Mark S. Zaid, Esq.
(202) 785-3801


World War One Documents Describe "Secret Ink" Techniques


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) yesterday informed the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that it refuses to publicly release any of the six oldest U.S. classified documents currently in the custody of the National Archives & Records Administration. The documents, which date from 1917-18, are being sought as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the James Madison Project (JMP) last November. Although created 30 years prior to the existence of the CIA, the documents, which apparently contain formulas for making secret ink and the methods for detecting secret ink, particularly as used by the German government during the Great War, are controlled by the CIA as the agency with the "most interest in the subject matter".

Despite the documents and information being nearly 100 years old, the CIA asserts that these formulas and techniques are: "(1) currently viable for use by CIA agents; (2) building blocks for the CIA's more modern and sophisticated methods of using or detecting secret writing; (3) used to test current CIA secret writing systems for vulnerabilities; and (4) used to develop new formulas and techniques for secret writing." The CIA added that disclosure of this information would compromise its covert communications systems and make it "more vulnerable to detection ... by hostile intelligence services or terrorist organizations."

"I don't know whether to be saddened or amused by the CIA's concern that disclosure of rudimentary techniques utilized in times long since past against enemies long since gone would jeopardize our current intelligence capacity. Certainly our level of scientific sophistication has sufficiently developed to a level where protecting the basic building blocks of secret ink is no longer necessary," said Mark S. Zaid, JMP's Executive Director. Zaid added that the use of secret ink is a technique known to schoolchildren throughout the world, and that CIA's decision to keep the documents sealed from public view evidences the need to reassess current U.S. government posture on secrecy and inject a sense of reality into the process.

At a court status hearing held February 11, 1999, the District Court Judge presiding over the case questioned the CIA's intimations that it would withhold the documents and jokingly remarked that he remembered obtaining the recipe for secret ink as a child from his breakfast cereal box. The story of the United States' first significant encounter with an enemy's espionage use of secret ink was detailed in the 1931 tell-all book The American Black Chamber by Herbert O. Yardley, a former State Department official who was a Codebreaker during World War One. Yardley authored his book in protest of the U.S. government shutting down his secret office in the 1920s. JMP is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization with the primary purpose of educating the public on issues relating to intelligence gathering and operations, secrecy policies, national security and government wrongdoing.

This FOIA lawsuit supports a main premise of JMP's existence - the reduction of secrecy. JMP advocates the 1997 findings of The Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, which was chaired by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Commission stated that "[t]he best way to ensure that secrecy is respected, and that the most important secrets remain secret, is for secrecy to be returned to its limited but necessary role. Secrets can be protected more effectively if secrecy is reduced overall."