Yesterday afternoon I received a FedEx package containing 1,348 pages of declassified documents (plus a cover letter) from the Central Intelligence Agency.
Yup, the CIA.
Three years ago (almost to the day) I’d submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Agency concerning the Lockheed A-12, the considerably more secret predecessor to the well known SR-71, the worlds fastest aircraft.
Just to set the stage, the A-12 was built in the ’60s as a CIA project to replace the (even then) venerable U-2 for covert reconnaissance overflights of the Soviet Union, China, and other denied territory. Before long the project moved “out of the black” and into the Air Force’s domain as the SR-71, but not before the A-12 actually did much of the hard work in pioneering flight at three times the speed of sound and provided operational overflights of Vietnam and North Korea.
Several years ago the CIA’d declassified a bunch of A-12 (often known by the internal project name of “Oxcart”) stuff. You can get them all on the Internet. As is typical with such things, there were lots of redactions and missing pages (either through deliberate omission or just because some records had been lost). This was fantastic, the Oxcart is a fascinating aircraft, and I spent many happy months with the released information.
But the omissions bothered me.
So one day back in 2014 I wrote a letter and mailed it to the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act department very politely and clearly stating my case as to why certain relevant information about the A-12 should be released. The FOIA is like that – it only provides for the release of secrets if someone asks. Requested information is researched, reviewed, often redacted of bits that are still sensitive, and eventually and if judged appropriate, released. Sure, occasionally there’s a directive from on high to release everything about some famous or controversial program (that’s how the original wave of Oxcart material got out). But for the most part, things just sit there until someone, citizen or politician or bureaucrat, kicks the process into motion.
A few months later, I got a letter notifying me that they’d received my letter.
For three years then, nothing more. Occasionally I called the CIA’s FOIA hotline (there really is such a thing…it seems to be intermittently staffed by nice ladies who expect every caller to scream “WHERE ARE THE UFO FILES!!!”). At one point files were being searched for. Then files were being reviewed.
The wheels of declassification grind slowly and extremely finely.
And then yesterday 1,348 complete and unredacted pages arrived, consisting of two different versions of the A-12 pilot’s manual, a complete ground crew service and emergency manual, and the crew manual to the “TA-12” trainer version.
There was also a terse cover letter and a bill for $124.80 – the research and reproduction costs of 10 cents per page after the first free 100 pages. I owe the CIA 120 bucks. You can be sure I’ll pay that on time!
What had previously been redacted – and what my diligent secret-busting revealed – was mostly details about in-flight monitoring system called “Bird Watcher” that used the aircraft’s HF radio to broadcast key status information back to base (not unlike those ACARS status messages that got such press with incidents like the AF447, MH370, and KGL9268 crashes). In earlier releases that had been deliberately masked out. Also some missing pages describing the aircraft’s handling and performance at subsonic speeds that I think had just been missed when the online document was scanned. Perhaps some more details here or there, and some history of the A-12’s development to be teased out of the differences between the three different manuals.
All now released.
Yeah, nothing earth shaking here – but that information is now available for me and the probably two other people in the world who care. And I can’t help but feel like I pried that information out from the great mass of secrets – information that, for reasonable purposes or not, the government has decided is off-limits to the general public – before it just got lost, by deliberate deletion or the simple rot of time or atrophy of interest.
Somebody went into the warehouse where they store the Ark of the Covenant and dug around in some files, pulled them out and reviewed them, and then sent me copies.
I think this is pretty damn cool.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t suffer from the delusion that this particular stack of secrets if of interest to any but the most nerdtastic of aviation nerds. It isn’t the sealed portions of the Warren Commission files, lists of Drone War targets in Yemen, the truth of Obama’s extraterrestrial heritage, or anything that will alter anyone’s (even a nerdtastic aviation nerd’s) opinion of any current event, policy, or person.
But here’s the thing…if I hadn’t asked, these documents, inconsequential or not, would probably have forever remained secret (right alongside the Ark of the Covenant).
In a obscure way I directed the course of our government. Using the existing organs of transparency, a well reasoned request (and yes, the willingness to pay the reproduction fees!) I made secrets about what had once been a “black” program available to the public.
In these days when it seems like our government is so often up to things that are…let us say “questionable”…when policies seem dictated by corporate interests or paranoia or both, when all appears to be obscurity and misdirection, it was a powerful reminder that us citizens still have our role to play, that the organs of the government still respond to us. And if you don’t use that power to to try and make the change you want (obscure or grand as it may be), you have to take a share of the culpability for the state of things.
Sometimes it is easy to feel frustrated, ignored, and powerless, but without taking action you guarantee that you will be frustrated, ignored, and powerless.
It is a bit like asking that girl (or guy, depending) who you know is out of your league out on date. Sure, they probably will say no, but until you ask, you won’t know for sure. You could just fantasize and masturbate and never open yourself up to the risk of actual rejection. But if you never ask, you’d definitely never get to go out on that date.
Things don’t happen unless we make an effort, take some initiative. We can’t just lament the flaws in our society/government, we can’t just jump to the assumption that we have no recourse. It can feel like the normal pathways of change are all broken or corrupt and so protests and venting to our like-minded echo chambers and online posturing are the only options left. I’m not saying these things don’t have their place and their point (though I’m not so sure about online posturing, actually) but beware simply defaulting to actions that make you feel better more than they actually change anything.
Though imperfect and ponderous (my FOIA process certainly required patience!) don’t forget the “normal” tools in your passion and frustration. They were put there for a reason and they aren’t, I suspect, as broken as it often seems.
Maybe this means submitting your own FOIA request to the CIA or the NRO or the NSA or the FBI or the IRS or someone else. Maybe it means writing a Senator or a Representative. Maybe it means attending a local city council meeting and voicing your concerns about local matters (which are easy to lose track of but so often the most impactful). Maybe it means writing a well reasoned op-ed piece and submitting it for publication somewhere where it’ll connect with people outside of your own echo chamber. Maybe it means volunteering for a local or national candidate’s campaign…or running for office yourself (and if the latter, you are a hero). Maybe it means joining (or donating to) an organization working through the courts, for civil liberties, online privacy, the environment, immigrant rights, fair labor practices, or whatever cause you may feel closest to. Maybe it means voting with your pocketbook and patronizing firms who support your values, defend your rights and your privacy, practice their business ethically.
I’m not so naieve to think that you’ll get Trump’s tax returns or Clinton’s emails released where no doubt thousands have already tried (“Gee, this person asked so nicely, let’s go ahead and let that info out this time!”), nor that the FOIA process is free of corruption or good for much more than historical research (those Yemini drone targets are still considered sensitive, after all). But this isn’t about the Freedom of Information Act in particular, it is about taking some time, finding and understanding the tools available to you, and diligently working for the change you want.
And if you’ll excuse me, I’m now going to go write that check to the CIA…