Like say, maybe, 80-year-old recipes for invisible ink. Circa World War I.
You read it here: first. Or second. (Pay no attention to the invisible part). Yes, the CIA says, secret ink is a matter of national security. The public simply cannot, must not, will not be allowed access to the recipes.
Of course this story involves a lawsuit, how could it not? Lawsuits and secret ink were meant for each other.
The man who has filed the suit is Mark Zaid, an attorney from Washington. He's the head of the James Madison Project, a five-member organization launched last fall to peek behind the government's veil of secrecy.
Zaid can't decide if he should laugh or cry about the CIA's "intelligence." He says his lawsuit isn't about the ink, it's about principle.
"We don't dispute that you certainly could use secret ink," says Zaid, who has been filing motions to get the documents since November. "Kids use it all the time. . . . (But) to say this antiquated formula should still be protected runs smack into a much broader principle: how far do you go to protect very basic formulas?"
Zaid believes this is the stuff of spy movies and decoder rings. He dug up books, Web sites and experts who can reveal scads about secret inks -- with names like "Hustler's" and "Double Agent Red" -- much more advanced than the rusty 1917 varieties. To boot, Zaid found a KGB-designed disappearing ink pen, a faux Mont Blanc, on sale for $60. (The pen comes with a note: "not to be used for illegal purposes or for signing legal instruments.")
Even so, the CIA is holding its ground. The secret recipes are collecting dust at the National Archives and Records Administration, the six oldest classified documents there.
CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher says the information could prove quite useful to hostile governments and terrorist groups. "Some of the formulas provide the basis of more advanced formulas that are currently in use," she says.
That's exactly the mentality that makes government watchdog organizations howl. For years, they have argued that the intelligence community keeps too much information too close to its chest.
With the end of the Cold War, President Clinton tried to change that in 1995 with an executive order calling on all agencies to declassify by 2000 historical information 25 years or older. (Not secret ink, though. The CIA got that exempted.) In 1997 alone, the government spent more than $3.4-billion on an army of blurry-eyed federal workers that increased declassification 50 percent.
That's $3.4-billion in tax dollars spent, and still we don't get the secret ink formulas.
Without a legal battle, Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, asked for and received the archives' oldest classified documents in 1991, information about World War I troop movements. While he applauds the government for releasing oodles of classified information in the past three years, he can't help but chuckle at the secrecy surrounding secret ink.
"Clandestine communications nowadays are accomplished with encryption, not with invisible messages on pieces of paper," he says. "It would have to be a pretty low-tech terrorist" who relied on invisible ink.
From Zaid's humble office, a sublet room cluttered with accordion files and precarious towers of paper, the 31-year-old attorney works diligently on his Freedom of Information Act requests, many to crack into the CIA.
"The CIA does not give up its secrets easily," Zaid says. "It's an institutional thought process."
Slowly but surely, Zaid is making headway in his pursuit of the secret ink recipes: In court proceedings, he has found out the weighty contents of each document. One is written in French and gives the invisible ink formulas used by the Germans. Another document outlines covert methods to carry secret ink chemicals and detailed instructions on how to open sealed letters without detection. Some are typewritten, others handwritten. They belonged to the Navy, Commerce Department and Post Office Inspectors. No word on whether any of the recipes use chocolate.
Some intelligence watchdogs say Zaid's fight is silly. He should pick a battle with a prize more lofty than secret ink.
To that, Zaid says, protecting decaying documents from a dead enemy is what's ridiculous. "The CIA chose the battleground, not us."
For now, he can only hope the federal judge presiding over the case agrees, and it seems there's a chance of that. At a February hearing, the judge said he had the secret ink formulas.
They fell out of a cereal box when he was a kid.