In July, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see if the CIA was allowing its employees to work for Chevron on the side. As I explained in my previous blog post, Chevron has used private investigative firms to carry out legally and ethically questionable surveillance and other undercover work in connection with its litigation over contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon. After a source informed ERI that Chevron had also used CIA staff, I started asking questions.

Last month, the CIA denied my request for records pertaining to requests and approval for outside work by agency personnel. Here is the explanation I received:

[T]he CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request. The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods of information that is protected from disclosure[.]

This type of extraordinary response is informally known as “The Glomar Response.” Normally, when an agency denies a FOIA request, it informs the requester that it has the records, but that it will not release them based on one of the enumerated exceptions to FOIA. The Glomar Response is unique in that the agency refuses to even acknowledge whether any records requested exist.

There are two general grounds on which a Glomar response is based. The first is privacy, which isn’t implicated here because I didn’t seek information about individuals. That means it must be the second – which is national security. That raises a number of questions to me. If even confirming (or denying) the existence of records on this issue somehow implicates national security, what does that say about the fact that CIA employees do in fact contract out to private corporations on the side?

Indeed, the CIA itself has publicly admitted that it has a policy allowing for such outside employment. (See here and here). And, it seems almost certain that some sort of documents relating to this practice exist. As Politico reported in 2010:

A government official familiar with the policy insists it doesn’t impede the CIA’s work on critical national security investigations. This official said CIA officers who want to participate in it must first submit a detailed explanation of the type of work involved and get permission from higher-ups within the agency.

“If any officer requests permission for outside employment, those requests are reviewed not just for legality, but for propriety,” CIA spokesman George Little told POLITICO.

Despite initial pushback from Congress when this “moonlighting” policy was first revealed, transparency is entirely lacking. The CIA is notoriously secretive – but this strikes me as rather remarkable. The public has no idea how long this has been going on, how often it happens, what corporations these employees work for, or what the nature of that work is.

The CIA has defended the moonlighting policy and insisted it poses no risk to national security nor present any conflicts of interest. So then why is the mere “existence or nonexistence” of any records protected on the grounds of national security? That doesn’t make much sense to me.

Last week I submitted an administrative appeal the CIA, asking the CIA to reconsider its decisions.