By Kurt Foss, Planet PDF Editor

PDF Secrets Revealed
PDF file redaction snafu exposes agents' identities

Top Secret Government Documents The intertwined subjects of foreign agents, political intrigue and government overthrows almost always make for good reading -- especially when they are eyewitnessed reports of real events from our not-too-distant history.

The challenge often is to tell a believable (and ideally accurate) tale without revealing too much - which might compromise current "information-gathering" activities, or at worst, put the lives of those involved in such past efforts in jeopardy.

Working for a globally recognized newspaper covering international affairs, The New York Times editors and reporters understand that some of their coverage may have consequences for others (and sometimes for Times' staff, too).

In mid-April 2000, the Times published a special report based on leaked, until-then secret CIA documents, a few of which they also made available for download as PDF files at its NYTimes.com Web site. The series of articles also referenced additional CIA documents in the Times' possession that editors concluded could not be made public - some of those identified might face retribution if exposed.

As expected, the publication of "Secrets of History: The C.I.A. in Iran" sparked lively, opinionated discussion within the newspaper's Web-based forums. Among the questions posted by readers was whether the Times planned to release all of the classified CIA documents, rather than selectively deciding what citizens should know about our government's questionable undercover activities in Iran at that time.

The editors apparently had a change of attitude in the following months. In mid-June, the Times updated the online coverage of the CIA-instigated military coup, making all of the intelligence agency's documents -- nearly 20 in total -- likewise available as PDFs. There was one key difference from the previously released set, one that added an extra touch of suspense -- and later, surprise.

redacted PDF file After consulting with various historians, the Times determined it would be inappropriate - and potentially life-threatening for some - to name names. A bit like secret agents themselves, the Times opted to shield certain identities by electronically blacking out those names throughout the collection of scanned-to-PDF files. Once completed, the remainder of the CIA files from the 1953 overthrow went public.

Of course, as always seems to be the case for some segment of users, simply converting the documents to PDF provided a more than adequate protection scheme. Many of the scanned CIA documents weighed in between 2 and 3 MBs each, so failed downloads thwarted a certain percentage.

One such person maintained a sense of humor about his lack of success, posting to a Times' forum the following:

"Did anyone else have a hard time using the PDF file? I got an internal error message. What is this world coming to when you can't download a national secret on the web?"

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