FOIA FAQ: The ultimate guide to searching CIA's declassified archives

FOIA FAQ: The ultimate guide to searching CIA’s declassified archives

Looking to dig into the Agency’s 70 year history? Here’s where to start

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

While the Agency deserves credit for compiling a basic guide to searching their FOIA reading room, it still omits information or leaves it spread out across the Agency’s website. In one egregious example, the CIA guide to searching the records lists only three content types that users can search for, a review of the metadata compiled by Data.World reveals an addition ninety content types. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to dive into CREST and start searching like a pro.

Categories of information

Browsing, Filtering or Searching?

Searching made simple

Advanced search options

Search Strategies

Categories of information

While there’s nothing stopping you from searching all of the CIA’s online database at once, it can also be useful to limit your search to specific categories in order to reduce false hits. Be warned, however - according to the Agency, “some documents do not fall into a collection and may be missed if you have limited your search to a specific collection or collection(s).” In other words, you’ll see a few more documents by selecting no categories than by selecting every category and limit the results to only the documents that have been assigned to a specific category.

As of April, CIA identified the following collections and the corresponding number of documents within them followed by a description, most of which were taken from CIA’s various materials:

  1. A Life in Intelligence - The Richard Helms Collection (834): This collection of material by and about Richard Helms as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and Ambassador to Iran comprises the largest single release of Helms-related information to date. The documents, historical works and essays offer an unprecedented, wide-ranging look at the man and his career as the United States’ top intelligence official and one of its most important diplomats during a crucial decade of the Cold War. From mid-1966, when he became DCI, to late 1976, when he left Iran, Helms dealt directly with numerous events whose impact remains evident today and which are covered in the release.
  2. A-12 OXCART Reconnaissance Aircraft Documentation (351): This release consists of maps, diagrams, and photographs dealing with the A-12 reconnaissance aircraft is occasioned by CIA’s acquisition on loan from the Air Force of the eighth A-12 in the production series of 15. The declassified material will provide researchers on aviation and intelligence with significant additional detail about the design and development of the A-12 – still the fastest and highest flying piloted operational jet aircraft ever built – and its use as an intelligence collection platform in East Asia.
  3. Air America: Upholding the Airmen’s Bond (92): A fascinating assembly of documents revealing the role that Air America, the Agency’s proprietary airline, played in the search and rescue of pilots and personnel during the Vietnam War. The collection has personal accounts by the rescued pilots and thank you letters as well as commendations from various officials. It includes, for the first time, direct information about Lima Site 85 in Laos and a possible hijacking attempt in the 1964 crash of Flight 908. Other elements include the airline’s role in the final evacuations from Da Nang and Saigon in April, 1975.
  4. An Underwater Ice Station Zebra: Recovering a Secret Spy Satellite Capsule from 16,400 feet Below the Pacific Ocean (37): The Missile Gap was in essence a growing perception in the West, especially in the USA, that the Soviet Union was quickly developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capability earlier, in greater numbers, and with far more capability than that of the United States. Even as that perception was disproved, it became evident that the Soviets were placing their major effort toward developing strategic missiles against which, once launched, there was no defense. The perceived missile gap that ensued was based on a comparison between US ICBM strength as then programmed, and reasonable, although erroneous estimates of prospective Soviet ICBM strength that were generally accepted. This release of CIA material includes photos of the capsule on the ocean floor, pictures of the Trieste II (DSV-1), documents, and an article explaining how the CIA and U.S. Navy undertook the deepest undersea salvage then attempted.
  5. Atomic Spies: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (102): This collection covers US intelligence activities, including FBI-CIA cooperation; USSR intelligence activities; the Rosenberg espionage network’s collection against the US atomic energy program; their attempts to protect the network as US authorities closed in on it; their arrest; Soviet propaganda; the Soviet’s protest of the Rosenberg’s sentencing; and Moscow’s reaction to the execution of their spies.
  6. Baptism By Fire: CIA Analysis of the Korean War Overview (1355): This collection includes national estimates, intelligence memo, daily updates, and summaries of foreign media concerning developments on the Korean Peninsula during 1947 - 1954. The release of this collection, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the start of the war, makes available to the public the largest collection of Agency documents released on this issue. The release of these documents is in conjunction with the conference, “New Documents and New Histories: Twenty-First Century Perspectives on the Korean War,” co-hosted by the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and the CIA in Independence, Missouri.
