CIA Realizes It's Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years
November 30, 2005 Issue 41•48
LANGLEY, VA—A report released Tuesday by the CIA's Office of the Inspector General revealed that the CIA has mistakenly obscured hundreds of thousands of pages of critical intelligence information with black highlighters.
According to the report, sections of the documents— "almost invariably the most crucial passages"—are marred by an indelible black ink that renders the lines impossible to read, due to a top-secret highlighting policy that began at the agency's inception in 1947.
CIA Director Porter Goss has ordered further internal investigation.
"Why did it go on for this long, and this far?" said Goss in a press conference called shortly after the report's release. "I'm as frustrated as anyone. You can't read a single thing that's been highlighted. Had I been there to advise [former CIA director] Allen Dulles, I would have suggested the traditional yellow color—or pink."
Goss added: "There was probably some really, really important information in these documents."
When asked by a reporter if the black ink was meant to intentionally obscure, Goss countered, "Good God, why?"
Goss lamented the fact that the public will probably never know the particulars of such historic events as the Cold War, the civil-rights movement, or the growth of the international drug trade.
"I'm sure the CIA played major roles in all these things," Goss said. "But now we'll never know for sure."
In addition to clouding the historical record, the use of the black highlighters, also known as "permanent markers," may have encumbered or even prevented critical operations. CIA scholar Matthew Franks was forced to abandon work on a book about the Bay Of Pigs invasion after declassified documents proved nearly impossible to read.
"With all the highlighting in the documents I unearthed in the National Archives, it's really no wonder that the invasion failed," Franks said. "I don't see how the field operatives and commandos were expected to decipher their orders."
The inspector general's report cited in particular the damage black highlighting did to documents concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, thousands of pages of which "are completely highlighted, from top to bottom margin."
"It is unclear exactly why CIA bureaucrats sometimes chose to emphasize entire documents," the report read. "Perhaps the documents were extremely important in every detail, or the agents, not unlike college freshmen, were overwhelmed by the reading material and got a little carried away."
Also unclear is why black highlighters were chosen in the first place. Some blame it on the closed, elite culture of the CIA itself. A former CIA officer speaking on the condition of anonymity said highlighting documents with black pens was a common and universal practice.
"It seemed counterintuitive, but the higher-ups didn't know what they were doing," the ex-officer said. "I was once ordered to feed documents into a copying machine in order to make backups of some very important top-secret records, but it turned out to be some sort of device that cut the paper to shreds."