Don’t ask me why or how, but in the past few days I reached the online CIA site that offers access to its declassified documents. The internet works in such ways; before you know it, you reach someplace you didn’t expect to, and the next few hours vanish while trying to learn more about it.
So, the CIA, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, has its site at cia.gov. On it, it has a virtual ‘library’ and a reading room, which offers free access to anyone to its old secret documents which it has now declassified.
Nobody would uncritically praise the CIA. A brief search online indicates that it has been caught up in repeated controversies. Its history has been linked to wars (in Korea, Syria, Indo-china, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan), coup d’etats (in Iran, Guatemala and elsewhere), and much more such negative activities.
In terms of controversies, it has got caught up in domestic wiretapping (during the anti-war movement of 1969), extrajudicial transfers of persons from one country to another, torture by proxy, human rights violations, lying to the House of Congress, even drug trafficking!
Wikileaks has leaked information about the CIA’s cyber tools. It says the CIA is able to compromise cars, smart TVs, web browsers, smartphone operating systems, and so on.
(Thanks to options like the Wikipedia, public memory today might not be all that short. It is possible to find links to the history of an individual, or institution, like the one above, in the space of a few clicks. Like the famed, alternative American journalist I F Stone once put it, if you read your newspapers closely enough, you can be better informed than both the CIA and then KGB put together. Of course, that few read their newspapers with the care deserved is another matter.)
In such a context, it is surprising to see the CIA itself share online much of the resources — even related to a small place like Goa — which it had collated in the past. I ran into all these bits and bytes of information entirely by chance and was quite surprised.
For instance, would you believe that the CIA itself kept track of an iron ore mine in Sirigao, describing it in quite some detail and writing about it? Way back in 1954, when Goa was still under the Portuguese, the CIA commented that “the first mechanised iron ore mine at Sirigao, “among the best in Asia”, came into operation recently… “ It looked at capacity, Japanese investment, operations, and the like.
In 1951, the CIA was reporting that the Nepal Congress was then trying to get arms from Goa (apart from Pondicherry).
Its other studies looked at specific media reporting on the then Portuguese colonies, and background to the ‘Portuguese possessions in India’. You could interpret such an interest in any which way. The Americans unsupportingly stood by as Britain was trying to regain control over the Suez Canal, and it’s obvious that a weaker British empire could give the US more clout worldwide. Similar could be seen as the case for Goa too.
The CIA of those times went on to study Portuguese rule in East Timor, and Leftwing politics in Portugal too. The CIA, its own documents tell us, was analysing “short-term Indian intentions towards Goa” (on December 13, 1961). On December 19, 1961, the US President’s intelligence checklist had Goa right on the very top of its agenda. Maps depicting the Indian troops’ entry into Goa make for interesting reading, and could surely have academic relevance even today.
This is only the tip of the iceberg and ‘research’ of a superficial search that lasted just a few minutes. Surely, there would surely be more. In a Goa which is filled with history from the past centuries, it’s also important to look closer to our times itself, to understand the issues and interests that shaped us all along. Sometimes, without us even being aware.
The CIA does know where to invest its resources, even if you don’t quite like what they’re doing. So does the rest of the US Establishment. Way back in the 1980s, the academic-turned-State Department-official Walter K Andersen was then (in 1987) studying the RSS. His resultant book, co-authored with Sridhar D Damle, is called ‘The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism’. This is the kind of book which, if read, would hardly leave scope for many shocks when you fail to understand the ideology of the organisation you’re dealing with. The two co-authors have gone on to do another work more recently, on a related theme.
If some of these issues seem to belong to another era, that’s because they are being released only now, after the ‘cooling off’ period over the same has ended. That apart, what is really impressive here is the way in which even such (sensitive, in some cases, with parts blacked out) documents have been released for one and all to see online.
In our own case, back home in India, leave aside released classified documents and making these available, even official records and details of governmental workings can be hard to come by.
The Right to Information Act requires government departments to voluntarily share (via their websites at least) the details of their official working. This happens more in the breach than in practice, and governments, once in power, attempt to curb the powers of the RTI itself.
There is little information about where all the information that shaped our lives, a generation or so earlier, is available. At times, large amounts of official information are destroyed on the specious plea that space to store it is in short supply. All this means that we remain a poorly informed society. Our academia lacks the material to work on.
Come on, if the CIA can do it, then surely everyone else can do a lot better when it comes to sharing the records of our yesterdays.