The term “burn after reading” — beyond being a reference to a Coen Brothers movie — is typically used as a set of instructions given to someone who has just received sensitive information. The intended recipient is told to read the document given to them and commit its contents to memory. Finally, in order to make sure that the information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, out come the matches and lighters, and the document is set on fire.
It’s very cloak-and-dagger, of course, and probably happens more commonly in the movies (or in a slightly different way, in Inspector Gadget cartoons) than in real life. The United States’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for example, probably doesn’t employ such a tactic very often — well, at least not to keep information secret.
But when it comes to saving the environment? “Burn after reading” is in full force. Explicitly.
Every year, on April 22nd, people around the world celebrate Earth Day, a way to unite as many people as possible around environmental issues. In recent years, many different companies and organizations have used the date as a way to earn some public relations gains by talking about how “green” they are. In 2011, the CIA was no exception. The Agency issued a press release, here, discussing its “sustainability and conservation initiatives.” The release outlined the Agency’s dedication to recycling (the Agency was, annually, “collecting over three tons of plastic, glass, cardboard, aluminum, construction debris, and other waste”), extolled their new buildings with “Gold LEED rating,” and energy-efficient lighting in parking lots and in building interiors.
Nothing out of the ordinary — well, until you get to the “burn after reading” part. The Agency explained that the “burn after reading” (their words) policy of shredding and incinerating classified documents isn’t only designed to protect state secrets. It also helps the Earth, because the heat emitted from the torched documents is put to good use. Specifically: “exhaust from the Agency’s on-site incinerator generates steam to heat water at CIA Headquarters.”
So if you’re ever at CIA HQ, ask for a cup of tea. Not only are you getting yourself a drink, but you’re also helping keep America’s secrets safe — in an Earth-friendly way.
From the Archives: The Art of War: The CIA’s battles over modern art.
Related: “Burn After Reading,” the movie.