MuckRock recently posted a fun FOIA-related item about a declassified CIA memo on “Cover and Security Considerations” for employees who want to have an after-work bowling league or glee club:
In most professions, all it takes to form an after-work bowling league is an overly long email chain and some beer money. As a declassified memo recently unearthed in CREST shows, in the CIA, it’s a lot more complicated.
…To cope with these rather unique challenges, the Agency formed the Employee Activity Association (EAA), which, in exchange for membership dues, would ensure that next weekend’s fishing trip would have a plausible cover story.
…members were expected to keep the existence or non-existence of the ping-pong team a secret and to attend security briefings.
This bureaucratic anal-retentiveness regarding mundane company functions immediately reminded me of James Bamford, the first journalist to bring mainstream attention to the National Security Agency when he published “The Puzzle Palace” in 1982.
There is a great profile of Bamford in Baltimore’s City Paper in which he describes finding an internal NSA newsletter that contained chatty and useful details about the agency and, like your typical chatty company newsletter, was meant for employees and their families. And since family members didn’t have special security clearances, that meant that all the NSA internal newsletters were eligible to be released by FOIA. Bamford was able to get thousands of pages of newsletters about the NSA, and that allowed him to greatly expand his knowledge and access to NSA officials.
Unfortunately, City Paper seems to have undertaken one of those news site redesigns/content-management system overhauls in which the archives are eradicated from Internet history. Luckily, the Internet Archive still has a copy of the original 2008 article by Lee Gardner: Secrets and Lies: An Interview With National Security Agency Expert James Bamford
Here’s the key excerpt, though the entire interview is a great read:
[City Pages]: Did you get any push-back from the agency when you started writing about it? After all, it’s supposed to be top secret.
[Bamford]: I had a difficult time. My advance was fairly small, I was living in Massachusetts, I didn’t really know anyone in intelligence, and I hadn’t written anything before. And I was going up against NSA.
One of the things I was good at in law school was research, so I thought maybe I’d try using the Freedom of Information Act. The problem with that was, NSA is really the only agency excluded from the act. If you sent them a [FOIA] request, they would just send you a letter back saying [under Section 6 of the National Security Agency Act] we don’t have to give you anything, even if it’s unclassified.
But I found this place, the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia, and William F. Friedman, one of the founders of the NSA, had left all his papers there. When I got down there, I found the NSA had gotten there just before me and gone through all of his papers and taken a lot of his papers out and put them in a vault down there and ordered the archivist to keep them under lock and key. And I convinced the archivist that that wasn’t what Friedman wanted, and he took the documents out and let me take a look at them.
Among the documents was an NSA newsletter. These are things the NSA puts out once a month. They’re fairly chatty, but if you read them closely enough you can pick up some pretty good information about the agency. . . . When I was reading one of the newsletters, there was a paragraph that said, “The contents of this newsletter must be kept within the small circle of NSA employees and their families.” And I thought about it for a little bit, and I thought, hmm, they just waived their protections on that newsletter–if that’s on every single newsletter then I’ve got a pretty good case against them. If you’re going to open it up to family members, with no clearance, who don’t work for the agency, then I have every right to it. That was a long battle, but I won it, and they gave me over 5,000 pages’ worth of NSA newsletters going back to the very beginning. That was the first time anyone ever got a lot of information out of NSA.
We made this agreement where I could come down and spend a week at NSA, and they gave me a little room where I could go over the newsletters and pick the ones I wanted. So I got all that information, and spent about a week at NSA. And finally they really wanted to delete some names and faces, and I said you can do that, but there ought to be some kind of quid pro quo. The quid pro quo was that I get to interview senior officials and take a tour of the agency. And that was what really opened it up.
It wasn’t the NSA you see today–it was much different. They just thought no one would ever try to write about NSA, and they didn’t think I would have any luck, because who am I? I’m just some guy up in Massachusetts with no track record.