On Open Sources and Closed Agencies

Posted: December 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm, Last Updated: December 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm

by David Price, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at St. Martin’s University

David Price is a professor of anthropology with an impressive publication record: three important monographs and scores of articles that document and analyze the relationships among scholarship, intelligence, and the military. So it comes as a surprise to the academic community that his routine request for a fee waiver under the Freedom of Information Act has been rejected on the grounds that his research is not “likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of operations or activities of the United States Government.” Fee waivers are of course what make this sort of research viable; without them, research costs would quickly become prohibitively expensive. We publish Price’s responses—a short description of the sort of research he conducts, and a copy of his appeal letter—in the interest of highlighting threats to critical scholarship and the lack of transparency in crucial bureaucratic processes.

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For the past two decades, I have used archival research and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to document and analyze a broad range of relationships between American military and intelligence agencies and anthropologists.  Originally, I started this project trying to understand how anthropological research at times informed Cold War intelligence. But along the way I’ve been sidetracked by post-9/11 political developments linked to the militarization of American society in general and my discipline in particular.  I have been surprised by the results of FOIA requests; these have unearthed large caches of significant FBI records on McCarthy-era persecutions of anthropologists, as well as scholarly, military, and intelligence collaborations during the Second World War.

I am now finishing work on a book documenting anthropologists’ interactions with military, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies during the Cold War.  Projects of this sort require a great deal work to establish the context of institutional interactions.  The needed contexts include not only the political milieu, but also anthropologists’ links to the Second World War and how these experiences shaped early postwar acceptance of CIA and Pentagon interactions as normal anthropological activities.

To make a long story short: This is long, slow work. It requires a lot of record keeping and tenacity in order to monitor and manage the status of requests, and at times to file appeals—either in as in-house appeals with federal agencies, or through the federal court system.

After more than a decade of filing FOIA requests for CIA records and regularly being granted waivers for fees associated with these requests, I now regularly have my requests for fee waivers rejected.  I know from communications with other FOIA researchers, and from my two decades of FOIA research, that there is a general tightening of FOIA access, and various news reports indicate that CIA, FBI and other federal agencies have, under the Obama administration, intensified their resistance to inquiries into intelligence agencies current and historic interference with domestic academic inquiries and domestic political movements.

The recalcitrance of the CIA, as it resists revealing documents pertaining to its institutional history, has become an institutional defining feature that is matched by Congress’ failure to provide oversight of the agency.  The agency’s devotion to sequestering knowledge of its activities is not bound by time.  As the below appeal of a simple request for records dating back over four decades indicates, the CIA remains steadfastly protective of records that could shed light on the ways that the agency interfered with the production of academic knowledge during the Cold War.  There are enough details in the appeal to give readers some idea why CIA records relating to Mr. Holland are of interest to me and my efforts to document CIA interference with Cold War knowledge-production.

During the past two decades I have filed over a thousand FOIA requests. Some have been processed speedily and in a forthright manner, while many others have required ongoing monitoring and appeals (appeals most often made in the dark, facing Kafkaesque bureaucratic logic whereby I must make arguments for documents I cannot know exist and can only speculate on what they may or may not reveal), some taking over half a decade to be released.

I share the below appeal in part to show the sort of diligence and effort needed to use FOIA as an effective research tool, but also to demonstrate the sort of unchecked resistance the CIA is allowed to engage in, even for requests seeking to delve into near-ancient bureaucratic history:

November 20, 2013

FOIA Fee Waiver Appeal
Office of Information and Privacy Coordinator
Central Intelligence Agency
Washington, D.C. 20505

Dear Sir or Madam,

This letter is to appeal the CIA’s denial of my request for a fee waiver for fees associated with my FOIA request for records relating to American educator, Mr. Kenneth Holland.

In response to my October 3, 2013 FOIA request (F-2013-2576) for records, CIA denied my request for a fee waiver for costs associated with processing my FOIA request.  I requested this waiver arguing that my research would meet the required standards of being “likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of operations or activities of the United States Government.”  In her November 7, 2013 response, CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator, Michele Meeks denied my fee waiver request stating that the disclosure of the information I “seek is not ‘likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the United States Government.’”

In appealing this finding, below I address both how the information I seek is likely to provide information on certain United States Governmental operations of which the public remains poorly informed, and to also address the extent to which my work has a well-established record of increasing public understanding of little understood or poorly document aspects of certain activities of the CIA.

First let me address the nature of the information I seek and establish its relationship to the public understanding of the operations and activities of the United States Government.  The documents held by the CIA on Kenneth Holland are likely to provide documentation supporting or countering claimed relationships between Holland, an international educator who held positions of importance on several academic research foundations, and the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War.