  7. Bay of Pigs Release (8): The CIA history of the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, originally classified top secret, based on dozens of interviews with key operatives and officials and hundreds of CIA documents. The volumes include (I) Air Operations, March 1960-1961; (II) Participation in the Conduct of Foreign Policy; (III) Evolution of CIA’s Anti-Castro Policies, 1959-January 1961; and (IV) the Taylor Committee Investigation of the Bay of Pigs. The collection also includes the draft fifth volume, CIA’s Internal Investigation of the Bay of Pigs.
  8. Bosnia, Intelligence, and the Clinton Presidency (341): This collection of more than 300 declassified documents highlights the accomplishments of the Clinton Administration in brokering the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which resolved the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, and the role the Director of Central Intelligence Interagency Balkan Task Force (BTF) played in informing policymakers’ decisions. The compilation contains Statements of Conclusions from National Security Council meetings where senior officials made decisions on the Bosnian conflict, BTF memoranda pertaining to those meetings, key intelligence assessments, and selected materials from the State Department, White House, Department of Defense, and William J. Clinton Presidential Library. The records center around 1995, the year in which the Dayton Accords were signed.
  9. CIA Analysis of the Warsaw Pact Forces (1078): This study examines the role of clandestine reporting in CIA’s analysis of the Warsaw Pact from 1955 to 1985. The Soviet Union established itself as a threat to the West at the end of World War II by its military occupation of eastern European countries and the attempts of its armed proxies to capture Greece and South Korea. The West countered with the formation of NATO. While the West welcomed West Germany into NATO, the Soviets established a military bloc of Communist nations with the Warsaw Treaty of May 1955. This study continues CIA’s efforts to provide a detailed record of the intelligence derived from clandestine human and technical sources from that period. This intelligence was provided to US policy makers and used to assess the political and military balances and confrontations in Central Europe between the Warsaw Pact and NATO during the Cold War.
  10. CIA Declassifies Oldest Documents in U.S. Government Collection (6): Previously the government’s oldest classified documents, these papers describe secret writing techniques from World War I.
  11. CIA’s Clandestine Services: Histories of Civil Air Transport (4): This collection represents the public release for some of the most closely held activities in CIA history concerning one of the most controversial operations in American history. Within this collection, you will find excerpts of the CIA’s Clandestine Services Histories of Civil Air Transport (CAT) - the precursor to Air America.
  12. Consolidated Translations (33657): This collection contains translated reports of foreign-language technical articles of intelligence interest. The collection is organized by author and each document covers a single subject.
  13. Creating Global Intelligence (840): Discover the backstory of the US intelligence community by exploring “Creating Global Intelligence: The Creation of the US Intelligence Community and Lessons for the 21st Century”, a collection of declassified documents from the late 1940s to the early 1950s that ultimately led to the establishment of the CIA.
  14. CREST: 25-Year Program Archive (2012): Miscellaneous CREST records. Most of CREST has been split into other categories, including General CIA Records, STARGATE and Library of Congress.
  15. Declassified Articles from Studies in Intelligence: The IC’s Journal for the Intelligence Professional (242): This collection of released documents consists of a selection of declassified Studies in Intelligence articles from the 1970s to 2000s. The documents reveal the CIA’s place in conducting U.S. foreign policy. The Agency cannot plan or act today without being influenced in some way by its collective past or the historical experiences that these documents describe. This collection of declassified articles includes studies on the leadership of the individual DCIs and other senior Agency officers; histories of CIA directorates and their activities; tutorials on improving intelligence tradecraft; ever-changing intelligence challenges and national security threats to the U.S.; and specific events in which intelligence played a role in informing policy makers or influencing outcomes.
  16. Declassified Documents Related to 9/11 (6): Inspector General materials relating to 9/11.
  17. Doctor Zhivago (98): The CIA has declassified 99 documents describing the CIA’s role publishing Boris Leonidovich Pasternak’s epic novel, Doctor Zhivago, for the first time in Russian in 1958 after it had been banned from being published in the Soviet Union. The Zhivago project was one of many CIA-supported covert publishing programs that involved distributing banned books, periodicals, pamphlets, and other materials to intellectuals in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This collection provides a glimpse into a thoughtful plan to accomplish fast turn-around results without doing harm to foreign partners or Pasternak. Following the publication of Doctor Zhivago in Russian in 1958, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the popularity of the book skyrocketed, and the plight of Pasternak in the Soviet Union received global media attention. Moscow had hoped to avoid these precipitous outcomes by initially refusing to publish the novel two years earlier. There is no indication in this collection that having Pasternak win the Nobel Prize was part of the Agency’s original plan; however, it contributed to appeals to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and it was a blow to those who insisted that the Soviets in 1958 enjoyed internal freedom. Of note, the documents in this collection show how effective “soft power” can influence events and drive foreign policy.
