The CIA has a problem with the Freedom of Information Act. The agency is subject to the act, as are all other government organizations. But because of the numerous categories of exemptions in the FOIA--properly classified information, for example, need not be revealed--many of the agency's files are protected. The most sensitive material the CIA holds deals with its own methods and sources used to obtain information.

The difficulty is that in spite of the fact that this operational material would not have to be revealed through an FOIA request, before such a request can be denied, a complete search of all files must be undertaken and a justification provided for each denial. Such searches often take years--the agency's average response time to an FOIA request is 14 to 24 months--and require the expertise of highly trained intelligence personnel. The agency further complains that, even though the identity and activity of sources would never be revealed, many sources fear that they will not be protected because their files are subject to frequent search at Langley.

Initially, the CIA wanted a complete exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. This was a bad idea, and Congress has not been willing to go along. Now the agency supports a bill, introduced by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater, which is designed to exempt only operational files from the provisions of the FOIA. Since this material is invariably classified and would therefore not be released, the real purpose of the bill is to remove the requirement that these files be searched and that detailed justification be provided for refusing to release each individual piece of information. It is important to understand that the bill would not add to the agency's authority to withhold information; it addresses the problems of search and justification.

The bill is not perfect; witnesses at hearings last June pointed out some flaws. The manner in which files would be designated "operational" should be spelled out; the extent of judicial review must be clarified; a time limit should be provided so that historians and others can request searches of old files. Members of the Intelligence Committee are now trying to work out an acceptable package of amendments, and they hope to report a bill later this month. The need for both secret intelligence files and a free flow of information in our open society creates conflict that is not easily resolved. In this case, progress is being made.