The release of the open government directive could change intelligence agencies' policies that deny Internet access to nonclassified data that is currently available only in hard copy or only to government personnel, say some Washington transparency advocates.
While many federal agencies already have started implementing parts of the guidance the White House issued on Tuesday, the CIA is still reviewing the document.
The directive, which President Obama announced the day after he took office in January, establishes deadlines for agencies to comply with specific initiatives aimed at making the business of government more transparent and accountable to the public. One requirement instructs agencies to publish online within 45 days at least three downloadable data sets that have not previously been available online or in a downloadable format. At the same time, agencies must adhere to privacy and national security restrictions, according to the directive.
Now that the directive is out, the circumstances driving the decisions to withhold online information have changed, some in the government transparency community said. They want the CIA to post on the Web declassified documents and noncopyrighted analyses of foreign news.
A CIA database of declassified intelligence documents -- the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) -- is available only through computers at the National Archives and Records Administration building in College Park, Md. To date, the CIA has opted not to publish CREST documents online because it fears information could then be extracted more easily and combined in a way that reveals classified information.
Agency officials on Thursday said the CIA has not decided whether it will put CREST documents online. "We're reviewing the directive to determine whether it requires us to transfer this already publicly available information to a Web-based technology platform," CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
She noted that the titles of the documents are available on the CIA Web site. Citizens can order the full documents through the site or visit the College Park facility to read them. The content is extensive, with more than 10 million pages of documents.
Jeremy Bigwood, an independent researcher who helps citizens use CREST at the National Archives building, said he does not understand how the release of the documents would jeopardize U.S. security interests. "If the agency insists on keeping it offline, at least they could provide some better computers," he said.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists, said CIA officials said, "that a clever analyst might be able to study the unclassified materials and derive classified information from them. I simply do not believe that's true."
The Open Source Center, an online clearinghouse of foreign affairs media that the CIA manages on behalf of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is not accessible to the general public. The password-protected portal containing translated news from around the world, as well as the U.S. government's own analysis and reporting, is open only to federal, state and local government employees and contractors.
Citizens who want to read the material can purchase a subscription to the World News Connection, a paid online service that offers most of the intelligence gathering. The Commerce Department negotiates publisher permissions and sells the product.
Harf again said the agency is examining the directive, adding that, "Open Source Center documents are copyrighted, which explains why we are unable to post them on our website."
While copyright protections likely prevent some of the translated and foreign publications from being posted for free, there is no reason that the government's unclassified original analyses should be restricted, Aftergood said.
ODNI spokesman Michael G Birmingham said, "We support the president's goal of increased transparency consistent with the protection of sensitive national security information. We are currently reviewing the memorandum to determine appropriate next steps."