  18. Documents Related to the Former Detention and Interrogation Program (50): 50 declassified documents – which constitute several hundred pages – related to the former Detention and Interrogation program
  19. FOIA Collection (19006): Miscellaneous documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, possibly including materials released pursuant to a Mandatory Declassification Review request.
  20. Francis Gary Powers: U-2 Spy Pilot Shot Down by the Soviets (71): This collection includes CIA Director Dulles’ testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the CIA report from its own Board of Inquiry into Powers’ conduct during his flight and capture. In addition, other documents include his trial in the USSR, his exchange for another Soviet spy held by the US, and his activities once he left the CIA.
  21. From Typist to Trailblazer: The Evolving View of Women in the CIA’s Workforce (117): This collection consists of some 120 declassified documents, the majority of which are being released for the first time. The collection includes more than 1,200 pages from various studies, memos, letters, and other official records documenting the CIA’s efforts to examine, address, and improve the status of women employees from 1947 to today.
  22. General CIA Records (768793): Records from the CIA’s archives that are 25 years old or older, including a wide variety of finished intelligence reports, field information reports, high-level Agency policy papers and memoranda, and other documents produced by the CIA.
  23. Ground Photo Caption Cards (15173): Used to identify photographs in the NlMA ground photograph collection. Each caption card contains a serial number that corresponds to the identical serial number on a ground photograph. The master negatives of the ground photography collection have been accessioned separately to NARA. The caption cards provide descriptive information to help identify which master negatives researchers may wish to request.
  24. Guatemala (5120): This collection chronicles CIA involvement in the 1954 coup in Guatemala. These records encompass the events and circumstances causing U.S. policymakers to plan the overthrow of the Guatemalan Government in June 1954 as Cold War tensions mounted between the two superpowers, the U.S. and Soviet Union; CIA plans for and execution of the covert action; the outcome; and CIA historical analysis of CIA’s performance and impact of the coup. The collection includes reviews of the event by CIA historians, administrative memos regarding operational plans and internal approvals; operational cable traffic; and summaries of the Sherwood tapes used for propaganda purposes.
  25. Human Rights in Latin America (624): This information deals with human rights in Latin America, with some documents dating from 1964 to 1995. Most of the documents concern El Salvador and Guatemala, but the collection also contains records on Brazil, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, and Peru. Some documents were released in 1993 to the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, which sought information on 32 alleged human rights violations in El Salvador between 1980 and 1991. These records reveal that U.S. citizens, other foreigners, and indigenous people on both the left and right in El Salvador and Guatemala were victims of these kidnappings, murders, and other human rights abuses. This collection includes Agency publications analyzing the dynamics surrounding the improvement or worsening of the human rights situation in these Latin American countries, such as a CIA Inspector General’s report and a Special National Intelligence Estimate on the performance of El Salvador regarding human rights.
  26. Intelligence, Policy, and Politics: The DCI, the White House, and Congress (1358): The Crafting of an Intelligence Community collection shows the day-by-day activities, decisions, staff meetings and contacts that confronted the first four DCIs. They ran the gamut of choosing a secretary to responding to a Presidential question to an evening social event with various ambassadors and dignitaries.
  27. John McCone as Director of Central Intelligence, 1961-1965 (2): John A. McCone was the sixth Director of Central Intelligence, serving from 1961 to 1965 during some of the most tumultuous events in American history. This study of McCone is a major contribution to the historiography of US intelligence. Originally published by the Center for the Study in Intelligence in 2005, the work established the criteria for scholarship on future work on such key figures in CIA and the Intelligence Community. At the least it will be the standard work on the sixth director of central intelligence for many years to come.
  28. JPRS (2554): A collection of translations of regional and topical issues compiled by the Joint Publication Research Service (JPRS) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These translations were produced in series which were published daily, weekly, or monthly depending on the topic.
  29. Library of Congress (7895): Henry Kissinger’s papers which papers did not originate with CIA, but contain many CIA equities and interests.
