CIA employee’s quest to release information ‘destroyed my entire career’

A 19-year veteran of the CIA claims he was fired for trying to make hundreds of once-secret documents public. Jeffrey Scudder shares his story about how his career unraveled. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

His CIA career included assignments in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq, but the most perilous posting for Jeffrey Scudder turned out to be a two-year stint in a sleepy office that looks after the agency’s historical files.

It was there that Scudder discovered a stack of articles, hundreds of histories of long-dormant conflicts and operations that he concluded were still being stored in secret years after they should have been shared with the public.

To get them released, Scudder submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act — a step that any citizen can take, but one that is highly unusual for a CIA employee. Four years later, the CIA has released some of those articles and withheld others. It also has forced Scudder out.

His request set in motion a harrowing sequence. He was confronted by supervisors and accused of mishandling classified information while assembling his FOIA request. His house was raided by the FBI and his family’s computers seized. Stripped of his job and his security clearance, Scudder said he agreed to retire last year after being told that if he refused, he risked losing much of his pension.

In an interview, Scudder, 51, cast his ordeal as a struggle against “mindless” bureaucracy, but acknowledged that it was hard to see any winners in a case that derailed his CIA career, produced no criminal charges from the FBI, and ended with no guarantee that many of the articles he sought will be in the public domain anytime soon.

“I submitted a FOIA and it basically destroyed my entire career,” Scudder said. “What was this whole exercise for?”

The CIA declined to comment on Scudder’s case, citing privacy restrictions and litigation related to his FOIA request. CIA personnel files obtained by The Washington Post accuse Scudder of having classified materials on his home computer and “a history of difficulty in protecting classified information.”

“The CIA does not retaliate or take any personnel action against employees for submitting [FOIA] requests or pursuing them in litigation,” said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd. “Of course, officers at CIA must also exercise their rights consistent with their obligation to protect classified material.”

At a time of renewed debate over the proper balance between secrecy and accountability for U.S. spy agencies, Scudder’s case reveals the extent to which there can be intense disagreement even inside agencies over how much information they should be allowed to withhold from the public and for how long.

Scudder’s case also highlights the risks to workers who take on their powerful spy-agency employers. Senior U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly argued that Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, should have done more to raise his concerns internally rather than exposing America’s espionage secrets to the world. Others who tried to do that have said they were punished.

Scudder’s actions appear to have posed no perceptible risk to national security, but he found himself in the cross hairs of the CIA and FBI.

Scudder’s attorney, Mark Zaid, described the case as an example of “aggressive retaliation against employees who seek to act in the public’s interest and challenge perceived poor managerial decisions. . . . The system is really broken.”

The documents sought by Scudder amount to a catalog of a bygone era of espionage. Among them are articles with the titles “Intelligence Lessons from Pearl Harbor” and “Soviet Television — a New Asset for Kremlin Watchers.”

Scudder said he discovered them after he took an assignment in 2007 as a project manager for the CIA’s Historical Collections Division, an office set up to comb the agency’s archives for materials — often decades old — that can be released without posing any security risk.

In recent years, the division has organized the release of records on subjects including the CIA’s role in the publication of the novel “Doctor Zhivago” and the historic role of women in the CIA workforce.

Scudder was hired by the CIA as a computer expert in the 1980s and rose through the ranks as a project manager in various departments. Colleagues described him as earnest and energetic, an effective troubleshooter who routinely volunteered for assignments in war zones. He also had a reputation for impatience with agency bureaucracy.

“He was excitable and was in almost constant motion,” said Charles A. Briggs, who served as the No. 3 official in the CIA during the Reagan administration and worked alongside Scudder as a contractor in the Historical Collections Division. “He can’t stand not doing what he thinks is proper.”

Scudder led efforts to upgrade the historical collection, converting thousands of documents to digital files that could be searched electronically. In the process, he said, he discovered about 1,600 articles that were listed as released to the public but could not be found at the National Archives. Further searching turned up hundreds more that seemed harmless but were stuck in various stages of declassification review.

Scudder said he made numerous attempts to get the trove released but was repeatedly blocked by the Information Review and Release Group, the office in charge of clearing materials for the public. In 2010, Scudder took a new assignment in the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center, but couldn’t forget his unfinished historical collections business. Filing a FOIA, he thought, might force the agency’s hand.

