Those of you familiar with the CIA’s 25 Year Program Archive CREST understand the database on the Agency’s Web site does not contain the complete full text (.pdf) of declassified records. There are two CREST systems I discovered; the abbreviated version on the CIA’s Web site and a full version on dedicated pcs at NARA in College Park, Maryland. It’s useful to note that some of the CREST docs that are not full text in the abbreviated version can be obtained in several ways: through the library subscription databases Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS) and Digital National Security Archive, through federal agency (FOIA) reading rooms, and if unable to fund travel to NARA in College Park, through a FOIA request to the CIA’s Information and Privacy Coordinator.
On its Web site, the CIA describes CREST as
The automatic declassification provisions of Executive Order 13256 (formerly EO 12958, as amended) require the declassification of nonexempt historically valuable records 25 years or older. The EO was originally issued in April 1995 and via amendment established 31 December 2006 as the first major deadline for automatic declassification under the “25-year program”. By that date, agencies were to have completed the review of all hardcopy documents determined to contain exclusively their equities. For CIA, the 2006 deadline covered the span of relevant documents originally dating from the establishment of the CIA after WWII through 1981. (“CREST: 25-Year Program Archive,” para 1)
Earlier this year, I traveled to the NARA mothership to search the CREST system and retrieve documents for the several projects I’m currently working on. At NARA, I was informed by staff that CREST documents could not be downloaded or emailed; in order to save and keep documents, printing only was allowed on blue paper. (I’m not sure if this is a NARA or CIA requirement). The NARA staff directed me to a wall of reams. I was told to take as much paper as I needed – when I objected, I was told the CIA supplied the paper. After printing through one and a half reams of paper, I decided printing docs I needed was unsustainable. Moreover, how would I transport loads of paper back to my office? Pay baggage fees? Send through media mail? I found none of these scenarios sustainable or cost effective, especially from a larger environmental and natural resource considerations.
So I began to question the CIA’s policy of having two different CREST systems with separate modes of access: Why has the CIA created two different research systems, one abbreviated on the Web, and another with expanded access as standalone pcs only accessible in person at NARA? Why are CREST materials subject to FOIA, another bureaucratic level set for the public to gain access to CIA historical materials that have been declassified?
I also thought about the hearings on the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 or E-FOIA Amendments (Pub. L. No. 104-231, 110 Stat. 3048, 5 U.S.C. § 552, Supp. II 1996), especially Rep. Randy Tate’s comments. Wasn’t e-FOIA characterized as a means to get FOIA docs – and I’m folding in CREST docs here – to the people?
H.R. 3802 puts FOIA information online on agency websites, ensuring that citizens in every home—in every town—and in every city—across the Nation will be able to access Government information from the comfort of their own homes. My neighbors will be able to turn on their computers—click onto the internet—and download information made accessible by the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996. Our Government should be userfriendly by making an effort to deliver information to Americans. (142 Cong. Rec. H10450, September 17, 1996)
In the end, and although I would still need to scan documents, I decided not to print documents on blue paper and instead “batch” FOIA requests by subject/research project in order to obtain the CREST docs I needed. None of the requests I filed exceeded 100 pages.
In February, I received one full request satisfied by the CIA. However, three other requests for CREST documents submitted in February were folded into one request by the CIA. In March, the CIA informed me that my CREST requests – now one FOIA – was subject to a charge of $21.50. The CIA cited CFR Title 32, Chapter XIX Section 1900.13j that a requestor “may not file a series of multiple requests which are merely subdivisions of the information actually sought for the purposes of avoiding or reducing applicable fees.” An unfair accusation that any busy researcher would object to – I was being efficient and organized wasn’t I? I filed an appeal to the Information and Privacy Coordinator, and in May 2014, my appeal was denied.
So here it is: CREST is a two tiered research system. That is, if a researcher can afford to visit NARA in College Park to search the full version of CREST, they are saddled with blue paper and trying to figure out how to deliver their many documents back to homes and offices where they will need to scan materials in order to search for terms, people, and events in especially lengthy documents. Even though a researcher may print out as many documents on blue paper as they like at NARA, if they use the abbreviated version of CREST through the CIA’s Web site, and request records by way of the CIA’s policy of using FOIA to distribute CREST documents, fees are assessed over 100 pages (and researchers run the risk of having their requests folded into one request). And researchers would still need to scan the docs if they wanted to optimize their research time.
These policies are puzzling and it is imperative the CIA explain to the research community why this two-tiered system exists. The Agency, while they’re at it, might devise a cost effective – and fully accessible – “complete” CREST database. And put it on the Web.