By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
The National Archives will no longer enter into secret agreements with federal agencies that want to withdraw records from public access on Archives shelves and will do more to disclose when documents are removed for national security reasons.
The new policy cannot guarantee full disclosure, however, because in some cases federal regulations limit the Archives' ability to reveal which agency is reviewing records and why, said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Archives.
"What we're striving for is transparency here on our part," Cooper said. "We can't control the agencies."
Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, announced the policy change yesterday after the release of a second secret classified memorandum, this one between the CIA and the Archives. In it Archives officials agreed in 2001 to conceal official CIA efforts to withdraw thousands of historical documents from the Archives, even though the records had been declassified.
The memo, similar to a 2002 agreement with the Air Force, spelled out procedures the CIA and Archives staff would follow in withdrawing records that the CIA believed may have been improperly declassified. In a background paper yesterday, Archives officials said they sought that agreement because a CIA and State Department review of 56 boxes in 1999 "resulted in a significant mishandling of the records, such that the order of the documents in many boxes was lost."
In return for stricter handling, however, the Archives agreed to help the CIA and the Air Force keep the public in the dark. That was a mistake, said Weinstein, who became the archivist in 2005.
"Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being," he said in a written statement yesterday. ". . . If records must be removed for reasons of national security, the American people will always, at the very least, know when it occurs and how many records are affected."
Independent historian Matthew M. Aid uncovered the reclassification program last summer when his requests for formerly available documents 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 In February, the Archives acknowledged that about 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages had been withdrawn and reclassified as secret since 1999.
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 at least 25 years old. The pace of removals picked up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Last month Weinstein imposed a moratorium on withdrawing documents until Archives officials complete an audit of the removed material. Results are expected April 26.
One possible change, Cooper said, is a central tracking system that would include more detailed notices in the Archives files to indicate whether a document had been removed for national security reasons. But the executive order governing the review of such documents permits agencies to conceal their identities without the Archives' consent if revealing them could pose a threat to national security, she said.
"There is some wiggle room for us here, but not a lot," she said.
Nevertheless, the Archives' decision to shun secret agreements is a step forward, said Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research library in Washington. "For the National Archives to go into cahoots with the CIA and Air Force to mislead researchers about what was going on was over the top, and a strong signal of a secrecy system that is genuinely broken," he said.