Inside the CIA’s top secret files: reports on Harpenden’s Rothamsted Research

PUBLISHED: 10:50 28 January 2017

Farming in Harpenden in March 1942 - photo courtesy Rothamsted Research.

Farming in Harpenden in March 1942 - photo courtesy Rothamsted Research.

Archant

Spooks from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been keeping a close eye on the world’s oldest agricultural research centre in Harpenden, a Herts Advertiser investigation has revealed.

Rothamsted Research in Harpenden appears in various declassified CIA documents, dating back to the 1930s, now available online. Document courtesy of the CIA Rothamsted Research in Harpenden appears in various declassified CIA documents, dating back to the 1930s, now available online. Document courtesy of the CIA

The largest collection of declassified CIA records was made accessible online last week, enabling people to search a wide variety of topics and places - and Rothamsted Research information, along with various scientists’ names, regularly crop up from the 1930s.

More than 12 million pages, contained in 930,000 documents, can now be seen on the agency’s electronic reading room.

Although the secretive organisation has regularly released its historical declassified records to its standalone CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) system, until recently that was only accessible in person at the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland.

The CREST collection covers myriad topics, such as the early CIA history, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Berlin Tunnel project, the Korean War, and the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.

The CIA has posted more than 12 million pages of CREST records online - which include references to Rothamsted Research in Harpenden. Document courtesy of the CIAThe CIA has posted more than 12 million pages of CREST records online - which include references to Rothamsted Research in Harpenden. Document courtesy of the CIA

The documents extensively address developments on terrorism, as well as worldwide military and economic issues. They include a wide variety of records, including collections of finished intelligence from the 1940s to the 1990s.

CREST records also show large specialised collections of foreign translations and scientific abstracts – and it is among the latter that the activities of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden are alluded to.

The Herts Advertiser investigation into the database shows that in 1935, the CIA prepared a report based on information from foreign documents from the then USSR, on scientific research, published in Moscow.

At that time there was scientific research into heavy industry, fertilisers and insectofungicides.

Rothamsted Research in Harpenden appears in various declassified CIA documents, dating back to the 1930s, now available online. Document courtesy of the CIA Rothamsted Research in Harpenden appears in various declassified CIA documents, dating back to the 1930s, now available online. Document courtesy of the CIA

It named the leading scientific workers, specialists, problems, and the foreign institutions ‘with whom the [USSR scientific] institute maintains contact’. Included on this list is Rothamsted experimental station in Harpenden. The report details the technical assistance provided by the Soviet Union, particularly in regards to fertiliser, and problems encountered in its production.

The Harpenden centre’s research on changes in the soil after clearing tropical forest, and shifting cultivation during the 1960s was used for reference in a CIA report on the environmental impact of illicit narcotics cultivation in selected forest regions of Latin America and the Carribean, in 1987.

The CIA report examined narcotic crop cultivation taking place in tropical latitudes, where it was dubbed as a “deleterious aspect of tropical deforestation”.

However an agent looking at the then classified document was clearly unimpressed with its conclusions on the nutrient loss of stripped soil, handwriting pointed comments across the text, such as “This is all very nice but so what!”

There are also details of scientific abstracts during the 1940s and 1950s, including the not-very-exciting sounding “Methods of dry fixation of soil-inhabiting insect larvae” paper submitted during a research conference at Rothamsted in 1958.

The CIA was told that more than 120 experts from 24 countries met at “the oldest British experimental farm Rothamsted’. 85 [sic] reports were read and the following questions were discussed...”

There is also an 89-page document on the Third International Biometric Conference in 1953 in Bellagio, Italy, which mentions researchers from Rothamsted.

Joseph Lambert, the CIA director of information management, said having such information online enabled the public to “access these documents from the comfort of their own homes.

“Access to this historically significant collection is no longer limited by geography.”

To browse through the CIA’s electronic reading room, see: https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/

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