The CIA Won't Admit It Uses Slack

While other federal agencies admit everything, up to spending tens of thousands a year to maintain channels like #churchfart, the CIA will neither confirm nor deny.
February 21, 2020, 4:00pm
The CIA logo on a phone

Given its traditional missions, which include subverting democracy around the world and providing U.S. leaders with unreliable intelligence analysis, it’s understandable that the Central Intelligence Agency would be among our less transparent federal agencies. Now, though, it’s gripping even more tightly to inconsequential information about what it gets up to than the ultra-secretive National Security Agency—and for no evident reason.

Last year, VICE filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for any Slack domains in use by the CIA. The NSA, responding to a similar request, admitted that it had records responsive to the request—that the agency uses the demonic chat app, in other words—but said it couldn’t release them because they were a state secret. Recently, the CIA replied to our request by saying this:

CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request. The fact of the existence or nonexistence of such records is itself currently and properly classified

In its response to our request, the CIA cited broad provisions in federal law that allow it to keep all sorts of information from the public by claiming it has to do with “intelligence sources and methods,” which can mean anything from the identity of a spy in a foreign leader’s inner circle to the podcasts a random bureaucrat listens to while driving to work. The agency is within its rights to do this, but it’s just another in a long list of examples of why federal classification laws should be changed to give more weight to the public’s right to get answers to even stupid questions relative to the right of public employees to keep what they do and how they do it entirely secret.

(VICE has asked Slack if the CIA is a Slack customer; we'll update if they reply.)

The General Services Administration’s response to a request for records about their Slack usage provides an example of the good results yielded by federal agencies being transparent about what they’re doing. Asked for a list of its Slack domains, the GSA provided it; the agency then provided a seemingly up-to-date list of its Slack channels, which you can read here. This is how we know that in addition to boring-sounding channels like “#md_css2017rhsdatapull,” the GSA has the following channels, which don’t sound boring at all:

  • #esperanto
  • #hate
  • #yo
  • #sportsball
  • #andrewwk
  • #discuss-tacos
  • #bechdel-test-post
  • #save-ferris-internal
  • #churchfart
  • #discuss-craisins
  • #critique-mighty-ducks
  • #critique-captn-planet

Further, the GSA provided materials related to its contract with Slack, which you can read here. This is how we know that the agency agreed to pay $54,000 for 300 users to use what appears to be an off-the-shelf version of the service for a year.

Do you work for the CIA, or another federal agency? We'd love to talk to you about Slack. Contact the writer via a non-work device at tim.marchman@vice.com or timmarchman@protonmail.com.

Is the CIA paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in public money so that spies can put secrets on a fundamentally insecure platform? Are they talking in channels like #churchfart, or perhaps in ones like #jfk-assassination-secrets, #false-flag-ops, or #ufo-disclosure? Probably the former, and perhaps the latter; for now, they don’t have to say.