The CIA in History – We’ll Never Really Know What Happened

Congress passed the CIA Information Act in 1984 under the guise of speeding up the agency’s ability to process FOIA requests. The premise was that they wouldn’t have to consistently review operational records that they were going to deny anyway. Today, however, the CIA (and now a number of other agencies) are not abiding by Congress’ intent. There is still a backlog. FOIA processing costs are higher than ever. And most importantly, “operational files” were supposed to still be subject to FOIA as a result of an investigation but today the CIA still refuses to search these files in the spirit of the original act.

The most alarming aspect of the 1984 act is that operational files can be exempted from public access forever. This means that even 100 years, 200 years, 500 years, and so on ad infinitum, the American public will never really know what the CIA was up to or how their involvement in historical events had an impact. Why should this activity be classified forever? The most common defense made is protecting sources and methods. After 100 years, sources are definitely dead. And if the CIA is still using methods that are over 50 years old, shouldn’t we be concerned about their ability to protect us? This is absurd.

Gloriosa Victoria by Diego Rivero, depicting American collaboration with Carlos Castillo Armas to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in 1954
Most Americans operate under the assumption that the CIA is conducting operations that are protecting us, such as preventing terror attacks. But with the CIA Information Act we’ll never know if that’s true, we just have to take their word for it. This in effect allows the CIA to operate with impunity.

Let’s review just a few of the known sketchy and/or illegal things the CIA has done over the years that should make us question whether the agency has our best interests in mind:

  • the overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala in 1954
  • assassination attempts on Fidel Castro
  • the Bay of Pigs invasion
  • extraordinary rendition in the War on Terror
  • hacking Senate computers
  • signature drone strikes

Shouldn’t we be allowed to know more about those operations?  What about the ones we don’t even know about? Why do they need to be secret forever? At some point, aren’t Americans owed that knowledge so we can conduct introspective historical analysis? As long as the CIA can claim exemptions for operational files from the CIA Information Act of 1984, we’ll never know what happened. Why are we ok with that?

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