Explaining his decision four years later, Scudder acknowledged a stubborn streak that isn’t always aligned with his self-interest. “I am one of those guys who has to push that button,” he said.

Scudder’s FOIA submissions fell into two categories: one seeking new digital copies of articles already designated for release and another aimed at articles yet to be cleared. He made spreadsheets that listed the titles of all 1,987 articles he wanted, he said, then had them scanned for classified content and got permission to take them home so he could assemble his FOIA request on personal time.

Because of its mission, the CIA has been given broad exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act, which was enacted in the mid-1960s to make it harder for government agencies to hide internal records from the public. The CIA has fielded thousands of FOIA requests. Most applicants wait months if not years before getting a response — which is often an outright rejection.

Six months after submitting his request, Scudder was summoned to a meeting with Counterintelligence Center investigators and asked to surrender his personal computer. He was placed on administrative leave, instructed not to travel overseas and questioned by the FBI.

As his trouble deepened, Scudder and Zaid filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking to prove the materials he had taken weren’t classified.

On Nov. 27, 2012, a stream of black cars pulled up in front of Scudder’s home in Ashburn, Va., at 6 a.m. FBI agents seized every computer in the house, including a laptop his daughter had brought home from college for Thanksgiving. They took cellphones, storage devices, DVDs, a Nintendo Game Boy and a journal kept by his wife, a physical therapist in the Loudoun County Schools.

The search lasted nearly four hours, Scudder said. FBI agents followed his wife and daughters into their bedrooms as they got dressed, asking probing questions. “It was classic elicitation,” Scudder said. “How has Jeff been? Have you noticed any unexplained income? Cash? Mood changes?”

It was 14 months later, this January, when Scudder was told he wouldn’t face criminal charges. By then, his CIA career was over. The agency had mounted an internal investigation that determined that Scudder’s FOIA request “contained classified titles” of CIA articles and that he had deleted a “TOP SECRET” label from one document, according to a memo from an agency personnel board.

The agency also found photographs of CIA installations overseas. Scudder had taken the pictures in Iraq and elsewhere while on assignment as “an official photographer for the CIA,” according to the memo. But “there is no record of you being authorized to use your personal camera or to remove any of the photos you took . . . from a secure, CIA-controlled environment.”

Finally, the board unearthed infractions from an assignment in Africa in 1993 including unauthorized foreign travel and “making personal calls using [U.S. government] telephones.” The issues hadn’t impeded his career, but were now viewed as part of “a history of difficulty.”

Two supervisors submitted character references. One cited Scudder’s record of volunteering for duty in war zones and described him as “extremely patriotic” and “one of the best project managers” in his field. Another allowed that he might be guilty of misjudgment, but said terminating such “a bright, dedicated and honest officer would be a tragedy.”

Last summer, the board recommended that Scudder be fired. Around the same time, he was shown a spreadsheet outlining his possible pension packages with two figures — one large and one small — underlined. He agreed to retire.

His FOIA requests have succeeded, at least in part. Last year, the CIA delivered to the National Archives more than 1,400 articles that Scudder had identified as missing despite being cleared for release. The remaining records listed in Scudder’s FOIA submissions are still being withheld, he and Zaid said, although the CIA has agreed to begin reviewing those records and placing sanitized versions of at least some of them on its Web site.

But other developments are seen as setbacks. The CIA disbanded the Historical Collections Division last year, citing budget cuts, although officials said its declassification work is now being handled by another office.

Despite losing his security clearance, Scudder landed a job as a manager at a consulting firm that pays him a six-figure salary equivalent to what he earned at the end of his agency career. He and Zaid have written dozens of e-mails and letters seeking to recover the devices seized by the FBI. The bureau returned his daughter’s laptop last year, and several USB drives last week, but has not given back two computers that Scudder said hold personal information, including tax returns and family photos.

Scudder described moments of his ordeal that seemed surreal. In one instance, he said, FBI agents pointed to an article he was seeking titled “Sad Song of Norway” and insisted, against his claims to the contrary, that its title alone remained classified “Secret NOFORN,” meaning not to be shared even with allied intelligence services.

“As I reflect,” Scudder said, “I am hit again by the absurdity of it all.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.
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