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The Very Visible Battle Over Invisible Ink - Los Angeles Times

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The Very Visible Battle Over Invisible Ink

Group has filed suit to reveal formula; government lawyers claim secrecy is matter of security.


WASHINGTON — More than 80 years after the end of World War I, the United States still won't give up the secrets behind a surreptitious tool used by the Allied forces: invisible ink.

A public interest group filed a federal lawsuit this week as part of a three-year campaign to gain access to the nation's oldest classified documents, papers that date to World War I and bear such tantalizing titles as "Secret Inks," "Detection of Secret Ink," "German Secret Ink Formula" and "Pamphlet on Invisible Photography & Writing."


Last week the group broadened its quest to include a copy of the "Secret Ink Technical Manual," a 1945 report prepared by the government's Office of Censorship. That report updates the history of secret writing with details from World War II.

But government lawyers aren't budging. They're claiming in court filings and correspondence that release of the papers could compromise national security.

"Come on, these are baby games," said Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer for the James Madison Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce secrecy and promote government accountability. "These secret inks are well-known. Any idiot, just by spilling water, could figure out there's secret ink there. What are they hiding?"

In papers filed in U.S. District Court, Zaid has described secret ink writing as "a fascinating but arcane science which today is more often the subject of comic book and cereal box advertising than spy craft." He said that the classified materials undoubtedly involve basic formulas that for decades have been in the public domain.

The legal battle over secret ink began in 1998, when the organization asked the National Archives to identify the oldest classified document in its custody.

Officials responded with titles and dates of six documents dealing with secret ink. But they didn't release the materials, saying that decision was up to the CIA. The CIA refused to release them, leading to a suit against the government pending before Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. Jackson also wound up with the case that was filed this week.

In court papers on the earlier lawsuit, government lawyers have said that enemies of the United States do not know which particular formulas and methods the CIA considers reliable. They said secret inks remain viable for use by CIA case officers and sources.

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