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A World War I-era invisible-ink formula must remain out of sight to protect national security, a federal judge has ruled. Siding with the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to keep the 85-year-old documents classified, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson rejected a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 16 pages of documents on how to create and detect invisible ink. The request was made by the James Madison Project, a nonprofit organization that encourages government accountability and openness. Its founder and executive director, Mark S. Zaid, said he has little interest in espionage or secret ink formulas. He sought the oldest classified information he could find in the National Archives and Records Administration to show how absurd and arbitrary government disclosure remains. “To classify these formulas is like classifying Morse code or Indian smoke signals,” said Zaid, who is of counsel at Lobel, Novins & Lamont in Washington, D.C. Formulas for invisible ink are widely available in books and on the Internet, where they are described as children’s science experiments. When held near a heat source such as a candle or an iron, a seemingly blank sheet of paper will reveal a message written in lemon juice, onion juice, milk or vinegar. Zaid contends that the documents he’s seeking are already pretty visible. Sections of some of them have already been released by other agencies, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, following FOIA requests. He filed suit in 1998 to obtain the papers, which were produced between 1917 and 1930. Attorneys representing the CIA — which is handling the litigation — argued that though secret ink may seem an unsophisticated espionage technique compared to 21st-century encryption, it could nonetheless be valuable to America’s foes. “It is still a viable use, rudimentary as it might be, of the technology,” said Michael Tadie, a CIA spokesman. If the classified information fell into enemy hands, it could help them upgrade their secret writing skills, he said. At a 15-minute hearing last month, Jackson said he was sympathetic to Zaid’s quest but felt uncomfortable declassifying material that the CIA alleged could affect national security. Zaid said Jackson denied his request without reviewing the invisible-ink documents. As of press time, the judge had not yet issued a written decision. Jackson’s law clerk said the judge would not comment on the case. James Madison Project v. National Archives & Records Administration, No. 98-2737 (D.D.C.). It’s not uncommon for judges to give wide berth to government agencies when they argue for protecting documents’ secrecy, said Jon van Horne, a former government lawyer who handles federal administrative matters for Greenberg Traurig in Washington, D.C. “Unless they’re laughably off-base, the courts will pretty much go along with it,” he said. There may very well be government officials who honestly believe invisible ink is an important espionage tool. “I can see them making the argument that now that they have to get back in the business of human intelligence” — in hot spots such as Afghanistan — “human intelligence is more important than it was 10 years ago,” van Horne said.But even formerly top-secret details about nuclear fission have been declassified and reprinted on the Net and in books, said Harold J. Krent, interim dean of Chicago-Kent College of Law and a former Department of Justice attorney. “While the CIA’s position is theoretically possible, it’s very difficult to believe,” he said.Zaid, who said he will appeal, isn’t optimistic about being able to speedily unmask the secrets of invisible-ink formulas. “You always have a glimmer of hope, but I’m by no means surprised by this decision,” he said.

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