Touted as an important security measure, the agency sends out internal memos that contain false information on overseas operations and sources. The practice is known as “eyewashing,” current and former CIA officials told The Washington Post.
“The people in the outer levels who didn't have insider access were being lied to,” one official said. “They were being intentionally deceived.”
The process has been conducted for years as a means to protect important secrets by placing fake communication in routine messages. At the same time, accurate information was sent to those cleared via other, more secure channels.
However, some have criticised the system, saying there is no way to distinguish eyewashing from legitimate messages.
“Somebody who is not clued in could take action on the basis [of false information]. That's really playing with fire,” said Fred Hitz, who was the CIA’s inspector general from 1990 to 1998.
Others have pointed out the system’s potential for abuse.
“When you introduce falsehoods into the communications stream then you can destabilise the whole system of intelligence oversight and compliance with the law,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we had a CIA executive director who was engaged in criminal activity – you don’t want someone like him preparing eyewash cables.”
Former officials talking to The Washington Post said they had never seen any serious repercussions such as confusing agency heads or the dissemination of false information being caused by the eyewashing process.
However, they admitted that the practice was rather informal, relying on those sending the false messages to explain the matter to confused colleagues and contain any fallout.
An investigation headed by the US Senate has discovered that the CIA deliberately misleads its staff through fake communications.