WASHINGTON — The budget ax has fallen on a CIA office that focused on declassifying historical materials, a move scholars say will mean fewer public disclosures about long-buried intelligence secrets and scandals.
The Historical Collections Division, which has declassified documents on top Soviet spies, a secret CIA airline in the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis and other major operations, has been disbanded. The office that handles Freedom of Information Act requests will take over the work.
CIA officials said they closed the Historical Collections Division to accommodate federal budget cuts that the White House and Congress proposed last year to create pressure for a deficit reduction deal. No deal materialized, so across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester were imposed.
"As a result of sequestration, elements of one program office were moved into a larger unit to create efficiencies, but CIA will continue to perform this important work," said Edward Price, a CIA spokesman.
He said the agency remained committed to the "public interest mission" of declassifying significant historical documents.
But outside experts criticized the CIA for shutting down an office that academics, lawyers and historians use.
"This move is a true loss to the public," said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who frequently litigates against the CIA. He said the CIA office that handles Freedom of Information Act requests "is the most obstructionist and unfriendly of those I have dealt with during the last two decades."
"This is very unfortunate," said Robert Jervis, a Columbia University professor who chairs the CIA's Historical Review Panel, which advises the agency on declassification. "There will be fewer releases. We shouldn't fool ourselves."
Because the CIA's budget is classified, it's unclear how much it has shrunk, or how much was saved by closing the Historical Collections Division.
Unlike the Pentagon, which has forced more than 600,000 civilian employees to take unpaid leave, the CIA has not told its civilian staff to take furloughs. It instead has cut spending on outside contractors, including those who handle much of the labor-intensive work of declassifying CIA documents.
Some of the declassification is required by law, so the Historical Collections Division, which focused on discretionary declassification involving topics that scholars found compelling, was the easiest target for trimming costs, Jervis said.