  30. Lt. Col. Oleg Penkovsky: Western Spy in Soviet GRU (179): This group of documents highlights the highs and lows of the intelligence business. The recruitment of a well-placed spy, in this case a high-ranking Soviet military intelligence officer, lessened the tensions of the Cold War by providing information on the intentions, strength, and technological advancement of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the enormous risks for the spy himself became evident in the fate of Penkovsky – shot as a traitor by the Soviets in 1963 for spying for the US and UK. These documents provide over-the-shoulder looks from the perspective of the CIA Director as well as from Penkovsky himself in operational meeting reports. This collection offers insights on the spy’s motives as well as the fruit of his espionage for us.
  31. National Intelligence Council (NIC): The National Intelligence Council is a center of strategic thinking within the United States Government, providing coordinated analyses of foreign policy issues for the President and senior policymakers. Its work ranges from brief analyses of current issues to over-the-horizon Estimates of broader trends. Although most of its work is for internal government use, the NIC also produces unclassified reports and collaborates with a wide range of independent scholars, experts, and organizations around the world. This collection contains hundreds of intelligence reports, including many National Intelligence Estimates and other publications produced by the National Intelligence Council or its predecessor organizations, the Office of National Estimates and the Office of Reports and Estimates since 1946.
  32. Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (56252): From the 1960s through the 1990s, the U.S. Government declassified the majority of its security-classified records relating to World War II. Yet, 60 years after the war, millions of pages of wartime and postwar records remained classified. Many of these records contained information related to war crimes and war criminals. This information had been sought over the years by congress, government prosecutors, historians and victims of war crimes. In 1998, the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG), at the behest of Congress, launched what became the largest congressionally mandated, single-subject declassification effort in history. This information sheds important historical light on the Holocaust and other war crimes, as well as the U.S. Government’s involvement with war criminals during the Cold War.
  33. NGA Records (Formerly NIMA): Records from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, primarily photographic intelligence reports.
  34. NIS (442): This collection contains gazetteers produced as part of the National Intelligence Survey program. The gazetteers provide lists of place names and geographic coordinates for cities and natural features such as rivers or mountains. This collection covers most countries of the world and dates from the late 1940s through the early 1970s.
  35. OSS Collection (336): Documents from the OSS, CIA’s World War II predecessor.
  36. POW MIA (802): Many of these records concerning Vietnam-era prisoners-of-war and missing-in-action were located, reviewed and released as a result of requests from next-of-kin and other interested parties concerning specific individuals in this category. Most of the records, however, were located and released as a result of Executive Order 12812, dated July 1992, which required all executive branch agencies of the government to review, declassify and release relevant documents pertaining to American POWs and MIAs missing in Southeast Asia. In accordance with this order, CIA conducted a thorough and exhaustive search of its operational files, finished intelligence reports, memoranda, background studies and open source files. CIA’s compliance with the executive order was completed on 9 November 1993. This collection also contains a limited number of documents created after that date, most notably a National Intelligence Estimate entitled “Vietnamese Intentions Capabilities, and Performance Concerning the POW/MIA Issue (April 1998)” and the Joint Report of the Inspectors General of the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency entitled “A Review of the 1998 National Intelligence Estimate on POW/MIA Issues and the Charges Levied by ‘A Critical Assessment’ of the Estimate (29 February 2000).” Certain material was withheld from the records released based on the continuing need to protect sources and methods, negotiations on foreign policy issues such as the normalization of relations, or privacy issues related to returnees and the families of POWs and MIAs.
  37. Preparing for Martial Law: Through the Eyes of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski (86): The collection release coincided with a CIA symposium honoring Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, a member of the Polish Army General Staff and the source of the documents. His information provided documents and personal commentary that gave intelligence analysts and US policy makers invaluable insight into the crisis.
  38. President Carter and the Role of Intelligence in the Camp David Accords (258): This collection consists of more than 250 previously classified documents, totaling over 1,400 pages, including some 150 that are being released for the first time. These documents cover the period from January 1977 through March 1979 and were produced by the CIA to support the Carter administration’s diplomatic efforts leading up to President Carter’s negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David in September 1978. The declassified documents detail diplomatic developments from the Arab peace offensive and President Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem through the regionwide aftermath of Camp David.
