The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a United States civilian government agency tasked with gathering intelligence related to national security, and distributing that information to assist the government with policymaking. Established in 1947, the CIA was preceded by the Office of the Coordinator of Information from 1941 to 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) from 1942 to 1945, the Strategic Services Unit from 1945 to 1946, and the Central Intelligence Group’s National Intelligence Authority (NIA) from 1946 to 1947.
CIA records include intelligence reports, intelligence assessments (known as National Intelligence Estimates, or NIEs), administrative records, annual reports, applicant and employee personnel files, maps, photographs, motion pictures, recordings, and other records. These sources can provide information about individuals who were part of or subject to investigations, employees of the CIA and other involved agencies, and events of historical and genealogical significance. For CIA employees and applicants, detailed biographical, employment, background, and family information can be found.
CIA records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as part of Record Group (RG) 263, and by the agency itself. Due to the sensitive nature of the CIA’s work, records must be declassified before they are released to the public. Some CIA records that originated with other government agencies must be declassified by those agencies. CIA and other agencies’ records can be declassified if they are deemed not to include sensitive information that could cause damage to national security interests. Some records are only partially accessible, and have certain information redacted. Overall, most of the CIA’s records have not been declassified; however, the agency’s Historical Review Program (HRP) has voluntarily declassified many records of historical value.
Several years after the HRP was introduced, an executive order mandated that the CIA review and declassify “nonexempt historically valuable records” that are 25 years old or older. This began in 2006, and since then, additional nonexempt records have been declassified on a rolling basis every year. To date, qualifying records from the agency’s inception in 1947 through 31 December 1990 have been released to the public as part of this program.
Many of these CIA records are available through the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), a full-text searchable database with digital copies of over 11 million pages of records that have been declassified and released to the public. The database is searchable by name, title, date, and keywords, and can be accessed in person from Monday through Friday at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
Although CREST is not available online, a finding aid to records available in CREST can be used to identify collections of interest. The finding aid provides limited information, including a title referencing the name and type of document, report, or memorandum; an Electronic Standard Document Number (ESDN), the agency’s internal identifying number; and sometimes the collection name, case number, page count and content type. Some frequently-requested records are available in PDF format through the finding aid, and records are added periodically. These records can be accessed through the CREST system at NARA in College Park, and can also be obtained through a CIA Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Several other collections, finding aids, and indexes to CIA records are also available.
• The National Intelligence Council (NIC) Collection, a collection of intelligence reports and assessments that have been made available to the public, can be browsed by geographic region or function.
• The CIA Special Collections Archive includes numerous digitized records that are part of significant historical collections, as well as a searchable database.
• Many CIA records related to special topics have been digitized and are available online at the National Archives website.
• CIA files released in response to the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act and the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act are indexed by name and subject.
• The National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization, has made available (through ProQuest) a database of digitized government records from the CIA, as well the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other agencies.
In addition to the CIA, other government agencies have conducted various types of intelligence activities related to national security and foreign relations, including intelligence departments of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and each branch of the military. The Defense Intelligence Agency, Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Security Agency are also tasked with various investigative activities. As with the CIA’s records, many records for these agencies have also been declassified and are available through the National Archives or a FOIA request.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s reports, assessments, and other records can be a valuable resource for genealogists researching twentieth-century ancestors. For additional information, see “Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Central Intelligence Agency,” compiled by Harry Schwartz.