Inside the Mind of the CIA

In June 2014, MuckRock, a collaborative non-profit news site, sued the Central Intelligence Agency for access to its CREST database, the agency’s repository of declassified information. The CIA responded with a variety of arguments, all of which were shot down in the courts. Last year, MuckRock won the case and last week the CIA complied with the court ruling.

Now you, too, can explore the mind of the CIA from your laptop. 

The MuckRock lawsuit not only vindicated the principle of government transparency, even at a secretive agency; it also empowers people to understand how the CIA works and how its personnel think.

A few caveats.

First, the CREST database, which contains 13 million pages of records, was never entirely secret. Until now, the only way to search CREST was to go the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, and sign on to a computer terminal.

Second, none of the documents come from the agency’s operational files. Almost all of them are more than 10 years old. Some have been heavily redacted.

Third, many of the documents are newspapers and magazine articles.

Nonetheless, CREST offers a trove of mostly reliable information about how the CIA has gone about its business. Plug in the following six search terms and you will not be disappointed.

1. Rendition

The CIA’s practice of capturing suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks populated a worldwide network of “black sites,” which became notorious when the Agency's use of torture was exposed. The Agency audited the black sites in 2006. The names and locations are censored, but you get the sense of how a bureaucracy dedicated to torture works.

The abuses of the rendition program were laid bare in a 2006 Inspector General’s report on the capture of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent who was not a terrorist: “The purported connections to the al-Qa’ida operative in Sudan, which served as the underpinning of the rendition were tenuous, circumstantial and produced no further incriminating information,” said the IG report.

El-Masri was subject to the sort of routine abuse prescribed in the CIA's handbook for medical officers involved in rendition. The document itemizes standard procedures for interrogation, body searches, and torture. “Most of the exam may take place while the detainee is hooded and restrained," says the handbook. "….the following [body] cavities must be searched....Sleep deprivation: 48 hours standard… Waterboard….no food or fluid intake for at least four hours prior to application."

(The CIA has since renounced waterboarding as an interrogation technique, although President Trump insists that torture "works.")

2. Cointelpro

Cointelpro (short for “Counterintelligence Program") was a joint FBI-CIA program that ran from 1958 to 1974 to harass, disrupt and destroy American dissidents. The targets ranged from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Women’s Strike for Peace to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the Black Panther Party.

A search for “Cointelpro” in CREST yields more than 1,000 returns, most of them newspaper stories, some of them quite good. Attorney General Edward Levi called Cointelpro "foolish” and “outrageous."


MKULTRA was the CIA’s code name for a massive drug experimentation program, which included dosing unwitting subjects with LSD. CREST has dozens of articles on MKULTRA. Some 80 institutions, including 44 colleges and universities, participated in the program, according to CIA director Stansfield Turner. Some of the participants were considered for criminal prosecution, though charges were never filed.

4. Extra Sensory Perception (ESP)

It seems that CIA officials took "parapsychology" seriously because they believed that Soviet and Czech intelligence services took it seriously. They even kept up with the latest developments in "Paranormal Metal Bending." In his masters thesis on “Remote Viewing," U.S. Army Captain Michael Zarbo wrote, "What we don’t know could hurt us." Sometimes intelligence agencies aren't too smart.

5. Mossad

The working relationship of the CIA and Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, is the stuff of myth, not all of it factual. The CIA’s in-house publication, Studies in Intelligence, has a useful history of "The Israeli Account," which traces how the relationship of the two spy agencies grew from its inception in 1951 through the arrest of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in 1985.

6. CounterSpy and Covert Action Information Bulletin

The CIA routinely denounced these two magazines in the 1970s and '80s because they sought to expose agency operations and operatives. But the publications often published accurate and timely information, so the agency subscribed. Now CREST makes some of the best work of the agency’s critics easy to access.

You can read “Disinformation and the Reagan Administration," or a discussion by Noam Chomsky about the semantics of “terrorism.” Who says your tax dollars are wasted at Langley?

Query the CREST database with your own search terms.

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