  39. President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (419): This collection highlights the causes and consequences of US Intelligence Community’s (IC) failure to foresee the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the October War or the Yom Kippur War. A coalition of Arab nations led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on October 6, the day of Yom Kippur. Prior to October 6, the CIA concluded that the Arabs would not attack, so the offensive surprised US policymakers as well as Israel. Directorate of Intelligence (DI) analysts believed that Arab military inferiority would militate against an attack on Israel. DI analysis did not explore the possibility that leaders might go to war–even at the risk of losing–to pursue political objectives. According to an internal postmortem, Agency analysis was impaired by preconceptions about Arab military capabilities, information overload, rational actor modeling and groupthink.
  40. President’s Daily Brief 1961-1969 (2484): This large-scale release of The President’s Intelligence Checklists (PICLs) [an acronym pronounced “pickles”] and The President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs) includes almost 2,500 documents exclusively written for the president each day except Sunday. They summarized the day-to-day intelligence and analysis on current and future national security issues. President Kennedy received the first PICL – a seven-page 8 - by 8-inch booklet – on Saturday, 17 June 1961 at his country home near Middleburg, Virginia. The PICL was replaced by the PDB on 1 December 1964, during the Johnson administration. In addition to the PDBs and PICLs, the collection includes The President’s Intelligence Review and its replacement, Highlights of the Week, as well as ad hoc supplemental products and annexes that featured topics of presidential interest. The CIA originators of the PICL, and later the PDB, strove to craft a daily current product that was true to sensitive source reporting and yet was easily readable by the president and his advisors.
  41. President’s Daily Brief 1969-1977 (2527): The declassified President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs) from the Nixon and Ford presidential administrations in this collection include about 2,500 documents and 28,000 pages. The PDBs contain the highest level of intelligence on the president’s key national security issues and concerns. These documents were the primary vehicle for summarizing the day-to-day sensitive intelligence and analysis, as well as late-breaking reports, for the White House.
  42. Reagan Collection (206): In the 1980s, the Cold War was going strong and was made worse by events such as the death of three Soviet leaders in a span of three years, the Soviet shootdown of a Korean airliner, and the USSR’s support for Communist governments and movements in Afghanistan and Central America. This collection of declassified documents and other material highlights what the CIA provided President Reagan and other top members of his national security team on key issues affecting US-Soviet relations. The collection is made up of intelligence assessments, National Intelligence Estimates, high-level memos, and DCI talking points.
  43. Scientific Abstracts (33072): This collection contains abstracts of foreign scientific and technical journal articles from around the world. This collection represents a significant effort by the Agency to document scientific research in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries.
  44. Secret Writing (6): Previously the government’s oldest classified documents, these papers describe secret writing techniques from World War I.
  45. Soviet and Warsaw Pact Military Journals (804): A collection of sensitive Soviet and Warsaw Pact military journals from 1961 to 1986 providing a view into Warsaw Pact military strategy.
  46. STARGATE (12473): A 25-year Intelligence Community effort that used remote viewers who claimed to use clairvoyance, precognition, or telepathy to acquire and describe information about targets that were blocked from ordinary perception. The records include documentation of remote viewing sessions, training, internal memoranda, foreign assessments, and program reviews.
  47. Stories of Sacrifice & Dedication (895): This collection of documents from CAT and AAm corporate files and CIA holdings spanning 1946 to 1978. These CIA air proprietary companies routinely supplied and supported covert capabilities for the US military, and conducted photo reconnaissance in east and southeast Asia from the end of World War II through the Vietnam conflict.
  48. Strategic Warning and the Role of Intelligence: Lessons Learned From The 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia (542): The Czechoslovak crisis began in January 1968. The Czech communist leadership embarked on a program of dramatic liberalization of the political, economic, and social orders. These reforms triggered increasing Soviet concerns culminating in the invasion of 21 August 1969. This collection of documents pertains to these issues, the responses and analysis of this event in history.
