Archives Kept a Secrecy Secret
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
The National Archives helped keep secret a multi-year effort by the Air Force, the CIA and other federal agencies to withdraw thousands of historical documents from public access on Archives shelves, even though the records had been declassified.
In a 2002 memorandum, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and released yesterday by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research library housed at George Washington University, Archives officials agreed to help pull the materials for possible reclassification and conceal the identities of anyone participating in the effort. The Associated Press reported yesterday that it had requested a copy of the memo three years ago.
"[I]t is in the interest of both [redacted agency name] and the National Archives and Records Administration to avoid the attention and researcher complaints that may arise from removing material that has already been available publicly from the open shelves for extended periods of time," the Archives memo read, in part.
Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, said the memo "shows that the National Archives basically aided and abetted a covert operation that whited out the nation's history by reclassifying previously released documents."
Independent historian Matthew M. Aid uncovered the reclassification program last summer when his requests for documents formerly available at the Archives were delayed or denied. In February, the Archives acknowledged that about 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages had been withdrawn and reclassified since 1999. The memo released yesterday says some records "may have been improperly marked as declassified" and their release "would harm the national security interests of the United States by revealing sensitive sources and methods of intelligence collection."
But historians who previously obtained copies of records have said many date to the 1940s and 1950s and pose no conceivable security risk.
The program dates to the Clinton administration, when the CIA and other agencies began recalling documents they believed were improperly released under a 1995 executive order requiring declassification of many historical records 25 years old and older. The pace of the removal picked up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Although the Archives will not name the agencies involved, historians with the National Security Archive have said the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department and the Justice Department also have participated.
Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, suspended the program last month pending an audit of the removed material by the Archives' Information Security Oversight Office. Results are expected this month.
J. William Leonard, director of oversight office, said that part of the Archives' mission is to ensure that information that may damage national security is properly protected. Still, "there is a need for increased transparency in this," he said.
Leonard said auditors will recommend that the Archives and federal agencies develop a protocol for informing the public of such reclassification efforts.
"The more transparent we can be," Leonard said, "we will not feed perceptions that somehow this is being done for some sort of nefarious reason such as trying to cover up agency embarrassments."