled: “Abortions in the Soviet Bloc: What They Mean.” The first version was released in August 2008. The second version was released in December 2008.

Here is the August 2008 version :
3/14/1981 Memo on Warsaw Pact Abortions                                                           

Here is the December 2008 version.

Soviet Abortion Limited Redactions                                                           

The August 2008 version has the following redactions:

A name or names on the first page is redacted while on the second page, Herbert E. Meyer's signature and another name are withehld.  The third page is withheld in its entirety.

The December 2008 version it features fewer redactions. As you can see, the name withheld in the August 2008 edition is revealed. Meyer's signature is revealed though the name is still redacted. Only two names are redacted on the third page.

None of the Really Good Stuff is There

CREST and "Best of CREST" has a lot of interesting and worthwhile stuff. However, the truly fascinating materials are not hosted on the CIA's website. You have to FOIA them and then wait and possibly pay fees. This serves to limit access to these files by erecting utterly unnecessary barriers between the documents and the public. If the CIA has the staff and equipment to scan worthless thank you letters, than they have the staff to include copies of cool documents like the records on Stargate, Ramparts Magazine, and Grillflame, where most, if not all the responsive records have to be ordered up via FOIA.

Only one "Grill Flame" result is available online

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