  49. The Berlin Wall Collection: A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall (378): Erected literally overnight, the building of the Berlin Wall was the culmination of over a decade of escalating confrontations and contentious blockades contrived to encourage the west to abandon Berlin to the Communist Bloc. The wall was East Germany’s ultimate attempt to isolate and destroy an island of freedom. Instead of expelling the west, Berlin became ground zero in a contest of tit-for-tat brinksmanship with a serious risk of erupting into nuclear war. War was averted, but the wall dividing Berlin became a corrosive global symbol of bitter oppression that would last for nearly three decades.
  50. The CAESAR, POLO, and ESAU Papers (149): This collection of declassified analytic monographs and reference aids, designated within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Directorate of Intelligence (DI) as the CAESAR, ESAU, and POLO series, highlights the CIA’s efforts from the 1950s through the mid-1970s to pursue in-depth research on Soviet and Chinese internal politics and Sino-Soviet relations. The documents reflect the views of seasoned analysts who had followed closely their special areas of research and whose views were shaped in often heated debate. Continuing public interest in the series, as reflected in numerous requests through Freedom of Information and Executive Order channels, led CIA’s Office of Information Management Services (IMS) to conduct a search of Directorate of Intelligence record systems for documents in this series and then undertake a declassification review of all the documents we located. The 149 documents in this collection, amounting to over 11,000 pages of analysis, were written between 1953 and 1973. The collection includes a large number of newly declassified monographs as well as some studies that have been previously declassified and released to individual requesters.
  51. The China Collection (71): This collection of over seventy National Intelligence Estimates on China is the most extensive single selection of intelligence analyses the United States Government ever has released. This recently declassified collection represents the most authoritative intelligence assessments of the United States Government and thus constitutes a unique historical record of a momentous era in China’s modern history.
  52. The Family Jewels (1): Widely known as the “Family Jewels,” this document consists of almost 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger asking them to report activities they thought might be inconsistent with the Agency’s charter and legal authority.
  53. The Original Wizards of Langley (59): This overview and collection of documents and other material related to the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) offer a glimpse of CIA’s overall contribution to the analysis of Soviet capabilities in science and technology during the Cold War. It is by no means intended to be definitive, or even complete, with respect to all the activities associated with the Agency’s scientific and technological capabilities, analysis, and resulting reporting. It does, however, highlight some key events and selected activities that contribute to our understanding of the unique role OSI played in the Agency’s history.
  54. The Princeton Collection (907): The “Princeton Collection” is a subset of the body of finished intelligence documents on the former Soviet Union published by the DI during the Cold War, which is being systematically reviewed and released to the public under the Agency’s voluntary declassification program. The goal of the Agency for this conference was to assemble a collection of documents large enough and sufficiently diverse to ensure that (1) most, if not all, of the major developments and analytic issues that occurred during the Cold War were represented, and (2) the tenor and substance of the DI’s analysis was adequately captured.
  55. The Vietnam Collection (174): This collection of declassified estimative products is the first such release by the Central Intelligence Agency of documents exclusively on the Vietnam war. The National Intelligence Council (NIC) commissioned Lloyd Gardner, the renowned American scholar on the Vietnam war, to prepare an introductory essay providing historical context for the documents.
  56. UFOs: Fact or Fiction? (243): This collection catalogues CIA information on this subject from the 1940s through the early 1990s. Most of the documents concern CIA cables reporting unsubstantiated UFO sightings in the foreign press and intra-Agency memos about how the Agency handled public inquiries about UFO sightings.
  57. Vietnam Histories (6): This collection of six declassified histories volumes describes the CIA’s role in Indochina during the Vietnam War. These histories written by Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., are based on extensive research in CIA records and on oral history interviews of participants. The collection totals some 1,600 pages.
  58. Wartime Statutes - Instruments of Soviet Control (22): The collection provides insight into how the Soviet Union codified its control over the armed forces of its Eastern European allies. The release of this collection coincides with a panel discussion at the Wilson Center on April 5, 2011.
  59. What was the Missile Gap? (189): The Missile Gap was in essence a growing perception in the West, especially in the USA, that the Soviet Union was quickly developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capability earlier, in greater numbers, and with far more capability than that of the United States. Even as that perception was disproved, it became evident that the Soviets were placing their major effort toward developing strategic missiles against which, once launched, there was no defense. The perceived missile gap that ensued was based on a comparison between US ICBM strength as then programmed, and reasonable, although erroneous estimates of prospective Soviet ICBM strength that were generally accepted.

