The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has published a searchable archive of over 13 million pages of declassified materials online. The long-awaited access to the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST database) was granted as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the media outlet MuckRock and pressure from government transparency advocates.
Access to the CREST database was previously restricted to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Researchers, journalists, and other members of the public who wanted to access data had to go to College Park and use one of only four computers approved by the CIA, provided that the facility was open.
“Limiting access through reading rooms is an old-school tactic for agencies that don’t really want to be transparent,” explained Sean Moulton, Open Government Program Manager for the Project On Government Oversight. “In the internet age, if you can’t access records online, then they aren’t really public.”
The CIA originally claimed it would take 28 years to post all the documents outside of the approved National Archives facility. After the MuckRock lawsuit, the agency revised the estimate down to 6 years. However, in a recent phone interview with Bloomberg News, CIA director of information management Joseph Lambert said making the information more widely available was a “simple thing.”
The CIA eventually pushed up the deadline for an online reading room to the first quarter of 2017 after journalist and researcher Michael Best launched a Kickstarter campaign to copy and scan CREST documents himself.
Steve Aftergood from the Federation of American Scientists told Buzzfeed News that by giving in to public pressure to increase access to the database, the CIA comes “way out in front of their peer agencies.”