Some Archives Files Wrongly Kept Secret

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006

The CIA and other agencies wrongly kept secret about a third of the records they pulled from public shelves at the National Archives during reclassification efforts that were far more extensive than previously disclosed, according to an audit released yesterday.

Auditors for the Archives who reviewed a representative sample of thousands of formerly public records found that 24 percent were pulled despite being "clearly inappropriate" for reclassification, and another 12 percent were "questionable" as candidates for reclassification.

"In short, more than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with," said Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, who ordered the audit and imposed a moratorium on the reclassification efforts last month.

The moratorium and audit represented an about-face for the Archives, which in 2001 and 2002 entered into secret pacts with the CIA and Air Force in which Archives officials agreed to help hide the multiyear reclassification efforts.

Weinstein, who joined the agency last year, announced last week that the Archives would no longer enter into such agreements. Yesterday, he lifted the moratorium on reclassification efforts and announced new procedures that he said would ensure that withdrawals of records are rare and that the public would be notified when they occur. The Archives also plans to launch a pilot National Declassification Initiative to bring new standards and more accountability to executive branch declassification efforts.

Even as he pledged increased transparency, Weinstein said that he could not disclose examples of the documents that agencies inappropriately pulled from public view, referring the question to the specific agencies.

Independent historian Matthew M. Aid uncovered the reclassification efforts last summer when his requests for documents formerly available at the Archives were delayed or denied. 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.

In February, the Archives estimated that about 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages had been withdrawn and reclassified since 1999. The new audit shows the real haul was much larger -- at least 25,515 records were removed by five different agencies, including the CIA, Air Force, Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Archives.

J. William Leonard, director of the Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, said 64 percent of audited records did contain information that met standards for continuing classification. In some cases, it was the name of a CIA agent in a decades-old document that otherwise could have remained public, he said. In other cases, records had been published elsewhere, and in still other cases withdrawing a document might counterproductively draw attention to it, he said.

Auditors also found that the CIA withdrew a "considerable number" of records it knew should be unclassified "in order to obfuscate" other records it was trying to protect.

"We hold people accountable, and rightfully so, when they engage in unauthorized disclosures of information," said Leonard, who led the audit. "But we also have that affirmative responsibility, each and every one of us, to challenge inappropriate classification decisions. And it's not done. It's simply not done with any degree of regularity in this government."

Aid praised Weinstein for ordering the audit but said lifting the moratorium before finalizing the new procedures was a mistake. "The decision to let these people go back and do the reclassification again makes no sense to me whatsoever," he said.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said, "It's too early to say whether this will solve the problem, but it brings the matter out into the open where it belongs."

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