Browsing, Filtering or Searching?

If you’re looking for something specific, then searching is almost certainly the best option for you. If you’re simply curious and looking to see what’s there, then you may want to browse instead or take a look at the MuckRock bot that highlights historic CIA documents from this day in history. The browsing option, listed on CIA’s website under FOIA Category Search, provides some useful ways of diving into the Agency’s online library. The date options, while limited, do offer the ability to sort materials based their release date and their post (on the website) date. It’s also possible to filter according to dates after doing a search.

It’s also possible to browse by collection, though the Advanced Search dialog will let users search the individual collections. Unlike the Advanced Search option, a Category Search options to browse by National Intelligence Council aspects, such as product type, geographic region. It’s also possible to browse by NIC Function, including Conventional MIlitary Issues, Economic Issues, Science and Technology, Strategic and Nuclear Issues, Transnational Threats. For users with a niche interest, the Keywords filter will be very useful. This divides documents up according to keywords such as Iran-Contra, Congress and Google, though the majority of documents don’t appear to have any keywords associated with them.

Searching made simple

It’s possible to search CREST and CIA’s FOIA Reading Room by just typing in some keywords of interest, but this won’t always produce results you’ll looking for. If more than one word is searched for and no boolean parameters are applied, then the search results can include any documents which have any of the searched terms, regardless of whether the other terms are present. With a little tweaking, it’s possible to get much more precise results.

Boolean operators - the three magic words

The three magic words you need to know are AND, OR and NOT. If these words are typed in lowercase, they’re processed as regular search terms. When they are capitalized, they’re the Boolean operators that are a part of many search engines. The first operator, AND, requires that the two joined terms both appear in a document, albeit not necessarily together. The second operator, OR, simply requires that either of the terms appear in a document. The third operator, NOT, is similarly straightforward. The NOT operator simply requires that a term not be included in a document. Since the NOT operator can be used to prevent false hits in searches, it’s one of the most useful. This would make it easier to get information about labor unions while excluding references to the Soviet Union, and other cases of language overlaps.

Defining relevance

Search results are automatically listed in order of relevance, though it’s possible to weight certain terms to be more relevant than others. Placing the caret, or ^, symbol with a number at the end of a term increases its importance to the search engine. For instance, users could emphasize Soviet over Union by searching for by typing “Soviet^2 Union” into the search interface.


The tilde, or the ~ key, followed by a number can be used to perform a proximity search for terms that are within a certain number of words with each other. To find “Director” and “Dulles” within 4 words of each other, users would search for “Director Dulles”~4.

Searching for phrases

Quotation marks can used to search for phrases, such as “Soviet Union.” Without the quotation marks, it would be processed as Soviet OR Union. The same as in math, parentheses can be used to group terms and order the search string. Compare (Nixon OR Ford) AND Kissinger to Nixon OR (Ford AND Kissinger).


Wildcards can be used when you’re unsure about some of the content, or want to account for text recognition errors. The two wildcards you need to know about are the asterisk and the question mark. The * can be used as a wildcard in place of zero or more unknown characters. Searching for central* would include results for central, central air, and central intelligence agency. Similarly, the ? can be used as a wildcard for a single character. Unfortunately, the Agency doesn’t allow you to place a wildcard at the beginning of a search.

Advanced search options

CIA’s Advanced Search page provides several more in depth options, discussed below. The results of searches done through this page will display a ? icon after each entry. Hovering the mouse over this will temporarily display the item’s metadata. Each line also lists the date of the document’s creation (or of the first document in each file, when documents have been attached to each other).

Case number

The FOIA case number for materials released through FOIA, otherwise this isn’t applicable.

