Classifying Toothpaste

Monday, February 27, 2006

A1950 INTELLIGENCE estimate, written days before Chinese forces crossed into North Korea, predicting that Chinese involvement was "not probable." A 1950s-era document on the "Feasibility of Participating in Exchange Program with USSR to Study Highway Transportation in the USSR." A 1962 telegram from Ambassador to Yugoslavia George F. Kennan featuring a translated newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program.

Some of these documents are innocuous, some embarrassing, at least to the agencies involved. All were once freely available but -- in a fit of bureaucratic overzealousness -- have since been reclassified under a secret government program to disappear historical documents from public view. In all, according to a new report by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, 9,500 documents totaling 55,500 pages, some dating as far back as World War II, have been reclassified and withdrawn from public circulation. The study's author, Matthew M. Aid, found that eight of the reclassified documents had actually been published as part of the State Department's official history series or made available on the CIA's own database.

This effort to stuff this harmless toothpaste back into the tube would be funny if it weren't so emblematic of a disturbing new culture of government secrecy. The reclassification program began during the Clinton administration as a reaction to -- or, more precisely, a rebellion against -- a 1995 executive order that required government agencies to declassify historical records 25 years or older by the end of 1999, with appropriate exceptions.

The Defense Department and intelligence agencies balked at the automatic declassification and argued that sensitive documents were being carelessly released by other agencies, such as the State Department, without adequate review. Beginning at the end of the Clinton administration and continuing with new vigor during the Bush administration, the agencies pressed to review documents to determine which ones should be reclassified. How, exactly, does this process work? Hard to know: Even the memorandum outlining the reclassification program is classified.

It's certainly possible that documents that should remain secret have been mistakenly made public; in such cases, reclassification may be appropriate, though it can be silly in the case of material that has been broadly disseminated. There's no excuse, however, for keeping much of this historical information secret -- or, in this instance, trying to restore its secret status.

The National Archives, the keeper of these records, announced last week that its Information Security Oversight Office has launched an audit of the reclassification program in response to complaints from historians and researchers. Among other things, the audit will look at "the authorization and justification for the withdrawal" and, by examining a sample of the withdrawn documents, "the appropriateness of the classification action." Fine, but you don't need to be a classification expert to know that at least some of this reclassification wasn't only inappropriate -- it was just plain dumb.

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