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Top 5 Formerly Top Secret Documents

A Duke librarian discusses some juicy once-classified documents now open to scrutiny

This is a declassified, World War II-era National Security Agency memo on Axis intelligence gathering methods
This is a declassified, World War II-era National Security Agency memo on Axis intelligence gathering methods

Sunshine Week, an initiative to spark conversations about transparency in government, starts today and culminates Friday with Freedom of Information Day. March 16, James Madison's birthday, was chosen for this annual celebration as a tribute to our fourth president's championing of the Bill of Rights and open government.

Although our government keeps some documents secret for national security reasons, you don't have to go to Wikileaks to find juicy, formerly secret primary sources on U.S. government policies. The 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gave any person the right to request government documents, and there are procedures that mandate the release of previously classified documents after a specified number of years. President Obama's Executive Order 13526 updated and clarified these procedures.

Want to root through some CIA files? How about the National Security Agency? Many of the documents available are in their original forms, including handwritten notes and stamps declaring them "Top Secret."

Catherine Shreve, the librarian for public policy and political science at Duke's Perkins Library, has been rifling through the government's files and has come up with this list of her favorite formerly secret documents, selected either for their historical importance or simple oddity.

1. The CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90, fun in its own right, also refers to a 1952 document titled "Flying Saucers" that muses, "Intelligence problems include...whether any are susceptible to control, and can be thus utilized for either military or psychological offense or defense," particularly in relation to the Soviet Union.

2. Watergate: the Nixon Grand Jury Records notes and transcripts were recently released. Browse the testimony about the 18-minute gap in White House tape-recorded conversations, part of the evidence that ultimately led to President Nixon's impeachment and resignation. Hidden in the multitude of memory lapses is this gem:

"What I was concerned about was that after the Pentagon Papers case and the, if I may use the term, the enormous positive hullabaloo that developed across the country, where people who steal classified documents are made heroes and those that publish them get Pulitzer Prizes."

3. Bay of Pigs: Military Evaluation of the Central Intelligence Agency Para-Military Plan, Cuba. This memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara in early 1961 foreshadowed the humiliating failure of President Kennedy's Cuban invasion. It reads in part: "The amphibious assault should be successful even if lightly opposed; however the personnel and plans for logistic support are marginal at best. Against moderate, determined resistance logistic support as presently planned will be inadequate."

4. Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction: Senate Report 109-331 "Postwar Findings about Iraq's WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How They Compare with Prewar Assessments (unclassified version)". This 2006 report refuted President George W. Bush's reason for invading Iraq -- that it was developing weapons of mass destruction.

In part, it says: "Postwar findings support the assessment...that claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are 'highly dubious.'"

5. John Nash letters to National Security Agency. A find that made me smile, remembering the movie "A Beautiful Mind" based on the brilliant but schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. In this handwritten letter, he proposes an enciphering-deciphering machine he has invented. "I hope my handwriting, etc. do not give the impression I am just a crank or circle-squarer."