Content Types

While CIA’s guide to searching only identifies three types of content (Cable, Letter, Memo), the metadata provided by Data.World identified 93 different Content Types. Unfortunately, Boolean operators don’t seem to work with Content Types, so it doesn’t seem possible to exclude certain Content Types or to search for more than one Content Type at a time.



Intelligence reports and papers

  • NIE
  • NIS


  • MEMO
  • MF
  • MFR

Notes and lists

  • LIST

Open Source

  • BOOK
  • NSPR
  • OPEN
  • PREL


  • BIO

Rules and regulations

  • REQ

Speeches and Statements


Visual aids

  • MAP


  • AG
  • BH
  • BMBR
  • BULL
  • CH
  • CONT
  • DCID
  • DISP
  • FORM
  • HW
  • IM
  • IR
  • IRR
  • IS
  • MIN
  • MISC
  • NE
  • NI
  • RP
  • RS
  • SE
  • SINT
  • SNIE
  • SS
  • TDCS
  • TRIP


The advanced search interface allows users to search for materials on, before, after or between any given date(s). These options are all fairly self-explanatory, with one exception: Regular expressions. Unless you already know what this is and how to use it, don’t worry about it.

Document numbers

If you’re looking for a specific document, or for materials from a specific box or release, it can be useful to search by document numbers, such as Executive Standard Document Numbers (ESDN) or MORI numbers. These numbers can be especially useful for quickly finding and verifying the text of a specific release of a specific document.

The ESDN is created from the archive job, box, folder and document numbers generated when the document is reviewed for declassification and release. While not necessary knowledge, being able to understand their numbering system may still come in handy. CIA defines and describes the system as follows:

  • Box (e.g., Box 0001): The box identifier is the sequential number assigned to a specific box within a job.
  • Document (e.g. Document 5-1): Document identifier is a pair of sequential numbers describing their order as counted from the front or the back of the folder.
  • Folder (e.g., Folder 0001): The folder identifier is a sequential number identifying the folders within each box.
  • Job (e.g., 54-00252A): The job number is a nine-character identifier for a group of records retired together. A job of archived records generally span 10 years and contains records that have the same disposition under the same Records Control Schedule Item. The first two characters of the job number indicate the year the records were retired.

Document title

The document title field uses the same search operators as the main search option, although it only searches the document titles themselves. A complete list of document titles and their associated URLs can also be found courtesy of Data.World.

Original classification

To find files based on their original classification, you search “T” for Top Secret, “S” for Secret, “C” for Confidential, “R” for Restricted, “U” for Unclassified and “K” for Unknown.

Search Strategies


Remember when formulating your search, bureaucrats and officials often use their own jargon and prefer certain words over other, more common ones. While both turn up in the database, you’re more likely to see CIA officials refer to the Agency’s “counsel” than their “lawyer.”

Exclude scientific abstracts

If you’re digging through a lot of false hits when searching for something specific, the Scientific Abstracts and consolidated translations are especially likely to contain false hits. Selecting every category except for these will reduce those hits, but there is a downside. Since not every document is assigned to a category, you’ll be excluding any uncategorized documents. Regardless, this can be useful for limiting the scope of some searches.

Search for shorter words and phrases

Due to errors with CIA’s text recognition process, some words aren’t rendered correctly and won’t show up in searches. As a result, it can be best to keep words and phrases as short and simple as possible.

Search for the unexpected

You never know what you’ll find, especially with all of the Open Source resources. One of the greatest things about CIA’s CREST database is that it isn’t limited to strictly CIA resources - it includes many of the outside sources the Agency consulted. It also includes surprising things like the Agency’s secret Soviet beer, the name of which is redacted allegedly to protect sources and methods.

Share what you find!

The most important part of searching CIA’s database is sharing what you find. Chances are, someone else will find it interesting or useful. Old phone books, maps and census records, for instance, can be very useful to genealogists. Old scientific papers might be of interest to current researches, and historical trivia and news articles on a surprising array of topics can be found inside the Agency’s database. If you know someone who might be interested in something, let them know about it. The information doesn’t do much good if it’s not shared freely.

And if you find something you’d like MuckRock to dig into, let us know via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Happy hunting!

Like Emma Best’s work? Support her on Patreon.

Image via