A nonprofit organization, a persistent rabble-rouser, and their pro-bono attorney have succeeded in getting the Central Intelligence Agency to post the full contents of its declassified records database online, meaning it’s now possible to access roughly 13 million pages of CIA documents dating back to the beginnings of the Cold War.
Since 2000, the CIA has maintained the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The CREST database—containing every “historically valuable” record that had been declassified, thanks to a 1995 executive order by Bill Clinton—was technically publicly accessible, but could only be used on four computers at the archives during very limited business hours.
In June 2014, MuckRock, a nonprofit that helps people file Freedom of Information Act Requests, sued the CIA, claiming that the database was “technically public, but in practice largely inaccessible.” (Disclosure: Motherboard works regularly with MuckRock on stories.)
The CIA even noted on its website that visits to the archive “may be inconvenient and present an obstacle to many researchers.”
Ken McClanahan, a lawyer with the National Security Counselors—a group that specializes in transparency law—represented MuckRock pro bono. In the meantime, frequent MuckRock user Michael Best launched another project to put pressure on the CIA. Best planned to spend hundreds of hours sitting in the National Archives, printing, scanning, and uploading the documents so that they could be publicly accessible.
Best’s project was genius: Because the CIA does not charge for printer paper or toner, it would lose money every time he embarked on a scanning mission. Meanwhile, the lawsuit moved forward, and the CIA’s estimate that it would take 28 years to process and upload the files was reduced to six years. Eventually the agency caved altogether, and in October it announced it would put the files online as soon as possible.
“The hope was that the financial pressure, the negative press and making it not only a legal but a practical inevitability that these files would be put online would force the Agency to speed up their timetable,” Best wrote in a blog post.
Tuesday, the agency put the records online. The records include Henry Kissinger’s papers, CIA research and development documents, scientific papers, photographic intelligence reports, news archives, and countless other documents. They can be accessed—in full—here.