Mr. Kenneth Holland worked for Nelson Rockefeller at the Coordinator of Inner American Affairs during the Second World War, and he later became the President of the Institute of International Education (IIE).  At IIE he helped track and compile lists of scholars working on international research for the Central Index of Education Exchangees; according to an article published in the February 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the American Anthropological Association Holland directed the compilation of a list of over 200,000 students participating in international educational experiences (see: BAAA 1955 3(1):13).  In the 1995 book, Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (1995, HarperCollins), Gerald Colby and Charlotte Dennett described Holland’s Institute of International Education during the 1960s as a “CIA conduit that administered the Fulbright Scholarship and student exchanges from its offices at U.N. Plaza.  Holland had served on the [Organization of American States] Task Force on Education and was considered well informed on student affairs during the tumultuous 1960s”(Colby & Dennett 1995:832).  A 1975 article published in Counter-Spy identified Holland’s involvement with the CIA asset known as the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) (see Counter-Spy 1975 (2)2:42).  I do not fully understand the veracity of these and other claims connecting Mr. Kenneth Holland with the Central Intelligence Agency, but the Agency’s compliance with my FOIA request, complete with the granting of my fee waiver will help clarify the nature of any such relationships.  The release of CIA records relating to Holland would either support or counter claims of Holland’s CIA connections.  Whatever records are released would inform public understanding of the sort of covert CIA interactions with academics that the Pike and Church Hearings discovered and sought to limit during and following congressional investigations of the 1970s.  As the Church Committees wrote in its final report,

“The CIA’s intrusion into the foundation field in the 1960s can only be described as massive.  Excluding grants from the “Big Three” [Ford Rockefeller, and Carnegie] of the 700 grants over $10,000 given by 164 other foundations during the period 1963-1966, at least 108 involved partial or complete CIA funding.  More importantly, CIA funding was involved in nearly half the grants the non-”Big Three” foundations made during this period in the field of international activities.  In the same period more than one-third of the grants awarded by non-”Big Three” in the physical, life and social sciences also involved CIA funds…. A 1966 CIA study explained the use of legitimate foundations was the most effective way of concealing the CIA’s hand as well as reassuring members of funding organizations that the organization was in fact supported by private funds.  The Agency study contended that this technique was “particularly effective for democratically-run membership organizations, which need to assure their own unwitting members and collaborators, as well as their hostile critics, that they have genuine, respectable, private sources of income” (Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities [Church Committee Report], Senate Report 94 Cong 2, SESS, No 94-755. 1976 1:182-183).

As the Pike and Church Committee Senate and Congressional Reports concluded, these covert relationships connecting the CIA with witting and unwitting academics undermined basic democratic processes, and interfered with the development of independent academic analysis—analysis which is important for informing governmental policies and informing the American voting public.  Because the CIA has not publicly produced documents, such as those I request relating to Mr. Holland, there is much that remains unknown about how these covert interactions with academics impacted academic inquiry and American political processes.  It is the documentation I seek of alleged links between CIA influences on academic inquiry informing governmental policies and the voting public that I anticipate will “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the United States Government.”   I will use any CIA records released under this FOIA request to publish works that will inform the public of how these past CIA connections with academics had deleterious effects on American democratic processes.

Next, let me address my record of using documents released to me under FOIA to educate the public about the operations or activities of the United States Government.  I can demonstrate an exceptional record of publishing analysis of FOIA documents released to me, and I am regularly interviewed by members of the press about issues relating to links between academia and military and intelligence agencies, with interviews with me appearing in dozens of magazines, newspapers, television and radio programs, including Time, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The Progressive, USA Today, and The New York Times.  I am a scholar who has published over seventy articles, appearing in both peer reviewed academic journals and popular journalistic outlets written for the general public, and series of books published by Duke University Press, drawing on documents released to me under FOIA.  Because this research uses these FOIA documents to examine how governmental intelligence agencies have historically circumscribed democratic movements in the United States, I reject the CIA’s argument that I will not use these documents to further public understanding of the U.S. Government.  To see a record of some of the publications (there are many more, I have not had time to update this list), please examine this resource page of my largely FOIA related publication that I maintain on my university web page: http://homepages.stmartin.edu/fac_staff/dprice/all.html).

Finally, I am at a loss to understand why, after being granted many CIA search request waivers over the past decade and a half, I am being denied this fee waiver.  The Agency’s denial of this straightforward request from a scholar writing critical of the CIA’s past and present interference with academic research fails to follow fee waiver guidelines.  While the CIA may certainly be embarrassed over revelations and analysis of these past interactions, Agency embarrassment is not currently an allowable exemption.


David Price, Ph.D.

cc: The Honorable Denny Heck, United States House of Representatives

I also sent a brief letter to my member of congress, Representative Denny Heck, asking for his assistance in monitoring the outcome of this appeal.  During the past two decades I have received valuable assistance from staff members of my congressional representatives. In one instance this led to the release of documents on past National Security Education Program  (NSEP) recipients: A governmental subcontractor associated with the NSEP had told the staff of former congressional representative Brian Baird that they did not want to release the documents because of what they feared I would do with the information.  When I hear from other FOIA scholars inquiring about filing administrative appeals, I sometimes recommend they involve their congressional members in basic oversight of contentious appeals.

It is easy to grow tired of the CIA’s bureaucratic shenanigans.  The agency’s active efforts to restrict public knowledge of the CIA’s historical interference in domestic knowledge production remains as strong today as it was during the heart of the Cold War.  Yet as long as the American public is not allowed access to records establishing the ways that the Agency has (or has not) interfered with past programs supporting international study and academic inquiry, our ability to evaluate the role of the CIA in the production of intellectual inquiry informing democratic decision making remains incomplete and the promise of informed democratic decision making remains unfulfilled.

David Price (dprice@stmartin.edu) is Professor Anthropology in Saint Martin’s University Department of Society and Social Justice and is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology (2011, CounterPunch Books), Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (2004, Duke), and  Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (2008, Duke).

Write to Gavin Mueller at gmueller@gmu.edu

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